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The Whistle: Kelechi Iheanacho

JOURNEY: Kelechi Iheanacho

JOURNEY: Kelechi Iheanacho

When you heard the whistle coming from the street, that meant it was football time. Real football.

You see, when I was young, I loved playing football. But where I grew up in southern Nigeria, it was kind of like a ghetto. It was a tough place to be a kid. You had to work very hard to make a living there, and my family did not have the extra funds to buy a real ball. Most of my friends didn’t have one either, so we would run around the streets and use whatever we could find to kick around. We would make balls out of socks, or sometimes we even used a balloon.

So whenever we had a chance to train with a real club, and with real footballs, it was very exciting.

Most people did not have cell phones or the internet, so the club coaches would walk through the streets in our neighborhood blowing a whistle. That was the signal that it was time for training. You knew that if you wanted to train, you had to go outside and follow them to the primary school down the road.

Where I grew up in southern Nigeria, it was kind of like a ghetto. It was a tough place to be a kid.

So one day when I was like eight or nine years old, I was washing the dishes for my mother when I heard the whistle. She knew I wanted to go train with the big boys, but she was very worried for me. The school did not have a real grass pitch. We would play on a very hard surface. It was rocky dirt, and we did not have proper boots. A lot of times we played in our bare feet. If somebody fell down, they could get really hurt.

I didn’t care, but my mother was a teacher. She was serious about education. She always wanted me to study and read books. She never wanted me to play football. So when she heard the whistle, she told me “Kelechi, no, no, no. You stay here.”

I said, “O.K., don’t worry, I’m not gonna go.”

But, of course, I knew in my mind that as soon as she left the room, I was gonna go. I could not help it. When I heard that whistle, my heart said, It’s football time.

So I kept washing the plate, washing the plate, washing the plate ... and as soon as my mother went into the next room, I put the plate down very softly and ran outside to catch up to everybody. I was just in my bare feet and shorts, but I didn’t care.

Unfortunately, when I got to training, something very bad happened. We started playing a match, and one of the older boys lunged in for a tackle and knocked me straight to the ground. Everybody stopped. When they stop the game, you know it’s bad. I looked down and my legs were bleeding. I couldn’t stand up on my own. So the coaches carried me back home, and the whole way I was crying — not just because of my legs, but also because of what my mother would say.

They carried me into my house and when my mother saw me in the arms of my coaches, she said, very disappointed, “I told you not to go … and you go.”

Oh no. You never want to hear that.

When she thought I had learned my lesson, she carried me to my bed and took care of me. But of course, I did not really learn my lesson. As soon as my legs were better, I was outside playing football again.

I don’t know why, but football is my passion. I love, love, love playing football. I was always this way, even though I was never able to watch the big clubs as a kid. My family did not have a television, and in Nigeria it is very expensive to watch the Premier League. There was one place in town that everybody called the “game center,” and it had a satellite dish, but you had to pay money to go inside. It was 50 naira (about 15 cents) for a Premier League match, and I did not have that kind of money. So I would wait outside playing football with my mates until somebody came out and told us what had happened in the match.

I followed the Premier League in the late 2000s only by the stories they told.

The fee for the Spanish league was a little bit cheaper. It was only 30 naira, so a few times I saved up my money and watched Barcelona. I immediately started having love for Messi because of the way he plays with the ball at his feet. The few times I was able to watch him, it was unbelievable. But it was funny because inside the game center, there were a lot of people sitting around one screen, and they were very passionate about their clubs. Maybe people would be surprised by this because Nigeria is very far from Spain, but if Barcelona was playing Real Madrid, there would be a lot of yelling and arguing in there.

“Messi is better!”

“Are you crazy? Ronaldo is better!”

So when I went to the game center, I would sit in the back with my mates and stay quiet and just watch the football. It was a special thing to me. I did not get to do it often.

It was 50 naira (about 15 cents) for a Premier League match, and I did not have that kind of money.

