When Kevin Akpoguma teamed up with the Super Eagles for Nigeria’s friendly matches against Algeria and Tunisia, it came as a surprise to Nigerians.
For many in the West African country, the Bundesliga is a popular league but one not heartily followed.
Several Nigerian footballers have impressed in the Bundesliga with the foremost being Jayjay Okocha, a Nigerian football legend who starred for Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1990s. Other Nigerians have since followed Okocha’s footsteps by playing in Germany; Sunday Oliseh, Victor Agali, Jonathan Akpoborie, Leon Balogun and many others.
Akpoguma’s decision to play for the Nigerian team was instantly welcomed as he is seen as a good fit for the national team. While fans have blamed Franco-German coach, Gernot Rohr for thrusting him in action too quickly, the Hoffenheim defender has had to play as a right back so far for the Super Eagles.
I caught up with the TSG Hoffenheim defender and we spoke at length about his career and why he chose to represent Nigeria, despite captaining Germany at youth level.
“I think, to be honest, a chance to play for the national team can switch from good to bad, bad to good because it’s so fast, you see football how it works, if you play a top season somewhere, maybe a good club is coming to sign you, everything can change directly,” he said about his choice to represent Nigeria.
“I’m in the best moment of my football now. I’ve experienced some games, saw the good ways of football, saw the bad ways of football so no, to be honest, I didn’t wait for Germany first. I don’t want to say that the German national team would be gone for me before I went to Nigeria. Of course, the people that see this whole story, they will say like he’s too bad for Germany, but I think it’s not true. I think it’s a decision for Nigeria instead of playing regularly, you know what I mean, Germany is very tough and can be fastly over, you do two or three games and then no more but no, I want to play football, I want to be part of something like… I want to make my own footprints you know what I mean and I think, if you see the team in Nigeria, it’s so much potential with the strikers, the midfielders, also with the defence, the team is good and I think we can do something big and that’s a chance I just see to be successful with a country, I think it’s something you would be proud of telling your son or your daughter or telling your kids that you played for the national team, maybe World Cup, AFCON or you were very successful there.
“It’s just something I want to have in my career. I don’t know how to say it properly but I’m not in for a reason. It was just a heart decision. If I see my dad, the skin, the blood, the family is still over there, so these are the main reasons why I switched to Nigeria. I see myself as a Nigerian even if I was born in Germany, at least 50% of me is Nigeria.
“As I said, it’s a heart decision, I don’t want to wait anymore, I was missing the feeling of playing national team games. That’s why I wanted to play for Nigeria, also to see the culture. You know I’m living here in Germany but your dad is from Nigeria and you don’t know so much because I have only visited two times before the game. If you know your dad is from there, you want to be more part of it, that’s the chance I have now with my football and I thank God that I have the potential, the talent to play for a country like Nigeria, it’s not easy, it’s a big country with so many people.
“So like I said it’s in my blood, it’s in my veins, you know this Nigerian blood and I’m very proud of it and honoured to play for the Eagles. I still try to do my best wherever I am here in Hoffenheim to do my best there to be in good shape also for the national team. The future schedule like World Cup, AFCON and everything are things you want to play and I think this is something you look forward to experiencing.
“You want to be part of something very big like the World Cup or the African Cup, I think this is a big experience that in the future you can talk about and this is something that makes the whole career more special.
“I still could have wait to play for Germany, just a good example like Robin Koch, now he’s playing in Leeds, playing proper in the Premier League, he’s already there, Niko Schulz 25, 26 that time, played a very good season in our team Hoffenheim, he was getting to the German national team.
You know what I mean, you have to be there at the moment, you know what I mean, it’s also possible for me to play a proper season one time, the thing for me is that I didn’t play any season in the Bundesliga fully.
The first time was the first season after Dusseldorf, I played very good and I played a lot, of course, the year was very good but the last years were always with some injuries, rotation and everything, I didn’t play proper but I think if you play properly in every game like in a season and you perform good, I’d get the chance for sure. I know the assistant coach of Germany, he was my U19 coach, he said we’re looking at you but the moment some players are better or in better teams, but to be honest I don’t care, the decision was a decision for Nigeria, not against Germany. That’s all that I want to say about this issue.
“I would never look back or say my God if I had waited for one or two more years I’d play for Germany. This story is finished. I don’t want to talk about this German situation anymore because I’m a Super Eagle and I’m very proud of it. It is finished.”
Since Rohr became coach of the Super Eagles in 2016, he has introduced several players with dual nationalities to the team. Everton’s Alex Iwobi, FC Twente’s Tyrone Ebuehi, former Düsseldorf goalkeeper Maduka Okoye are a few.
Akpoguma was monitored but Nigeria for a while before his eventual invitation and he said although the Super Eagles kept tabs with him, the decision to play for the former African champions was solely his making.
“Gernot Rohr was a big issue, in that case, he was visiting my games and always in contact for three-four years. It doesn’t matter if he’s German, I think whether he’s there or not I’d make the same decision.
“Of course the coach was a big issue for this decision not because he’s German but he really showed he wants to play me for Nigeria. So if there would be another coach that’d do the same thing as Gernot Rohr, the decision would be the same thing.”
Akpoguma’s competitive debut for Nigeria was one he’d love to forget, yet it’s memorable, as it had historical moments. The Super Eagles of Nigeria threw away a 4-0 lead against small West African nation, Sierra Leone and the criticisms that followed from Nigerians was unparalleled.
