In March of 2014 in Atlanta, Nigeria’s Super Eagles were playing a pre-World Cup friendly against Mexico. At half time a player with Fortuna Dusseldorf, Leon Balogun came on to make his debut.
Not long after coming on in the right back position Balogun went for an aerial challenge, got nudged mid-air, landed right foot first into the advertising hoarding by the sidelines. He eventually limped out of the match shortly after. He was later found to have broken his foot so he missed out Brazil 2014 World Cup.
A year later and in June of 2015 during an AFCON qualifier vs Chad in the heat of Kaduna, another debutant; this time it was the Dutch born William Troost-Ekong. It proved to be Stephen Keshi’s last match in charge of the Super Eagles. Balogun was right-back that afternoon with Kenneth Omeruo alongside Troost-Ekong.
It was Sunday Oliseh, now the Super Eagles head coach, who first played Balogun and Troost-Ekong as a central defence partnership in a friendly vs Congo, October 2015. The team lost 2 nil and Troost-Ekong lost his place for the next friendly – a 3 nil victory over Cameroon.
Following many barnstorming performances together in central defence as the Super Eagles qualified for the world cup from a seemingly tough group, they were christened “The Oyibo Wall” by Nigerians.
In Wroclaw, Poland both of them sat down together to talk to www.aclsports.com exclusively on playing for Nigeria.
Troost-Ekong: It is huge. There are nearly 180m coaches also who are ready to tell you what you have done wrong if you don’t do well. It is an absolute honour though. I am so proud of playing for Nigeria as is my dad and the rest of my family.
Leon Balogun: It is massive playing for the Super Eagles. We have been lucky – William and I – that we have not had too many criticisms. We understand that it is a higher level than our clubs when we are playing for Nigeria that is why we try to maintain our focus all the time.
Troost-Ekong: The support you get when playing for Nigeria is so huge and so you don’t want to disappoint anyone at all. We also know how important a Super Eagles win is to Nigerians as in how happy it makes everyone so that is why we try very hard in each match.
Balogun: I agree with William. Take these friendlies we have now; I would be looking for the performances as we prepare for the World Cup but we know Nigerians would want us to win them so we must try to get it.
Q: When did you know this was going to be first choice partnership for the team?
Troost-Ekong: When I made my debut Leon was the right back (even though he is a centre-back) but the first time we partnered was under Oliseh – before he kicked me out of the team. However, during the World Cup qualifiers it was just us and we got better with each match.
Q: What has the success been down to?
Balogun: We got on quite well right from the first time we met in camp but on the pitch it has been more of communication. We talk to each other all the time and we understand what the other might be doing so that has helped us.
Q: You remember your debuts and now you are on the verge of playing at the world cup..
Troost-Ekong: The heat of Kaduna and the physicality of the match vs Chad I still remember very clearly and it was a proper welcome to African football. I genuinely did not think I would play as Omeruo and Oboabona were the first choices at the time but Keshi believed in me and gave me the start. Yes, it is great that three years down the line and it is World Cup time. Really looking forward to it.
Balogun: I try to forget my debut but yeah it is fantastic that William and I and a few others who I met in the team will be going to the World Cup again.
Q: Has it sunk in yet?
Balogun: It started sinking a month or so after we beat Zambia to qualify. From that time I started getting well wishes and then seeing the World Cup campaign messages with Nigeria involved then you know “yeah, we are going to the World cup”
There will be much more from this interview with The Oyibo Wall as the World Cup draws closer. And the videos are here