My sister’s best friend’s mom had a best friend, and she was the witch.”
Witch you say?
What do you want with someone like that?
Do you want to die?
“I was injury prone. Every year I felt like I would take one step forward and two steps back in my career because of the injuries. My sister, who is 13 years older than me and also my best friend, had an idea: The witch. Maybe witch is a bad term. I’m not sure. But she was a little spooky.”
Victim of Racism
Leon narrated the story of his first racism attack while playing U-16 in Berlin, in 2003:
“I was playing at center back. The other team had this huge striker. He was bad news. I played really well, and I kept him in my pocket. We were up 1–0 at halftime, and as I was walking to the locker room, the striker kicked the ball at my head. It missed me by about an inch. Woosh. I turned, and he was yelling at me. He was calling me the n-word, using other racial slurs.
“Nobody did anything. There were people all around us, and nobody did anything.”
He reported the abuse to his father who told him words the player says he will never forget, “Leon, you must always be calm. You’re smarter than they are. You’re better than they are… Love, instead of hate”
Call to join the Super Eagles
At the end of his contract with Fortuna Dusseldorf in 2014 – unsure of where he would go next – it would seem luck was juts waiting for the very light opportunity to smile on Leon.
The player recounts the call that would change his life for years up till date:
“One night in March, my phone rang. It was a Nigerian number … it was Stephen Keshi, the Nigerian National Team manager. I was sweating as soon as he introduced himself. I wanted him to say the words I had thought about for so long. He spoke for awhile about how he wasn’t totally familiar with me, but he liked how I played. Then he said it: “I would like to invite you to be a Super Eagle. Those words meant s much to me.”
— Leon Balogun
Fast-forward to when the player made his first trip to the country, his first impression was not entirely different from anyone who has spent his entire live living in Europe:
“Man, it’s hot — heat like I’ve never experienced. I flew down with Anthony Ujah, a striker playing for Koln at the time. He helped me prepare for the trip a bit, too. I assumed that in Nigeria I’d be seen as another white guy on a business trip. But they knew me, they were happy for me. Maybe I was meant to be Nigerian.”
First Stop Abuja
The players first stop was in Abuja, where he would meet other players and join the training session, however while on his way to training on one of the days, Leon would soon realize that all he needed for his heart to heal was to be home in Nigeria:
“When we drove to practice that first day, I was listening to music, headphones in. “Nobody Knows” by August Alsina was playing. I like that song because, as somebody with a little fame, people sometimes seem to forget that I go through things, too. As I was listening, I saw a boy on a skateboard on the street. He had a disability. He had to sit on the board and use his hands to get around — something you would never see in Germany.
And I just started to cry. I think… It was a humbling few days, and that boy’s problems made mine seem so inconsequential. It was a such an important trip for me, such a great trip. I felt a sense of … healing. I felt like I was connecting with a part of me that had been lost — or better yet, never truly found — a long time ago”
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