The loneliness of losing is nightmarish to athletes and Leon Balogun, Super Eagles defender at FIFA World Cup Russia 2018, has described the 2-1 loss to Argentina on June 26 as one of his terrible moments.
Lion hearted, he does not fear to dash upfront and he is perhaps the only player in the Nigeria’s side that did not show Argentina’s star studded side, including Lionel Messi, any kind respect. He moved into the box during set pieces and was quick to return to keep his own box safe.
Needing needed, at least, a draw to cross over to the second round from the dreaded Group D that also housed Croatia and Ireland, but the Super Eagles saw their dream crash when they conceded a late winner to Argentina at Saint Petersburg.
“The hour after the loss (to Argentina) was terrible,” Balogun hinted. “Everyone was just trying to deal with the loss and move on, so it was a quiet dressing room but definitely one that we have learnt a lot and hopefully formed some players.”
Balogun was one of the few players that featured in all Nigeria’s three matches at the Mundial and he reckons the future of the Super Eagles is bright in spite of the early exit at Russia 2018.
He says: “It will be very important to keep going the way we have started. We have experienced players, young players, talented players – and there are even more players that are not in the team yet – and we have to keep developing them and investing in their football education.
“We just have to keep working and keep our focus on advancing year after year and then in the next four years we will have a good team – maybe an even better one.”
Meanwhile, there is no doubt that Balogun, who is mixed breed of Nigerian father and German mother, has given his heart to fatherland; Nigeria. It explains his revulsion to Germany, even though he grew up there.
The burly defender hinted he made up his mind to be a part of Nigeria as a 15-year-old after suffering racial attack on the football pitch.
“I was playing U-16 in Berlin, in 2003, and I had given up on my dreams of being Thierry Henry or Ronaldinho, so I was playing at centre back,” Balogun said with a breathy purr.
“The other team had this huge striker. He was bad news. I played really well, and I kept him in my pocket. We were up 1–0 at half-time, and as I was walking to the locker room, the striker kicked the ball at my head. It missed me by about an inch. Woosh! I turned, and he was yelling at me. He was calling me the n-word, using other racial slurs.
“Nobody did anything. There were people all around us, and nobody did anything. After the game, while we were still at the park, I told my dad about him kicking the ball at me. ‘Leon, you must always be calm. You’re smarter than they are. You’re better than they are,’ said my father.
“Then I told him what the boy said to me. And that, for the first time in my life, was when I saw my dad lose his cool. He had this look on his face. I told him I wanted to go home because mom said she was making a nice dinner.
“No, we have to fix something.”
So we waited in the parking lot for the boy to come out with his parents. They did. And my dad let them have it. ‘Hey, how can you raise your kid like this? Do you know what he said to my boy? We all come here to play football, and you lost, and that’s the game. But your son is 15 — he’s 15! — and he acts like this. I hope that you can one day fill his heart with love, instead of hate.’
“Their back-and-forth went on for a while, and the other parents weren’t very nice. But I will remember what my dad said forever: ‘Love, instead of hate’. He was very upset in that moment, but he used empathy over rage. And I began to understand, little by little, how he made being an immigrant look so easy. I think because my dad worked so hard to integrate into society in Germany, it gave me the opportunity to do the opposite and connect with my Nigerian roots.”
He noted that the episode triggered his Nigerian ancestry campaign. As he grew up, he made an undying resolve to do things the Nigerian way while cutting down on his German connection.
“I never supported the German national team, mostly because I thought they were arrogant and their football was boring to watch. Even in 2006, when Germany hosted and the whole country had World Cup mania — I secretly cheered for them to lose.
“Because I was a kid, and I was rebellious. And because, even though I felt in my mind that I was just as German as all the other kids, a lot of people didn’t see me like that. I was always asked, ‘Where are you from?’ Or, ‘How long have you been here?’ I would think to myself sometimes, maybe I was meant to be Nigerian. Even after I overcame some of the injury issues I had as a teenager and began playing regular minutes in the Bundesliga, that thing — the part of my soul that I had been told to heal all those years ago — was still missing from my life.
