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The Grounded Super Eagle Who Wants To Fly To The Next World Cup

Published 4 years ago
By Chris Bishop

It should have been the greatest day of his young life, instead it could have seen his last kick in international football and it hurts.

Nigeria was losing 2-0 at home to South Africa, with 33 minutes left, on November 19, 2014, in the Africa Cup of Nations at the Akwa Ibom Stadium. Off the bench came a young Sone Aluko, bristling with pace. In less than half an hour, he scored two goals; the second, deep into injury time, a rasping long range scorcher into the bottom corner.

Aluko was enjoying the best of times; he was a regular for his English Premier League club, Hull City, in the season it took its first crack at European football. Within six months of that performance Hull City went down, following a 0-0 draw against Manchester United; with them went Aluko’s World Cup hopes for Russia 2018.

The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) wants all its internationals to play top-flight football. Overnight Aluko found himself in wilderness.

There was hope, in 2016, as Hull City went back up to the Premier League, but Aluko, a key player in the promotion drive, was released by the club days after sealing promotion. He moved, on a free transfer, to London club Fulham. Despite a dashing season on the wing for Fulham, in which he scored goals and racked up 10 assists, the club fell at the play-offs and remain rooted in England’s second tier – the Championship.

A move to Reading, also mired in the Championship, means, Aluko stays chained to the second tier. He believes many Nigerians want him in the squad and feels the coach and the Nigeria Football Federation should reconsider.

“They need to review that rule – you can play if you are in the top league in Greece or Belgium but if you play in the Championship, a better quality league, you can’t play. It doesn’t make any sense,” says Aluko, across the table of a London restaurant.

“If I get promoted with Reading it could make me an outside bet, but people in Nigeria are saying I should be in the squad. I have not ruled it out, I could go, and they could make an exception for me. I want to go to the World Cup, everyone does. It is all a player dreams about.”

Think again, says Amaju Pinnick the President of the NFF.

“The NFF is not responsible for making the selection of who joins the team. That is the decision of the coach. I know the story of Sone but unfortunately we have just qualified and we want to focus on the good news moving forward, so the coach will not be available for comment,” he says.

“It is the coach that selects, not the federation, even though they have some sway in the decision but ultimately it is the call of the coach. But, yes, Sunday Oliseh who was the previous coach said he likes to pick players from the top division and I think most coaches in Nigeria want players who are playing at the highest level and the very best in the world rather than those playing in the lower divisions. Most European coaches like Gernot Rohr will not admit it but I think that is the case. An additional criterion, which Rohr has also added which you can see by his selection, is that he is trying to lower the average age of the players to 23 years, except for the likes of John Mikel Obi, Leon Balogun and the goalkeeper… So on these two key criteria, Aluko unfortunately falls outside. He is not in the top division and he also happens to be 28 years. I would pick him in a heartbeat, but unfortunately I am not the coach,” says Colin Udoh, a sports journalist in Nigeria.

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Outrageous fortune has left this attacking winger facing every gifted athlete’s nightmare – the prospect of being a nearly man.

Aluko was born to Nigerian emigres Daniel and Sileola Aluko in Hounslow, near London. His father went back to Lagos after a year where he became a senator and ended up a director at energy company Chevron. His mother stuck it out in England, where she qualified as a nurse, before launching her own health services company near where the family eventually settled in Kings Norton, in Birmingham.

It appeared that everything the young Aluko touched – be it tennis ball or a football – turned to gold. At the age of eight he was scoring goals for fun for Kings Heath Concorde in the Birmingham South League. This drew scouts from Birmingham City who signed him up on the spot. By the time he was 11 he also had ambitions to be tennis pro as he played for Warwickshire along with future Wimbledon star Dan Evans.  He seemed an all-rounder born to shine.

But professional football proved a struggle for Aluko, for all his courage, control and pace, because of a string of setbacks and bizarre ill luck.

Aluko was living his dream as a bright young 16-year-old warming up on the touchline, in the colors of Birmingham City, before 37,000 fans at Arsenal’s Highbury home. He was about to go on as a substitute, against Kolo Touré, Cesc Fabregas and Robert Pirès, to become one of the youngest players in Premier League history.

“I was still warming up when Kenny Cunningham got sent off, so I never came on,” he says with a smile.

Aluko had to wait until he was 18 to make his debut for Birmingham City’s first team, in a 2-1 win over Hereford United; a week later he went on a loan to Aberdeen that proved a purple patch. Three happy years, a taste of European football and 100 first team games.

“I had my first flat in Aberdeen and heard the fans sing my name for the first time,” he says. He also made it into the England under -19 team alongside some talented players: Andy Carroll, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott. He had a spell at Glasgow Rangers, in Scotland, before finally making it into the Premier League with Hull City.

Again, cruel fate took a hand. Seven games into the Premier League he was jogging across the pitch in a warm-up, before a game against Sunderland, when his Achilles snapped. He was stuck on the treatment bed and in the gym until January.

“It was a frustrating first year,” he says.

By then, on the international front, he had long made the switch from England to the land of his African ancestors.

“We grew up on Nigerian food and in my house the music was always Michael Jackson and Fela Kuti,”says Aluko.

“It was like a build-up, newspaper articles asking would I play for Nigeria. They contacted me through an official at the NFF and he asked me if I would be interested. Then I spoke to my family about it; then I thought about Jay-Jay Okocha and [Nwankwo] Kanu in the World Cup in 1998. That generation was the golden generation; my dream as a kid was to play for the Super Eagles. When I was at Hull, I almost took the number 44 jersey because [Okocha] wore it, but I decided at the last minute to plough my own furrow.”

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The winger never looked back and was always cheered by supporters wherever the Super Eagles played.

“Everywhere, from Malawi to Congo-Brazzaville, there were always 500 Nigerians at the airport to greet us, even at one o’clock in the morning!” says Aluko.

Sonny Aluko takes a selfie with the players at the Ambassador’s Cup, which he sponsors. (Photo supplied)

The latter country also gave Aluko a taste of the ugly side of African football.

“After 85 minutes we scored our second goal to go 2-0 up. The crowd started throwing stones onto the pitch, the linesman ran across the pitch, police came in with tear gas that left our eyes and nose running. We played the last five minutes in an empty stadium.”

Aluko survived that day and is putting money into grassroots football in Africa. For the last three years he has sponsored the Ambassador’s Cup, in Nigeria, contested by under-16 sides. He hopes the Nigerian coach and the NFF will be equally magnanimous.

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Related Topics: #Hull, #Nigeria, #Sone Aluko, #World Cup.