A Chronicles Odion Ighalo was raised in a Lagos ghetto and has added the Saudi King’s Cup gold medal to his collection of awards.
Who would have imagined that a child named Ajegunle, who was born and raised in the Lagos ghetto, would one day become one of the most famous football players in all of Africa?
Odion Ighalo, one of Nigeria’s most successful footballers during the past ten years, is a good example of this.
After a career in Europe that saw him play top-flight football for clubs in China, Norway, Italy, Spain, and England, as well as Al Hilal, the attacker is now a member of the Saudi Arabian giants.
The 33-year-old’s arduous climb to the top of world football has been marked by pure willpower, perseverance, and a burning desire to succeed. It is this drive that has brought him his most recent prize, the King’s Cup in oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
It was never going to be simple for the son of a baker father, Paul, and a small-time trader mother, M.S. Ighalo, to make it out of the Lagos slums and win the King’s Cup gold medal in Saudi Arabia.
It was clear that surviving in the impoverished community of Ajegunle, where drug use and a life of crime were the norm for young people, would be difficult.
The football player recalls that while representing his first team, Olodi Warriors, in the renowned “Maracana Stadium,” he came dangerously close to dying in his neighborhood.
“We had nasty gangs stealing marijuana and other things from the slums. When we were practicing, some thieves would have to cross a field while cops were firing weapons, Odion Ighalo recalled to CNN.
“A stray gunshot might hit anyone, so we had to flee and stoop down. I was a kid back then, and that day I was very scared.
He spent time with Prime FC of Osogbo and the defunct Julius Berger after leaving Olodi Warriors before moving to Norway to play for Lyn Oslo in 2007.
Ighalo only spent one season in the Scandinavian nation, but his remarkable numbers grabbed the attention of scouts from Italian Serie A team Udinese in 2008.
Although he only played in six league games and scored one goal in the 2008–09 season, he had a difficult time adjusting to life in Italy’s competitive top division.
For the following four seasons, he was loaned out to sister teams Granada (twice), Watford (once), and Cesena.
Ighalo’s career made its way back to the correct road as a result of the loan transfer to Watford in the Championship during the 2014–15 season.
Just one day after Odion Ighalo was eventually released from parent club Udinese, the Hornets signed him to a permanent contract after he scored three goals in his first four starts in the English second division.
He scored four goals in the second half and was named Man of the Match in a 7-2 home victory over Blackpool exactly three months later. On February 10, 2015, he scored a brace to help his club rally from a goal down to defeat Brentford 2-1, bringing his league total to 14.
Ighalo carried on from where he left off in the Championship, scoring on his EPL debut on August 8, 2015, coming on for José Manuel Jurado 16 minutes from time and giving the visitors a 2-1 lead in an eventual 2-2 draw away against Everton for the season opener. His goals propelled Hornets back to the Premier League the following season after an eight-year absence.
On October 31, he scored twice in a 2-0 victory over West Ham United at home, giving him seven goals for the year and making him the competition’s leading club scorer after just 11 games. Odion Ighalo scored in a Watford victory for the fourth time in a row on December 20. He scored a brace in a 3-0 victory over Liverpool, and his five goals earned him the title of Premier League Player of the Month for December.
Ighalo moved to Changchun Yatai, a lucrative Chinese Super League team, in January 2017 for a reputed £20 million. After Yatai was relegated, Odion Ighalo transferred to Shanghai Shenhua.
Then, on January 31, 2020, he would make career history by becoming the first Nigerian to sign for the Red Devils as a result of a loan transfer from Shenhua to assist the struggling English giants with their glaring issues.
For the Lagos-born player, who grew up cheering for United and harbored dreams of playing for them, it was a dream move.
“It was very dramatic,” he said, according to the United website. “Man United,” my agent had told me the day before. Since a couple other teams had expressed interest, I pleaded with them to choose United if at all possible.
“My agent called me at 11 p.m. in Shanghai to let me know that United wanted to finalize the deal… I didn’t get any rest that night.
“There was paperwork, negotiations, and everything like that… We are conversing, but other teams are phoning to ask for my services. I have informed my agent that this is what I want. It’s where I want to be.
‘You’re going to get a pay reduction to go to United,’ he remarked. I remarked that I don’t give a damn. Realize this transaction. I’d like to visit United. No matter how much the pay is reduced, just make it happen.
“I called my mum and she was happy, crying, ‘This is your dream and I’m happy for you,'” Ighalo continued. It was tense. I was overjoyed that the deal was finally completed.
Odion Ighalo later departed United in January 2021 to join the Saudi Arabian team Al-Shabab after making 23 appearances for United in all competitions and scoring five goals.
But the recollection of his time at Old Trafford persisted.
“I’m very proud because playing for Manchester United has raised my profile and people are now talking about me more,” he said in a statement to Sky Sports.
Even though I no longer play for Manchester United, fans in Nigeria still desire Manchester United jerseys!
Because I play for such a prestigious club, I occasionally have to order some shirts from Manchester to gift to people there.
“It’s awesome to be the first Nigerian to play for Manchester United. I’m just so happy, if I talk about it any longer I’ll start crying.
Another pivotal moment in his career would come with his transfer to Saudi Arabia.
In the 2021/22 season, 17 years after the start of his professional career, he captured his first league championship at Al Shabab.
Ighalo helped Al Shaban win the championship and the top scorer award with his 22 league goals.
After the historic title triumph, Odion Ighalo posted on Twitter, “Thank God for a successful season.”
He moved on to Al Hilal the following year, where he finished with 24 goals to lead the league in scoring.
But he completed the campaign with a King’s Cup victory in front of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was present at the game on King Salman’s behalf.
At King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Al Hilal defeated Al Wehda on penalties to win the trophy. The Crown Prince presented the trophy and gold medals to the champions and runners-up.
But after 120 minutes, the hard-fought contest was over, leaving Al Wehda to wonder what could have been after coming agonizingly close to returning the trophy to Makkah for the first time since 1966.
Al-Hilal had already lost two championship games this year—in the Asian Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup—and they were just seconds away from losing a third when Al Wehda took the lead 10 minutes before halftime thanks to a goal from French midfielder Karim Yoda.
However, the Riyadh team tied the score with 99 minutes remaining to force extra time and penalties, where their goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf saved two of them.
made a critical save before scoring the winning goal.
This came after substitute Ighalo missed his penalty attempt, although it didn’t matter at this point.
He received his most recent award in front of the Saudi Crown Prince, and he will treasure it for a very long time.