Many Nigerian parents’ wishes have always been to see their children graduate from school in flying colors and become somebody influential in the society. However, Super Eagles and Manchester City midfielder, Kelechi Iheanacho, revealed how he defiled his mother’s wishes to be educated but instead preferred fulfilling his dream of becoming a footballer.
Iheanacho admits finding that drive did not come easily at school, even though his mother, Mercy, was a teacher. She passed away in 2013, a few months before his life-changing Under 17 World Cup performance, and her memory serves as a constant source of determination.
“It was hard for us when my mother left us,” Iheanacho reflects, suddenly holding back tears. “We couldn’t do anything so I said to myself move on and keep working hard”.
“She makes me work harder. When I’m not doing something right, or when I’m not playing or working hard enough, then I remember her. She pushed me to work hard”.
“There are jobs [back home] but football has always been with me. When I was growing up they didn’t want me to do it because my mother was a teacher — they wanted me to go to school. But I love football and wanted to play — they wanted to stop me but couldn’t”.
“They wouldn’t allow me to play out after school but I went out anyway. Maybe I lost a bit of focus on my studies”.
“It’s amazing when you go back home now, when you remember how you were before. You go back home and all those people are calling your name, shouting. I get mobbed by the kids. They want to see you, want to know you.”
Despite being 4,500 miles away from Etihad Stadium these devoted fans in Imo, the Nigerian state where the teenager was born, will pay 50 naira — about .18 pence — to squeeze around a TV in the hope of seeing him. They are the lucky ones.
As a child, Iheanacho was not so lucky and in his first major newspaper interview since bursting on to the scene this season, the 19-year-old reveals the hardship he felt as a youngster.
Brought up in what he describes as a ‘poor area’, he was one of the worse-off kids and could rarely afford even 20 pence to watch football.
“We didn’t have the money,’ he says. ‘Maybe after the game I’d hear the scores and all that. I’d be at home playing football and my friends would come back after being there to tell me. We didn’t have a television at home.”
Iheanacho is quiet at first, not entirely comfortable with opening up about his childhood, his knees twitching as he explains that his family would use what little money they had on bread rather than luxuries like television.
It is a demeanor far removed from the nerveless striker who belies his teenage years on the pitch.
“Sometimes I watched the Spanish league — it was a bit cheaper, maybe 30 naira,’ he adds. ‘But the Premier League was 50. Sometimes I’d watch the Premier League if I found the money, or I’d go there and beg them to let me in. Or sneak in for the second half and pay half the money”.
“I support Barcelona because I watched the Spanish league. I saw Yaya [Toure] playing for Barcelona… and now I’m playing with him. It’s a dream come true”.
“I have to be my own man but he is a big influence in Africa. He has done a lot in Africa and I hope to do that as well.”