By Osasu Obayiuwana
Few 20-year-olds achieve their life ambitions at an age when they are just coming to grips with the responsibilities of adulthood.
But Alex Iwobi is certainly living his dream in the English Premier League, where alongside Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez, Olivier Giroud and Per Mertesacker, he is testing his prodigious skill against the best players in the world.
Besides the well-known fact that the former Eintracht Frankfurt, Fenerbahçe, Paris St-Germain and Bolton Wanderers midfield maestro Austin “Jay-Jay” Okocha is his uncle, Alex’s father, Chuka, was no slouch on the pitch himself.
Now earning a living as a criminal lawyer in London, Chuka Iwobi once played as a defender for Vasco da Gama of Enugu, even as a final-year law student at the University of Nigeria.
“I was terrified when I was doing this, because my father never knew that I was playing for Vasco. All he wanted me to do was to come out of school and be a good lawyer. I tried to combine both. And If I am honest, I would have made better grades in school, if I had not been playing football,” he admits.
Chuka was also a team-mate to Peter Rufai and Mutiu Adepoju, both Super Eagles legends, at the defunct Femo Scorpions of Eruwa.
I met up with the Iwobis in Alex’s hotel room at Le Meridien Ibom in Uyo, for the BBC World Service’s “World Football” programme, just hours after Nigeria’s Super Eagles had beaten
Algeria’s Fennecs 3-1 in their recent crucial World Cup qualifier.
Both were extremely charming and pleasant for the two hours we spent together, as relatives like Emma Okocha, the former Rangers International player and Jay-Jay’s elder brother, kept streaming in and out of Planet Iwobi.
Kelechi Iheanacho, the Manchester City striker – who is Alex’s regular Super Eagles room-mate – provided everyone with comic entertainment, that sent us all into uproarious laughter.
“He’s always entertaining and making people laugh. He is down-to-earth as well, so I love rooming with him,” Alex says.
So, rather than couch my conversation in fine prose, as some readers might prefer that I do, I am going to let Alex and his Dad take over today. Enjoy…
Chuka Iwobi, on Alex’s early development: “I did observe Alex’s interest in sport when he was young.
He has a younger sister, Anne-Marie and I noticed that while we were in the bathroom, Alex picked up Anne-Marie’s sponge, threw it to the roof and tried to control it with his foot. So, even at eighteen months, he had good hand-to-eye coordination. That was quite remarkable at that age.
“I got Alex’s first pair of boots for him when he was four. He joined the Coerver Development Centre. He wore that pair of boots and you could see the delight in his eyes. Alex is blushing now [he was near his father as we talked] but he took those boots to bed and slept with them.
“I remember my wife taking the pair of boots from his bed and Alex waking up in the middle of the night and putting them back into his bed.”
Chuka, on how Alex is coping with the challenges of playing for Arsenal: “Well, I think the challenge has been for both of us. They have come at different stages of his development… It would surprise you to be told that Alex came quite close to being released by Arsenal, quite a few times. If that had happened, who knows if his career could have ended? But I always told Alex to believe in himself and his ability.
“But now playing for Arsenal, a team that finishes up in the UEFA Champions League every season, and for Alex to break into a team that has players of the quality of Özil, Sánchez and Koscielny? I don’t even know where to start. Training with such players and Alex holding his own. It’s unreal, it’s unbelievable, I must say.”
Alex on playing for Nigeria: “It was a difficult decision, but at the end of the day I was born in Nigeria and my family is Nigerian. Nigeria is where I feel most comfortable playing. I don’t regret it.
“I had already played for England and they treated me very well. It was hard for me to leave but I always felt that Nigeria was the national team for me.
“One thing I found with playing for Nigeria, is that the fans are always asking me for things, which is completely different from England, where people just ask you for a picture or an autograph.
“Here, everybody wants your football boots or your money… People don’t usually believe me, but all my shirts are with my Dad. All my money is with my Dad.
“People say that ‘Ah, you’re an Arsenal player and you’re supposed to have something’, but I don’t usually carry anything with me. If they want anything from me, I usually tell them to go and speak to my Dad.”
Alex on Jay-Jay Okocha: “Growing up, he was very influential. I always used to go and watch him play, so I could learn how to perform and how to act. But as I have been getting older, I have been watching how he acts off the pitch and how he takes care of himself. He is a role model.
“His best advice to me was play with a smile on your face and always express yourself.”
Alex on his life away from Arsenal: “I normally just stay at home and chill with my family and play FIFA on PlayStation… If I have a favourite team it’s usually Barcelona. They have the best players and are hard to beat.”
Alex on Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger: “Wenger has taught me about patience, not to rush things as much, that there will always be an opening, that there will always be a time for something to happen.
“He is a very patient person. He never really complains and is usually in a relaxed mood.”
“If a result does not go our way, he tells us to stick with our philosophy, to keep doing what we need to do. He’s a patient guy.”
Alex, on his approach to match-days: “I’m not nervous as a player. I just want to get out onto the pitch and do my thing.”
Alex, on the fame that comes with being a Premier League player: “I think I’m a sensible guy and handle myself well. But it is different, because I like going out with my friends and when I’m in London and I hear people saying “That’s Iwobi!”
It is a bit different for me. I know I am being watched by a lot of people and know I need to be professional at all times.”
Chuka Iwobi, on what he feels about Alex: “He is a very good son. He is very respectful of me. He never answers back, even though we don’t always agree. I am very proud of him.
“Why do I follow him on trips to Nigeria, when he’s 20 years old? That’s a good question. He is grown up but I’ll always see him as my four-year-old, just as my own father sees me as a four-year-old.
“The challenges of him going down to Africa are there for all to see. He’s lived all his life in the UK. I have a sense of duty to him, as a father has for a son.
“My support for him in football started at the age of four and it will continue, as Iong as I am alive…”
Alex, on what he feels about his Dad: “Without him, I would not be where I am today. Everything that I have learnt has been through him. He does get annoying at times – you can ask my mum and my sister! But we all love him dearly.”