“In 2014, I was coming to the end of my contract with Fortuna Dusseldorf. I wasn’t sure where I would go next. There was uncertainty in my life, one night in March, my phone rang. It was a Nigerian number … it was Stephen Keshi, the Nigerian national team manager. I was sweating as soon as he introduced himself. I wanted him to say the words I had thought about for so long.
“He spoke for awhile about how he wasn’t totally familiar with me, but he liked how I played. Then he said it: ‘I would like to invite you to be a Super Eagle. Those words … they meant so much to me. It meant validation for every step of my footballing journey. It meant happiness for my family. Most of all, it meant an opportunity to go to Nigeria. And that… that was everything to me.”
When Balogun finally touched down in Nigeria, he said he was assured he had made the right choice.
“My first impression of Nigeria was probably same as that of any person who has lived in Germany his whole life: Man, it’s hot — heat like I’ve never experienced. I flew down with Anthony Ujah, a striker playing for Koln at the time. He helped me prepare for the trip a bit, too. Tips on what to do, how to act, all that stuff. When we stepped off the plane — the craziest thing was that people knew who I was. Some smiled and asked for photos. I couldn’t believe it. Just as I knew that in Germany I would always be seen as black, I assumed that in Nigeria I’d be seen as another white guy on a business trip. But they knew me, they were happy for me. Maybe I was meant to be Nigerian.
“We landed in Abuja, the capital city. We were there for a few days before training started. When we drove to practice that first day, I was listening to music. As I was listening, I saw a boy on a skateboard on the street. He had a disability. He had to sit on the board and use his hands to get around — something you would never see in Germany. And I just started to cry. I think, because I had seen some of the poverty in the city — in this beautiful city, with wonderful people — that it just sort of put things into perspective for me. It made me understand how fortunate I was to grow up in one of the world’s greatest countries, to have the family I did. It was a humbling few days, and that boy’s problems made mine seem so inconsequential.”
That experience, he said, healed the emptiness in his heart. “It was such an important trip for me, such a great trip. I felt a sense of … healing. I felt like I was connecting with a part of me that had been lost — or better yet, never truly found — a long time ago. I love Nigerian food; I love the culture. Everyone is always playing music, laughing … trying to have the best time. I felt at home. And I understood that I could have two homes.“
The emptiness he talked about was what he felt when his grandmother, whom he never met, died when he was a teenager.
“I was 16 when my father told me about her mum’s death. Because I had never met her, my dad didn’t tell me right when it happened. He actually waited a few days — that’s how distant my relationship was from her. She only spoke Yoruba. So when we talked on the phone when I was little, my dad would try to translate for us. He had never taken me to Nigeria, for reasons he didn’t make clear to me, and I only ever saw photos of my grandma.
“When my dad told me, he pulled me aside in our home. I have this vivid memory of the feeling — like, this terrible, terrible feeling of sadness. I crawled up the stairs, sobbing my eyes out. I cried for an hour. My mom had to come to my room and ask me what was wrong … she couldn’t understand why I was so sad, either.
“I think, what I knew at a young age was that my grandma represented a part of my life that I didn’t completely understand. I was mixed race. My mom was a German, my dad Nigerian. I was different than the other kids. And I knew that my grandma, and Nigeria, had a lot do with it.
“My dad used to walk three miles every day before school when he was growing up in Nigeria. I knew this because he never let me forget it. It was one of a handful of stories he would tell me about his childhood. He moved to Germany in 1966, learned the language, got his diploma and met my mother. He was the blueprint for immigrants. He made it sound easy — being a foreigner who looked different — but I knew it wasn’t. Because even though Germany is a progressive country, there is that group of people, especially in sport, who still lurk around waiting to knock you down if you’re different. My grandma’s death had a huge effect on me, that’s the part that was wild to me because it was like emptiness in my heart.”