After witnessing another near miss in last year’s English Premier League, Arsenal supporters could be forgiven for letting pessimism creep into their view of this year’s upcoming campaign. But while Arsene Wenger has his critics, the Frenchman can again point to the emergence of some fine young talent under his watch. None made a bigger impact last season than skillful, exciting striker Alex Iwobi, and the 20-year-old recently sat down with FIFA.com to discuss his rapid rise.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Iwobi moved to England as a four-year-old and just three years later joined Arsenal’s academy. He played originally as a winger before being converted to a striker when he reached U-21 level, and his performances in that new role soon led to first-team recognition. Shortly after he turned 17, he was an unused sub in a League Cup match and a year later was again on the bench as the Gunners beat Galatasaray 4-1 in the UEFA Champions League.
Then, in October last year, came Iwobi’s big breakthrough as he made his first team debut in the League Cup, an experience he followed up just four days later by sampling his first taste of Premier League action. Since then, he has added not only Premier League experience, but also played in the Champions League against Bayern Munich and Barcelona. He also managed to open his account for the senior team, scoring his first Premier League goal in a 2-0 victory at Everton.
“It was fantastic,” he told FIFA.com, reflecting on his goal. “It is every boy’s dream, to score in the Premier League and play in the Champions League. I’m grateful to the manager for showing faith in me and giving me the chance.”
Iwobi is determined to keep progressing at Arsenal, who have now gone well over a decade since winning their last league title. “I just want to push on, improve as a player, play more games, score more goals, make more assists and contribute to the team,” he said. “I don’t like to get ahead of myself, but it is a long season and there are plenty of games, so hopefully I’ll have the chance to do that.”
A tough road to Russia
Another thing that Iwobi is hoping to do is play in his first FIFA World Cup™ qualifier. After being capped at youth level by England, he opted to play senior international football for the country of his birth, playing his first game for Nigeria in a friendly against the DR Congo.
Disappointingly, Iwobi was part of the Super Eagles squad that was knocked out of CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2017 qualifying by Egypt. “The Nations Cup is the biggest sporting tournament in Africa, so we were gutted. But as a team we have to look forward and focus on the World Cup and our qualification matches.”
Having received a low seeding, Nigeria were drawn in an extremely difficult section alongside Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia in the African Zone qualifiers for Russia 2018. “It is a tough group for sure, but I don’t think there are any easy groups – it’s international level competition. I’m confident we can prevail, we definitely have the players to. If we prepare well, focus and play to the best of our ability I’m sure we will qualify.
“All the teams [in the group] are good teams that have been former AFCON winners, and have players playing at the highest level, so we know we’ll be up against well-prepared teams.”
Advice from Okocha
If Iwobi manages to play for the Super Eagles at the World Cup, he will not have been the first person in his family to have done so. He is, after all, the nephew of Nigerian legend Jay Jay Okocha. “He is my mums’ younger brother and was and is still a great role model to me on and off the pitch, as he always guides me and advises me with what I need to do to become the best athlete possible. So yes, he has had a big part in my development as a player.”
Iwobi, who still lives in the family home with his parents and sister, admits that he often seeks out Okocha for advice. “He has given me so much information on how to better myself as a person, as well as a player.”
But it is a surprising piece of advice that Iwobi has taken to heart. “The advice I will always remember from him is to always play with a smile on my face and enjoy my football.”
Having managed to stick to that advice, the youngster is now hoping that his performances can help light up the faces of his teams’ fans.