MOVING home isn’t easy. Changing country is even harder. Alex Iwobi has done both, to some degree, so he appreciates the difficulties people deal with, and he’s keen to help those much less fortunate than himself.
The Everton and Nigeria footballer’s charitable foundation Project 17 has already done great work in London and Liverpool, and now it’s branching out into Belfast and Northern Ireland. Tellingly, it’s named for his favoured shirt number, not an ego drive for himself.
On Sunday past Project 17 officially launched a new partnership with EMSONI (Ethnic Minority Sports Organisation Northern Ireland), which has been operating in this part of the world for several years now.
Its founder, Nigerian lawyer Adekanmi Abayomi – better known as ‘Kanmi’ or ‘Ade’ – works to involve people from different backgrounds living in NI in sport, helping them to settle here and become part of the overall community, while still retaining connections with their roots.
This Saturday, August 20, EMSONI’s now annual Confederations Cup tournament will conclude as the centrepiece of an all-day celebration, a festival of football and fun at Rosario/ Ulidia Playing Fields at 282 Ormeau Road in south Belfast, from 10am to 9pm.
The main event is the Confederation Cup Final between holders East Timor NI and Ghana NI, but there will also be live music, a barbecue, bouncy castles, rock climbing, a mini chess competition, table tennis.
In addition, there’ll be representation from no fewer than 20 communities, established as well as newer. The two finalists, of course, but also the following: Arab NI, Carryduff, East Africa, Eritrea, Guinea Bissau, Homeless, International, LGBTQ+, Limestone Road, Nepal, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, Somalia, South Belfast Asia, Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe.
While EMSONI’s football is (mostly) about fun and friendship, Iwobi adopts the same attitude, even though he’s a professional who has played at the highest level of the international game.
The 26-year-old acknowledges he had a good start in his footballing career. His maternal uncle, the legendary ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha, was an obvious influence.
However, his father Chuka – also sometimes called Alex – could also play a bit, as he was (half-jokingly) at pains to point out on Sunday.
When asked about his uncle’s influence, Alex Jr said with a grin: “Well, first of all, just to make him feel better, dad did play in Nigeria, he just took a different path compared to what my uncle did.
“My uncle was a big influence – it’s his birthday today [Sunday] and we’ve been messaging each other today, me saying ‘Happy Birthday.’ A big influence, I always message him when I can.
“As a kid, he was always telling me to express myself the same way he did on the pitches, always playing football with a smile on my face. Nowadays, he just helps me off the pitch and making sure I’m grounded. But he trusts my family, my family have kept me grounded throughout.”
They also surely had a say on Alex switching international allegiance from England – where he has lived since he was eight months old – to his native country Nigeria.
He made that move in 2015, at the age of 19, explaining: “I was playing for England at 16, 17, 18 and then had two spells at 19 but then it dried up.
“Obviously I’m originally from Nigeria, and they gave me the opportunity to go and play, or come and trial for their under-23s for the Olympics. And it’s something I just thought, well, let me go and see what it’s like, go and embrace my culture.
“I went and enjoyed it. I’ve really felt at home because I was brought up in the Nigerian culture with my family. That felt perfect for me. Although I did really enjoy playing for England, I feel like I’m more at home when I play for Nigeria, and I’m enjoying it.”
Although he didn’t make the cut for those 2016 Olympics in Brazil, he did represent ‘Naija’ at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he shared a pitch with one of the greatest ever, Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
“It was a tough group, it was crazy. But to be in the biggest competition in the world for me and to play at such a young age was like a dream come true, representing my country and my family, my parents and my sister was there as well. So I was honoured.
“Even though we didn’t go past the group stage, we went out with our heads held high, we performed very well. We had Croatia, who finished second, and Argentina was hard. And we even managed to beat Iceland as well, So at least we got a win in the World Cup.”
The next aim on the international stage is to emulate uncle ‘Jay-Jay’ by winning the Africa Cup of Nations: “Of course. I mean, we’re unfortunate enough not to be in the next World Cup. I’m not gonna go into that, not going to talk about that,” he says with a bitter laugh, as Nigeria lost out on away goals in a play-off against arch-rivals Ghana.
“But Afcon is a big competition as all, we feel like we’ve got the players to do it, so we have to believe, we just have to go and do it. So next one, hopefully.”
Domestically, Iwobi made another switch, from his boyhood club Arsenal, with whom he spent 15 years before signing for the Toffees in the summer of 2019:
“Of course it was always going to be difficult, leaving Arsenal, that was my home. I grew up the Arsenal culture – but I haven’t got any regrets.
“I felt like it was a new challenge for me moving up north, away from London, to Manchester, to Liverpool. Everton have been very good to me.
“I didn’t start the way I wanted to start, picked up one of my first injuries, that I’ve never really had in my career, hopefully no more [knocks the wooden table]. But yeah, right now. I’m performing really well. I feel like I’m in great form, and my teammates and club are looking on, taking care of me, so I’m enjoying my time.”
The aim is always to improve: “Last season, we were just about able to stay up, we don’t want to go through that again. But even though we have lost the first games, we still have that promising side and feel that we can do well this season.
“My goal this season is just to remain consistent. That’s really been a struggle for me over my Everton career. But as long as I remain consistent, I’m sure the team will do well this season.”
However Everton do, EMSONI will continue to thrive, boosted by the backing from Alex Iwobi and Project 17.