Home Sports British stars Anthony Joshua and Maro Itoje inspired by Nigerian heritage

British stars Anthony Joshua and Maro Itoje inspired by Nigerian heritage

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Chance to mix education and sport at academies is behind a generation of new British athletes

By John Westerby

•Joshua’s win will hopefully encourage youngsters to keep out of trouble
MARC ASPLAND/THE TIMES

The soundtrack that accompanied Anthony Joshua to the ring in Saudi Arabia this month was Water No Get Enemy by Fela Kuti, the Nigerian Afrobeat musician and political activist. The right hand with which Joshua cut Andy Ruiz Jr above the eye was powered by a biceps muscle bearing a tattoo of Nigeria, inscribed on an outline map of Africa. And once Joshua had reclaimed his world heavyweight title belts with a unanimous points decision, he began to raise the possibility of a title defence in Nigeria, the homeland of his parents.

Joshua lived in Nigeria for a time too, boarding at a school in Ikenne before returning to Watford, where he had been born, after his parents divorced when he was 12. Known at school as Femi — his full name is Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua — his roots have remained precious to him and many of his professional fights have been staged with the flags of Britain and Nigeria ringside.

Now that he has regained his titles, Joshua is the highest profile British-Nigerian, but he is one of a growing wave of athletes from the community. In the starting XV for England in the Rugby World Cup final last month were two players — Maro Itoje and Anthony Watson — who have Nigerian blood. Watson’s mother is Nigerian, while Itoje’s parents moved to the UK in their twenties. After the defeat by South Africa, Itoje quoted a Nigerian proverb: “When a ram goes backwards, it is not retreating. It moves back to gather more strength.” As they start on the path to the World Cup in France in 2023, there is a strong chance that Itoje — full name Oghenemaro Miles Itoje — will be the next England captain.

In the Premier League, this season has been a coming of age for Tammy Abraham, scorer of 11 goals in 16 games for Chelsea. In October, the forward — full name Kevin Oghenetega Tamaraebi Bakumo Abraham — said that he had yet to decide whether to pursue an international career with England or Nigeria, but then committed himself to England when he was selected for his first competitive international, against the Czech Republic, and scored his first goal in the 7-0 win over Montenegro last month.

Abraham’s rise this season has been matched, for club and country, by Oluwafikayomi Oluwadamilola Tomori — Fikayo to his team-mates — who has been an inspiration in Chelsea’s defence and made his England senior debut against Kosovo last month. A couple of years ago, Tomori was one of six players of Nigerian heritage in the England squad that won the 2017 Under-20 World Cup, along with Josh Onomah, Dominic Solanke, Ademola Lookman, Sheyi Ojo and Ovie Ejaria, an indication of the amount of British-Nigerian talent coming through.

Last year, the England squad beaten on penalties in the semi-final of the European Under-17 Championship by Holland, the tournament winners, also included six British-Nigerians: Aji Alese, Nat Ogbeta, Bukayo Saka, Flo Balogun, Tino Anjorin and Xavier Amaechi. For the next generation of British-Nigerians, there will be no shortage of heroes to follow. “It’s great to see Nigerians creating role-model space for others to follow them, and building ladders for others to climb,” Lord Adebowale, chief executive of the Turning Point charity, said. “Role models are always important.”

Itoje is being touted as a future international captain
WILLIAM WEST/GETTY IMAGES

This recent flowering of talent is by no means the first wave of British-Nigerians to make an impact on British sport. A generation earlier, in football there had been John and Justin Fashanu, and Ugo Ehiogu, along with Kriss Akabusi in athletics and the England rugby players Chris Oti, Victor Ubogu, Steve Ojomoh and Adedayo Adebayo. More recently, Christine Ohuruogu won Olympic gold in the 400 metres, Ugo Monye, Topsy Ojo and Ayoola Erinle played rugby for England and footballers such as Eni Aluko and Gabriel Agbonlahor, while Dele Alli and Ross Barkley have Nigerian blood.

In athletics, Anyika Onuora won a bronze medal in the women’s 4 x 400m relay alongside Ohuruogu at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and Naomi Ogbeta could be Britain’s best hope in the triple jump at the Tokyo Games next year.

