Ademola Lookman: How Atalanta man abandoned the uncertainty of England for a starring role in Nigeria’s AFCON run

In the summer of 2017, England became the champions of the world for the first time – at any level – since 1966 when a bunch of talented youngsters powered to glory at the FIFA U20 World Cup in South Korea.

In that triumphant 21-man squad headed by coach Paul Simpson were six players of Nigerian descent.

Among them, Fikayo Tomori, Dominic Solanke, and Ademola Lookman emerged as excellent prospects for the senior England team following a stellar campaign in South Korea.

Tomori was a class act in a defence that shipped only three goals (including his own goal) in seven games.

Solanke picked up the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s best player after scoring four goals – just one more than Lookman, whose three goals were crucial in the knockout rounds.

Interestingly, a few months before that tournament, Nigeria’s head coach at the time, Gernot Rohr, had contacted Lookman, offering him a chance to play for the Super Eagles. The teenager declined the offer, opting to pursue an international career with England.

Following England’s success at the World Cup, it looked like the youngster was right to have snubbed Nigeria.

By November of the same year, barely five months after the conclusion of the U20 World Cup, Solanke made his senior England debut, leaving Lookman to anticipate his turn.

However, when the coveted invitation failed to materialise, Nigeria resurfaced, reaching out to Lookman before the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

His reluctance persisted, and Nigeria’s early exit from the tournament, following defeats to Croatia and Argentina, seemed to validate Lookman’s decision.

While Tomori eventually earned his senior England cap in 2019, Lookman’s wait continued.

Still, the Nigeria Football Federation pressed on, with the target being to ensure the Super Eagles qualified for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The NFF’s renewed efforts were met with hesitation after England manager Gareth Southgate assured Lookman of his role in England’s plans.

However, by January 2020, Lookman, fueled by a desire to play international football, had waited long enough, and the exciting forward initiated the process to switch allegiance to Nigeria.

Fast forward to 2022, Lookman’s request was granted a few days after a struggling Tunisian side eliminated the Super Eagles in the first knockout round of the Africa Cup of Nations.

Lookman debuted for Nigeria a couple of months later against Ghana, a proud moment for the former England youth international.

And so it begins 🦅 my first call up and can’t wait to represent my country. See you soon Naija 😍🇳🇬 @NGSuperEagles pic.twitter.com/BDbTIxB3Cw

— Ademola Lookman (@Alookman_) March 4, 2022

“It was nothing to do with my parents because they wouldn’t really tell me to go here or there,” Lookman told The Times.

“I wanted to build a career internationally. The decision was something that I thought about for a long time before making. To play for Nigeria is an honour first of all and the best decision I ever made. I’m happy I made it.”

Sadly, the Super Eagles eventually failed to make it to the World Cup in Qatar.

Entered the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in Cote d’Ivoire – Lookman’s first major tournament for his father’s country of birth – delayed to kick off in January 2024.

Despite the abundance of attacking talents at the beck and call of head coach Jose Peseiro, Lookman’s name made it into Nigeria’s 25-man AFCON squad without fuss.

The focus of many fans was certainly on more celebrated names like Victor Osimhen, the newly-crowned Africa Footballer of the Year, and Victor Boniface, the Bayer Leverkusen forward who had turned the Bundesliga into his playground.

From under the radar, however, Lookman has emerged as Nigeria’s most outstanding performer at the 34th edition of the AFCON, and he has already been tipped to finish as the tournament’s best player. And for good reason. 

He claimed an assist in Nigeria’s first match, serving Osimhen with a delicious cross that needed only the tiniest of touches for the Super Eagles’ crucial equaliser against Equatorial Guinea.

Lookman worked his socks off in Nigeria’s impressive victory over hosts Cote d’Ivoire, but it is in the knockout rounds that the 26-year-old’s impact has been phenomenal.

The Atalanta forward scored a sensational brace against a hard-fighting Cameroon, ensuring Nigeria’s progress to the quarterfinals.

— 🐬 @𝗼𝗻𝗲𝗷𝗼𝗯𝗹𝗲𝘀𝘀𝗯𝗼𝘆 (@OneJoblessBoy) February 3, 2024
He then netted the match-winner against Angola to not only solidify his status as the Super Eagles’ game-changer but also hand Nigeria the ticket to the semifinals – the country’s first since 2019. Even his father enjoyed that one. 

🦅🇳🇬ONE STEP CLOSER🦅🇳🇬 pic.twitter.com/gpTg0zaGT1

— Ademola Lookman (@Alookman_) February 2, 2024
He is already in the record books as the fourth Nigerian player in history – after Rashidi Yekini, Austin Okocha, and Odion Ighalo – to score three or more goals in the knockout rounds of the AFCON.

Beyond goals, Lookman’s defensive tenacity, team-first mentality, and resilience in the face of physical challenges have elevated him as one of Nigeria’s most impactful players.

With Victor Osimhen struggling for goals, Lookman has stepped into the void admirably, shaping the team’s fortunes.

Even the former RB Leipzig ace knows that the Super Eagles are far from fulfilling their enormous potential. 

Atalanta hitman Lookman has stated that the team is yet to reach their best.

“We’ve not reached our best yet,” Lookman told Soccernet.ng.

“Definitely as a squad, we have gotten better as the competition has gone on, and we hope to continue that way.”

As the Super Eagles face South Africa in the semifinals, Lookman is poised to be the linchpin again.

Lookman’s contribution to Nigeria’s progress thus far has already vindicated the NFF’s relentless near-five-year pursuit to secure his commitment.

His excellent performances not only elevate the Super Eagles but also inspire other talents of Nigerian descent abroad.

Numerous burgeoning talents are coming through the ranks at Chelsea, Manchester United, and even Crystal Palace, including Michael Olise, Noni Madueke, Lesley Ugochukwu, Carney Chukwuemeka, and Shola Shoretire.

While coach Peseiro has been brilliant in forging a formidable squad that has become the number-one title contender at the AFCON, it is evident that the Super Eagles need a few upgrades in several departments.

By embracing their Nigerian heritage, these gifted youngsters could contribute to forging an unstoppable Super Eagles side ahead of the 2024 AFCON and the 2026 World Cup — a legacy initiated by Ademola Lookman’s pivotal decision.

Lookman’s journey, a triumph for one and all, could become the catalyst for a new generation and a lasting legacy for Nigerian football.

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