“I got to understand that you can never say never in life,” Odion Ighalo declared, unwittingly uttering the perfect aphorism which neatly sums up his life story.
Born to impoverished parents in the sprawling slums of Ajegunle where dreams of better are more likely to fail than succeed, Ighalo not only succeeded but has done so spectacularly.
Football provided his escape. An innate talent allied with a “never say never” attitude propelled an 18-year-old Ighalo from the dusty fields of Ajegunle to subzero temperatures in Norway where he spent a season with Lyn Oslo and then on to Italy, Spain, England and China.
In between, he also debuted for the Super Eagles going on to earn 35 caps and playing at the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
A successful career by any estimation but there was still to be a crowning glory.
At the ripe old age of 30, Ighalo secured the move of a lifetime when he was signed on a six-month loan by Manchester United in the final hours of the January transfer window.
The fanfare that followed the transfer belied the temporary status of the deal and overlooked the unflattering statistics of his last season in England or the fact that he’d spent the past three years playing in China.
However, one would be hardpressed to recount a similar transfer that generated the frenzied global reactions that Ighalo to United did even allowing for the global behemoth that the English club is.
But it wasn’t just any loan deal, it was the realisation of a lifelong aspiration for the boyhood United fan.
There’s a picture making the rounds on social media depicting a teenage Ighalo in a Manchester United jersey showing just how long he’s harboured this dream.
And just as he told the club’s website, many footballers make spurious claims of how a move to a particular club represents the realisation of a childhood dream, but in his case, it literally is the truth.
And so for many Nigerians, the circuitous road to the realization of his deeply held aspirations in circumstances where these things just don’t happen resonated deeply and merited celebrating.
Never say never in life indeed.
However, when Ighalo said those words, he wasn’t referring to his life story or sermonising about the enduring rewards of persistence, grit and chasing one’s dreams.
He was referring to something entirely different.
You see, there was a period in his professional career he did say never again. A point where he got fed up, couldn’t deal with the adversity and threw in the towel.
Ighalo didn’t always enjoy this near-universal goodwill amongst Nigerians.
As Nigeria’s main striker heading to the 2018 World Cup, many had serious misgivings about manager Gernot Rohr’s decision to hinge the Super Eagles’ goals burden on a player from the Chinese league who had scored just four goals in 22 appearances for the national side and was currently enduring a nine-month international goal drought.
So, when he missed a very presentable chance to put Nigeria 2-1 up against Argentina in the Super Eagles’ last group game, and the Argentines went on to score a late goal that knocked Nigeria out of the tournament, Ighalo was singled out and scapegoated.
Football-mad Nigerians never the most rational fans at the best of times targetted the striker with a barrage of virulent abuse online. His wife and kids were not spared either.
Even for someone with skin as thick as an elephant’s hide, Ighalo had had enough.
He announced his retirement from international football, privately vowing never to put on Nigeria’s green and white again.
But he was eventually persuaded to rescind his decision by Rohr and scored in his first game back against Seychelles in the 2019 AFCON qualifiers.
It was a perfect riposte to his critics and quelled any would-be snide questions about his utility to the Super Eagles.
He scored 7 goals in total during qualifying to top the scoring charts and scored 5 more at the tournament proper to win the golden boot as the Super Eagles won bronze.
By the time he announced his retirement for a second time after the tournament, he’d engineered such a seismic shift in public opinion that the same Nigerians who only months ago sent vile abuse his way, sang his praises and pleaded with him not to go.
Rohr has, however, never hidden his wish to have Ighalo back in the national fold even though the team hasn’t exactly suffered in his absence with Victor Osimhen proving a more than capable heir so far.
Ighalo’s move to Old Trafford has once again brought the question to the fore especially after Rohr said he hoped to persuade the striker to make yet another comeback to the Super Eagles.
So, could we see Ighalo walk back yet another retirement and complete a hat-trick of Super Eagles debuts?
The striker insists an international comeback is unlikely at this point but there is that caveat again: “never say never in life”.
“I got to understand that you can never say never in life. Because after the World Cup I said never. I even swore that I would never come back to the Super Eagles. But what happened? I came back,” Ighalo told busybuddiesng.com exclusively.
“So that’s why I have learnt my mistake, that I will never say never in life, even though it’s not going to happen, but I will never say never in life that’s why I say you don’t know what will come up tomorrow.
“For now, I’m not part of the setting anymore.”
Just don’t bet against ever seeing Ighalo in a Super Eagles jersey just yet.