It has been 22 years since a Nigerian scored a goal that reverberated around the country the way Odion Ighalo‘s debut strike for Manchester United did on Thursday night against Brugge.
By the end of the game, ‘Ighalo’, ‘Odion’ and ‘IghaloFC’ were all trending on Nigerian twitter and a host of Nigerian fans and celebrities were lining up to throw down congratulations to the Man United forward.
Fellow international Asisat Oshoala had the tweet with the most effect, having tweeted presciently before the game that Ighalo would nab his first goal on the night.
“Odion Ighalo first goal as MAN UTD player 27th Of February 2020 …….you read it here first,” she posted on Twitter.
— ASISAT M.O.N (@AsisatOshoala) February 27, 2020
Bruno Fernandes had picked out Juan Mata, who received the ball with control Nwankwo Kanu would have been proud of, killed the ball and squared it into the arriving Ighalo’s path.
The Nigerian shrugged off pressure, kept his balance and his wits to finish from close range. It was a goal that had Ighalo written all over it.
The forward is not about to forget this day in a hurry, telling the media: “It is a great feeling. I have waited for this all my life. I am a Man United fan and playing for Man Utd is my dream.
“Then scoring my first goal for Manchester United, this is something I will cherish all the days of my life. Today’s date is history for me.
“I played three games, although I didn’t play much, no goal. So little bit of pressure. But now I got a goal to start my Manchester United goal career, and with a team I have supported from when I was young so it is very good. I am very happy and I am grateful to God.
“It’s a big dream and realizing the dream makes it greater.”
For all the celebrations and the historic nature of the moment, there was also a tinge of sadness about the goal, reflected in the slightly uncharacteristic nature of the celebrations in which Ighalo lifted his shirt to reveal a t-shirt printed with a picture of his late sister.
“I lost my sister on Dec. 12 and she was a real Manchester United fan,” Ighalo said.
“When I was playing for Watford, we prayed for this day for me to play for United. But now I am playing for United and she is not here to watch me, which is sad for me.
“So I promised her I would always take her with me everywhere I go. Every time I play a game donning the United shirt she would be with me.
“So I dedicated the goal to her so she would be happy wherever she is, and I am happy I fulfilled my promise to her.”
The Federal Government of Nigeria has declared a Public Holiday tomorrow, Friday 28th February in celebration of Odion Ighalo’s first goal at Manchester United!
— Wale Adetona (@iSlimfit) February 27, 2020
Without a doubt, this was a big event in Nigerian football, one with echoes of another first strike two decades ago.
Nwankwo Kanu, in 1996, had joined Internazionale from Ajax Amsterdam, with whom he had won the 1995 UEFA Champions League final, having set up Patrick Kluivert for the winning goal against Inter’s city rivals, AC Milan.
Perhaps Inter may have been secretly hoping he would bring his secret sauce from Ajax to help them get more than a few wins over their city rivals.
Things looked promising enough.
Kanu went to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, where he captained Nigeria to an unprecedented gold medal win, orchestrating victories over powerhouses Brazil and then Argentina as the West Africans conquered the world.
But disaster struck.
A few weeks after the Olympics, Inter medics diagnosed Kanu with a heart defect that threatened to end his career. Thankfully, surgery saved the day, in November 1996, and Kanu returned to Inter in April 1997.
And so began the wait for a goal.
Serie A was then a league of rugged quality, and Inter boasted the likes of Diego Simeone, Ivan Zamorano and ‘The Phenomenon’ himself, Ronaldo.
Nigerians waited. And waited. And waited for Kanu to get on the scoresheet. But much as he tried, including hitting a post against Lazio, the goal refused to come until Inter ran riot at home to Atalanta on Mar. 14, 1998, winning 4-0 with Kanu scoring the second.
The goal, typically, featured a bit of magic, as he took a deep cross onto his chest, turning in one fluid movement to let the ball land in front of before hitting it underneath the keeper in one smooth movement, all without breaking stride.
There was no social media at the time; safe to say if there had been, Nigerians most probably would have broken it with their celebrations. Headlines the next day erupted with different versions of “Kanu scores first Serie A goal”.
Not since has a Nigerian’s first goal for his club attracted this much attention or emotion, and Ighalo finds himself occupying the same rarefied space with a true legend.
– Nigeria transfer grades: Ighalo steals top mark from Moses
What adds to the moment is Ighalo’s own boyhood dreams, and those of his sister for him. He has supported Manchester United all his life, went on a paid tour of Old Trafford, and dreamed of pulling on the red shirt.
Somewhere in those dreams was the thought of scoring for the club, and it nearly happened earlier.
In his very first game, against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Ighalo went on as a substitute, and was played through on goal only to be denied by outstanding goalkeeping. What a debut that would have been.
But everything in good time. It all came together on Thursday, Feb. 27.