”The official national games against Sierra Leone in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, in Africa. It was a big experience, big difference because of course, we played as you said in Austria so it was similar to how it was at Hoffenheim but of course I had to prepare very well for the weather, for the pitch, it’s a different style of playing in Africa and it was official games, you saw the pressure of what it’s like playing for something, the Africa Cup.
”The first game we started very well but you see also the other side. I think for me to see the whole week was a very big experience. I think it’s good to see both sides, how it is to be successful in the first half, of course, we didn’t win but I saw the enthusiasm and spirit of the country.
”Also like if you lose or just draw, it’s a disappointing result for Nigeria but I think it’s good for the future to see both sides and it will give me more experience for the next time. I’m looking forward to the next games in March.”
Akpoguma has been deployed in right back in all the games he’s featured in and Nigerians have come for the coach’s head. The defender said he has no problem playing there.
”Of course I used to play centre-back, it’s my best position also in my opinion but I think it’s good for the coach to have people that play more positions.
”For me in my opinion the full back is my second position, I used to play it at the youth level so I’m fine with the position. I think defensively I make good jobs at fullback positions. To answer your question, especially for these two games, to be honest, I enjoy every game I can play in the Bundesliga or the national team it doesn’t matter which position you play, the coach should always be the boss and has to bring in the first 11 on the pitch who he thinks can perform best.
”If he sees something like playing me on fullback, you accept it, you respect it and just try your best. To be honest, I’m very happy to play no matter which position I play, just to have the games and as I said, I try to perform 100% and do the best no matter on which position I will play in the future.
”Like also in Hoffenheim the situation that we have a lot of centre-backs, a few are injured but I think a coach is happy to have players who can play more positions, to be more flexible and that’s all about. I’m very happy that I can play both but I think everyone knows that the main position for me is the centre-back position.”
A section of the Nigerian fanbase has blamed the team’s woeful ending against Sierra Leone on the Benin pitch. They’ve also reserved comments for the pitch in Sierra Leone where Nigeria played out a goalless draw against the Leone Stars.
Akpoguma says while there’s a huge difference in quality between a pitch in Europe and what he saw in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, it’s never an excuse for what transpired.
”Of course I think for the first time it was a very special situation to play on these pitches in these conditions but it shouldn’t be an excuse, especially for the two games. I think if we’d play in Europe or somewhere on a good pitch, you’d see a quality difference between Nigeria and Sierra Leone because I think the quality of Nigeria football team is very very big but in the end, it doesn’t matter where you have to play, it’s all about the result, it’s all about the three points.
”Of course also you’d play a better game and I think the opponent quality difference you’d see it. But that’s not the matter, that’s not the issue, you have to accept it and do the best and try to win the games and that’s what it’s all about. If you play qualification games, it’s all about the points after six games. That should be in the next match our goal just to be successful even if the pitch is good or bad, we have to think about how to get three points and how to win games even if it’s dirty, it doesn’t matter if you win.”
Things are beginning to look good for Akpoguma after his unpleasant experience at Hannover 96. His return to Hoffenheim has seen him become a mainstay in the team and the defender says he feels proud to be where he is now.
”First of all, I’m very proud to be playing. I think I have not missed any official game for my club so I’m very proud of it. Of course, it’s a very special situation at the moment for every player, for every club and every country because of this current situation, the last months it’s like everything is so close, you play every week two games.
”I think it’s the most important thing as a player at this moment to be fit as long as possible to bring your body in the perfect shape in that small time of recovery. At the moment I feel good, that’s the most important thing for me. I told the coach Sebastian Horneß that I try to be fit every time if he needs me.
” As I said, in the pre-season, I started on a different position but you need a very good first 11, you need good players on the bench also, even if you have a squad of 30 players, everyone has to be ready for the games this season, this season especially because it’s a special situation, because of covid19 but I think I’m doing well, I’m doing fine, I’m very happy with my games, you know every game you can improve, you can improve in every situation but at the moment, I’m very happy to be in Hoffenheim. I think at the moment it’s the best club where I can be.
”The season is still long, we have the Europa League and the Bundesliga. Bundesliga we didn’t perform very good but it’s still a long way to do better and get the right results but I’m looking forward to the next weeks, to the next months. It’s a special season like I said but I’m very happy at the moment to play especially a lot for my club. I try to do my best like I said every game to be fit.
Akpoguma has played alongside another German-Nigerian in the Super Eagles, Balogun. He says he sees the former Mainz defender like a friend and a big brother.
”On the pitch, I think I’m very good with everyone. I can talk to everyone but especially outside the pitch it was a bit hard for me, everything is working to plan but issues like for example what do we wear or something, I can talk to him if I have small questions that have to do with organisation or everything.
”Off the pitch, he is a very big help for me, he was a very big help for me and in the future still will be. But like I said I will get into it, I’d also get the routine of how we work in the Super Eagles squad.
”On the pitch, we are good, everyone knows how to play football so everyone is fine. Outside of the pitch, of course, I have questions if I see something of a different organisation, of course, I ask him because he knows and has big experience, of course, he can speak German maybe. If I want to ask a question I can do it better in my mother tongue, where he was a big help like a big brother. Leon Balogun is a good guy for me, it’s good to have someone like him in the squad.”