Amkar Perm of Russia defender, Brian Idowu has used the opportunity of returning with the Super Eagles to Saint-Petersburg to push aside Nigeria’s loss to Argentina on Tuesday, as he recounts various stages of his growing up years back in the same city.
The left-back, who got his Nigerian passport only a week before the World Cup, but had earlier scored on his debut, then started the Eagles’ group games against Croatia and Iceland, said he was happy to get a visit from his parents at the national team’s camp in Saint-Petersburg.
He recounted his childhood days and talks about being chased by skinheads while he was growing up in St. Petersburg, but says Russia has changed, yet his national team outings in the country have been welcoming, positive and fun.
Idowu was born to a Nigerian father and mother who is half-Russian, half-Nigerian, who met at a university in St Petersburg.
They relocated to Owerri state, in Nigeria, when he was three and upon moving back to St Petersburg at the age of six it took time to acclimatise.
He needed a translator in his school lessons at first, English and Ibo having filled his ears during that time away, but six months later he knew Russian like he had been speaking it all his life.
Though he now plays for Amkar Perm, he was born and raised in St Petersburg, spending all bar a few early years of his life in Russia.
He experienced some of the less pleasant aspects of life as a young black man in a society struggling to adapt to the post-Soviet space but knows the other side of things.
He believes the country has changed significantly since the days in the early 2000s, when his parents would warn him not to stray far beyond their neighbourhood, fearful of the skinheads notorious for carrying out racist attacks.
Idowu narrated: “My mum and dad were afraid for my life at that time and I was scared, too. Two times my friends pushed me – like ‘Run!’ – into the underground station, and I ran away before [the skinheads] could reach me.
“They started running after me but I’d already entered the subway and left. The second time there were about seven of them but they passed by and didn’t see me.
“I’d heard stories they had beaten up other black people, or people from places like Uzbekistan, Georgia and Armenia, and seen some videos on the internet too, so I didn’t want to meet them.
“Then, at some point around 2004 or 2005, they were gone” – he clicks his fingers – “and I started walking around freely, became more involved with my teammates after practice, all that kind of stuff.”
His experience suggests efforts to counteract ultra-nationalism in his home city – which, to give one example, manifested itself horrifically when an African student was stabbed to death in 2005 – bore some fruit.
At that point Idowu was in his early teens, taking his nascent steps in Zenit St Petersburg’s Smena academy.
It was, he emphasises repeatedly, a happy childhood despite the restrictions that for a time became ingrained.
Idowu added: “I was surrounded by good, positive people all the time: a good group of guys at school, the neighbours who I played football with on the streets, great people. I just felt like I fitted in.
“Of course I was black and Russian, so sometimes I’d see people looking at me as I walked past because back then it was something different for them. But I have always felt at home in Russia; everyone has been very welcoming to me.”
The football pitch was an especially secure place for Idowu, but so was school, where he was a straight-A student.
He remembers huffily muttering: ‘What the hell? I used to be the only one!’ to himself when a similarly able boy joined his class.
“We had a bit of a feud, I was competitive about it. I did all my assignments and was very good at reading … how do you call them in English? … stikhi.”
The word he is looking for is “poems” and the stumble comes out of the blue; a reminder of the different cultures he faced growing up and, as a youngster, they were accentuated.