The links between the countries are strong and Nigerians have long travelled to the UK, the former colonial power, to study and work, and the diaspora is considerable, from a country of about 200 million people. From the 1960s, migration increased due to political unrest in Nigeria and again in the 1980s after the collapse of the country’s oil boom. But from a population of British Nigerians of about 200,000, this is a community that seems to be punching well above its weight.

Why? Every story is different, clearly, but the development of academies in football and rugby in recent years, with a greater emphasis on combining sport and education, has appealed to parents coming from a post-colonial culture where a good education was highly prized. “Where we come from, the first and most important thing is education,” Kunle Aderemi, general secretary of the National Association of Nigerian Communities in the UK, said. “If you don’t go to school, you become a gangster or a thief. When I came to the UK in 1985 to study in Scotland, I wanted to play for Celtic. My dad said, ‘If you play football, I will disown you. Go to school, get a master’s degree, get a proper job. Football is for never-do-wells.’ He had sold three plots of land for me to study in the UK. But now we know you can combine sports with education. My son wants to play for West Bromwich Albion and I wouldn’t stop him. As long as you combine sports with education, go ahead.”

•Onuora, the Great Britain 400 metre athlete, won a relay bronze at Rio 2016
CAMERON SPENCER/GETTY IMAGES

Tomori is studying for a business management degree. Itoje was permitted to join Saracens by his parents, but only if he continued his studies and he graduated last year with a degree in politics, which had included an essay on the Nigerian Civil War. The previous generation of British-Nigerian rugby players, at their peak around the time the game had turned professional, by and large preferred to stick with the “proper-job” route preferred by their parents.

London Nigerian rugby club rose swiftly through the leagues in the 1990s and featured players who might have played professionally, but did not take the chance. “We had a great side, with players from all over London and the South East,” Tunde Aiyegbusi, a former player and chairman, said. “But a whole generation either couldn’t, or didn’t want, to play the game full-time, focusing on studies and careers instead. My parents never saw sport as a career. But many sports clubs are more supportive of players having a holistic life now, so it’s a different ball game for our kids’ generation.”

There is more money in rugby and football now, of course, and therefore sport is seen as a more viable career once education has been completed. The children of some of those London Nigerian rugby players are now making their way in the professional game, with Danny Hobbs-Awoyemi at London Irish and the Obatoyinbo brothers, Elliot and Harrison, at Saracens.

There are a number of British-Nigerians following in Itoje’s footsteps at Saracens, including Nick Isiekwe, who has already played for England, Josh Ibuanokpe, Rotimi Segun and Andy Christie. The England Under-20 squad includes Lennox Anyanwu, of Harlequins, and Max Ojomoh, the Bath centre and son of Steve.

Football, in particular, has become an attractive option, not simply because of the money on offer, but also because of the passion for the game in Nigeria, and for the Premier League especially. “Everyone is wild for English football back home,” Aderemi said. “It’s been like that since [Jay-Jay] Okocha came to play here for Bolton, [Nwankwo] Kanu for Arsenal, [Daniel] Amokachi for Everton.”

A huge amount of talent has emerged from Southwark, Camberwell and Peckham in south London, where many Nigerians settled, including Abraham, Solanke and Lookman. “In a few years, we could have four or five Nigerian names in the England team,” Aderemi said.

It was different for Joshua, who, after returning to Watford from his spell in Nigeria, found himself drifting into trouble and took up boxing to avoid going to prison. Migration does not always go according to plan, the ones who find prosperity are in the minority. Joshua spent time on remand as a teenager and others are now being caught up in gang culture.

“Over the past couple of years, there has been an increase in knife crime and Nigerian kids have been getting involved,” Aderemi said. “Some have been killed.”

And here is the most compelling reason of all why the rise in British-Nigerian sports stars is a development to be celebrated. “Anthony Joshua has done well for himself, he identifies strongly with his Nigerian heritage, he’s a great example,” Aderemi said. “Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham, they’re the same age as kids carrying machetes. They are fantastic, positive examples of what a Nigerian kid can become. We are lucky to have them.”

A world heavyweight champion, perhaps an England rugby captain, who knows how many England footballers in the coming years. Their sports are fortunate to have them too.

Culled from The Times of UK

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