When I was 14, I started playing for Taye Academy in the city of Owerri, and then my whole life became football. I dreamed of playing for certain clubs, or going places I’d never been before, but I just kept my ambitions to myself because I never really expected that I could get to these places.  In 2012, when I was 15, I saved some money and went to the game center on the last day of the Premier League season. It was a very big deal, because the title race was so close. I sat there and watched Sergio Agüero score the last-minute goal that won Man City the title — and that took it away from Man United. On the TV, Sergio took his shirt off and whipped it around, and everybody in the game center was going crazy.

That was maybe the first Man City game I ever watched. I had never been to England before. I had no idea that in a few years, I would be playing on the same team as Sergio.

Later that year, I was invited to play for the under-17 Nigerian national team, and it was a big opportunity for me. We went away to training camp on the other side of the country. But then at the start of camp, I received news from home that my mother was sick. I didn’t know how bad it was — I just knew she was sick. And it was a very long and hard camp, so I could not go home to see her. This was my chance to go for my dream. The next news I got from home, a few weeks later, was that my mother had died.

It is very hard for me to talk about this.

My mother loved her children, and she had always pushed me to keep working hard, even when it was football and not books. So I just kept working hard. The next year, our Nigerian national team won the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup. I scored five goals in the tournament. Every time I scored, I would point my fingers to the sky.

After the tournament, a few European clubs were interested in signing me: Arsenal, Porto and some others. And also, of course, Manchester City. I did not know much about these clubs. I thought I would choose Porto, because I knew many African players had success with the club in the past. I didn’t really believe that I could play at City because they had so many incredible players. But my father told me that I should choose City because he believed that I could achieve great things there.

So I listened to my father.

When I arrived in Manchester for the first time, it took me five seconds to realize that it was a very different place than where I come from. It is cold, yes, but people also do things very differently than we do in Nigeria. The culture was different, and everything looked different. But even though I knew it would be hard to adjust, I knew that it was an incredible opportunity for me and my family if I could succeed in Manchester.

It took me some time to prove myself to get into the first-team squad, but everything I have been through, all the difficult times, have been worth it. In September, I achieved something that every boy dreams about. I walked out onto the pitch at Old Trafford as a starter in the Manchester Derby.

The derby feeling

Because I was only 19, I did not expect to be in the Starting 11. When the manager told me that I was going to start, I tried to tell myself, It’s just a game of football. But if I am telling the truth, it is not a normal game. The atmosphere and intensity gives you a very different feeling a soon as you step on the pitch. It’s war for 90 minutes in the Manchester Derby. You cannot give anything less than 100% concentration. So I just tried to focus completely on the match.

With the score still 0-0 in the 15th minute, there was a long ball passed up to me from Aleksandar Kolarov. I had my back to the United goal, but I sensed that Kevin De Bruyne would be making a run down the wing. So I jumped up and flicked a header behind me. Kevin came onto the ball quickly and scored a brilliant goal.

I was so happy, but then in the 36th minute, something really amazing happened. I was standing in front of the United goal when Kevin’s shot struck the post. The ball came right to my feet. I kicked it into the back of the net without thinking. I looked over to the linesman, not believing that I had really scored. The flag was down. I was onside.

My teammates ran over to me, and I felt what I can only describe as the Manchester Derby Feeling. No one can know how I felt unless they’ve scored in the derby. I did not even celebrate. The feeling was too much. Four years ago I could not afford to watch this match on the television. Now people in the game center back home were watching me score this goal. Maybe the kids who could not afford the 50 naira were waiting outside, kicking a ball or a balloon around. Maybe somebody came outside after the match was over and told them “Manchester City won. Kelechi scored.”

I hope I can show them that they can do anything. Whenever I go back home to Nigeria now, I always bring a bag full of Manchester City shirts for the kids. If you go to Owerri now, you will see a lot of children playing in the streets, wearing blue. Nigeria has a lot of Man City fans, and they’re gonna have more every time I go home.

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