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

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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.

READ MORE: The Winner Who Defied Death Fights For The Holy Grail

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.”

READ MORE: The Day Football Crossed To Business

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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30 under 30

Applications Open for FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 class of 2020

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FORBES AFRICA is on the hunt for Africans under the age of 30, who are building brands, creating jobs and transforming the continent, to join our Under 30 community for 2020.


JOHANNESBURG, 07 January 2020: Attention entrepreneurs, creatives, sport stars and technology geeks — the 2020 FORBES AFRICA Under 30 nominations are now officially open.

The FORBES AFRICA 30 Under 30 list is the most-anticipated list of game-changers on the continent and this year, we are on the hunt for 30 of Africa’s brightest achievers under the age of 30 spanning these categories: Business, Technology, Creatives and Sport.

Each year, FORBES AFRICA looks for resilient self-starters, innovators, entrepreneurs and disruptors who have the acumen to stay the course in their chosen field, come what may.

Past honorees include Sho Madjozi, Bruce Diale, Karabo Poppy, Kwesta, Nomzamo Mbatha, Burna Boy, Nthabiseng Mosia, Busi Mkhumbuzi Pooe, Henrich Akomolafe, Davido, Yemi Alade, Vere Shaba, Nasty C and WizKid.

What’s different this year is that we have whittled down the list to just 30 finalists, making the competition stiff and the vetting process even more rigorous. 

Says FORBES AFRICA’s Managing Editor, Renuka Methil: “The start of a new decade means the unraveling of fresh talent on the African continent. I can’t wait to see the potential billionaires who will land up on our desks. Our coveted sixth annual Under 30 list will herald some of the decade’s biggest names in business and life.”

If you think you have what it takes to be on this year’s list or know an entrepreneur, creative, technology entrepreneur or sports star under 30 with a proven track-record on the continent – introduce them to FORBES AFRICA by applying or submitting your nomination.

NOMINATIONS AND APPLICATIONS CRITERIA:

Business and Technology categories

  1. Must be an entrepreneur/founder aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Should have a legitimate REGISTERED business on the continent
  3. Business/businesses should be two years or older
  4. Nominees must have risked own money and have a social impact
  5. Must be profit generating
  6. Must employ people in Africa
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Sports category

  1. Must be a sports person aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be representing an African team
  3. Should have a proven track record of no less than two years
  4. Should be making significant earnings
  5. Should have some endorsement deals
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Creatives category

  1. Must be a creative aged 29 or younger on 31 March 2020
  2. Must be from or based in Africa
  3. Should be making significant earnings
  4. Should have a proven creative record of no less than two years
  5. Must have social influence
  6. Entrepreneurship and social impact is a plus
  7. All applications must be in English
  8. Should be available and prepared to participate in the Under 30 Meet-Up

Your entry should include:

  • Country
  • Full Names
  • Company name/Team you are applying with
  • A short motivation on why you should be on the list
  • A short profile on self and company
  • Links to published material / news clippings about nominee
  • All social media handles
  • Contact information
  • High-res images of yourself

Applications and nominations must be sent via email to FORBES AFRICA journalist and curator of the list, Karen Mwendera, on [email protected]

Nominations close on 3 February 2020.

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Sport

The Springboks And The Cup Of Good Hope

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After their epic win beating England at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan on November 2, the Springboks returned home to South Africa, undertaking a nation-wide tour, in an open-top bus, holding high the Webb Ellis Cup. In this image, in the township of Soweto, they pass the iconic Vilakazi Street with throngs of screaming, cheering residents and Springbok fans lining the street. The sport united the racially-divided country. For the third time in history, the South African national rugby team was crowned world champions.

Image by Motlabana Monnakgotla

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Déjà vu: South Africa Back to Winning

Our Publisher reflects on the recent Springbok victory in Yokohoma, Japan

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Rugby World Cup 2019, Final: England v South Africa Mtach viewing at Nelson Mandela Square

By Rakesh Wahi, Publisher
FORBES AFRICA

Rugby is as foreign to me as cricket is to the average American. However, having lived in South Africa for 15 years, there is no way to avoid being pulled into the sport. November 2, 2019, is therefore a date that will be celebrated in South Africa’s sporting posterity. In many ways, it’s déjà vu for South Africans; at a pivotal time in history, on June 24, 1995, the Springboks beat the All Blacks (the national rugby team of New Zealand) in the final of the World Cup. The game united a racially-divided country coming out of apartheid and at the forefront of this victory was none other than President Nelson Mandela or our beloved Madiba. In a very symbolic coincidence, 24 years later, history repeated itself.

South Africans watched with pride as Siya Kolisi lifted the gold trophy in Yokohama, Japan, as had Francois Pienaar done so 24 years ago in Johannesburg. My mind immediately reflected on this extremely opportune event in South Africa’s history.

The last decade has not been easy; the country has slipped into economic doldrums from which there seems to be no clear path ahead. The political transition from the previously corrupt regime has not been easy and it has been disheartening to see a rapid deterioration in the economic condition of the country. The sad reality is that there literally seems to be no apparent light at the end of the tunnel; with blackouts and load-shedding, a currency that is amongst the most volatile in the world, rising unemployment and rising crime amongst many other issues facing the country.

Rakesh Wahi, Publisher Forbes Africa

Something needed to change. There was a need for an event to change this despondent state of mind and the South African rugby team seems to have given a glimmer of hope that could not have come at a more opportune time. As South African flags were flying all over the world on November 2, something clicked to say that there is hope ahead and if people come together under a common mission, they can be the change that they want to see.

Isn’t life all about hope? Nothing defies gravity and just goes up; Newton taught us that everything that goes up will come down. Vicissitudes are a part of life and the true character of people, society or a nation is tested on how they navigate past these curve balls that make us despair. As we head into 2020, it is my sincere prayer that we see a new dawn and a better future in South Africa with renewed vigor and vitality.

Talking about sports and sportsmen, there is another important lesson that we need to take away. Having been a sportsman all my life, I have had a belief that people who have played team sports like cricket, rugby, soccer, hockey etc make great team players and leaders. However, other sports like golf, diving and squash teach you focus. In all cases, the greatest attribute of all is how to reset your mind after adversity. While most of us moved on after amateur sports to find our place in the world, the real sportspeople to watch and learn from are professionals. It is their grit and determination.

My own belief is that one must learn how to detach from a rear view mirror. You cannot ignore what is behind you because that is your history; you must learn from it. Our experiences are unique and so is our history. It must be our greatest teacher. However, that’s where it must end. As humans, we must learn to break the proverbial rear view mirror and stop worrying about the past. You cannot change what is behind you but you can influence and change what is yet to come.

I had the good fortune of playing golf with Chester Williams (former rugby player who was the first person of color to play for the Springboks in the historic win in 1995 and sadly passed away in September 2019) more than once at the SuperSport Celebrity Golf Shootout.

Chester played his golf fearlessly; perhaps the way he led his life. He would drive the ball 300 meters and on occasion went into the woods or in deep rough. Psychologically, as golfers know, this sets you back just looking at a bad lie, an embedded or unplayable ball or a dropped shot in a hazard. For a seasoned golfer, it is not the shot that you have hit but the one that you are about to hit. Chester has a repertoire of recovery shots and always seemed to be in the game even after some wayward moments. There is a profound lesson in all of this. You have to blank your mind from the negativity or sometimes helplessness and bring a can do and positive frame of reference back into your game (and life). Hit that recovery shot well and get back in the game; that’s what champions do.

We need to now focus our attention on the next shot and try and change the future than stay in the past.

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