Why I did not learn Yoruba — Leon Balogun
Recently capped Super Eagles defender, Leon Balogun, who has a Nigerian father and German mother, speaks on his decision to play for Nigeria, debut injury, racism and more in this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA
How is the injury you sustained on your Nigeria debut on March 5?
I’m good; I’ve got a broken foot but I feel good. I am lucky in this situation because I don’t have a complicated fracture. My hopes are high, the mood is set and I am positive.
Have the football federation officials been in touch with you since you sustained the injury?
Yes, I had a talk with the coach and the federation president calls me from time to time, to know how I am doing. I feel very comfortable with the whole situation even though I am injured.
Are you hoping to visit Nigeria soon now that you have made your debut?
Of course, I can’t wait. Even now when I watch football, it’s always hard because I can’t do something, I have to walk on crutches, I have to wear special boots and I can’t use them to visit Nigeria. I just hope I get invited again.
How did you feel when you got an invitation for the Mexico friendly match?
First, I couldn’t believe it. It was like somebody had to shake me because I had so many people telling me before that they could bring me there (national team). So, when I saw the letter from the coach, I said, ‘wow, this is for real.’ The next day, I had a phone call again and I had to send all my details. When I saw the flight booking, I said, ‘okay, my dream is coming true.’ I was very happy and excited to meet everybody and to put on the Nigerian uniform.
How were you received when you got to Atlanta for the match?
It was very nice. I met some of the players (Ahmed) Musa and (Vincent) Enyeama in the plane. They had already welcomed me. When I got to the team hotel, I met everybody, they were so nice. Of course, some didn’t know me but as soon they knew, they were very kind. The trainer gave me a hug straight from the beginning. In Germany, if you meet a new trainer, you just shake hands and its formal. But we were like a family and it made it really easy for me to get in.
What was your first impression of Stephen Keshi as a coach?
I only saw him for three days, he was new to me. But I like the way he spoke; he’s very calm but he knows exactly what he is doing and what he wants us to do and he has a plan. I think he knows how to read the players. Some coaches talk a lot but he knows what to say and when to say it. That is what I like about him. That is what I can tell so far. I had one team meeting before the game; he is comfortable to talk to, his door is always open and that is what players like.
How did you feel playing for Nigeria for the first time?
I was great. When I was younger, I always created myself in those video games and I always put myself in the Nigerian national team. So, it’s like a dream come true. I am very proud and happy and this overcomes the stupid injury I had on my debut.
Would you say your World Cup dream is over with the injury?
No, as I said at the beginning, I am a positive person, I’m optimistic. Doctors here in Germany told me things about the injury, which makes me still hope to be fit maybe for the game against Scotland. They told me I would be out eight to 10 weeks, so I can still have hope for the World Cup; there is enough time left.
Why did you opt for Nigeria instead of Germany, since you were eligible to play for both countries?
I’ve never played for Germany since I started playing football. I think it’s just some commitment that I prefer playing for Nigeria. I don’t know what it is but I can tell you, I never really thought of playing for Germany.
You were born and raised in Germany. Do you see yourself as a Nigerian or a German?
I am proud of both cultures, so it’s 50-50. I have this Nigerian part from my father, which I am very proud of and that is why I also chose to play for Nigeria. I was born and raised in Germany, so I have German values as well. I don’t feel 100 per cent German because I experience racism in everything. When I look at the mirror, I see that I am not 100 per cent German. Every morning I see myself, I know that I am half Nigerian, half German and I am proud of both countries.
How do you see players like David Alaba, Jerome Boateng, Sidney Sam and other players with dual nationalities opting for European countries rather than African countries?
I think everybody has to decide on their own. Jerome always played for Germany but I think his brother Kevin-Prince thought he won’t get a chance in Germany and decided to play for Ghana. If you have possibilities to play at this level, it’s always great, Ghana is a great football country as well. I don’t know what happened with Sidney Sam. I heard he was almost in the Nigerian team but at the last moment, he changed his mind. I can understand if anybody gets mad about that but it’s his decision and it’s always a matter of how you deal with it. If you grow up in one country and you’ve always played for them, somehow it’s natural that you decide to play for their national team. It’s everybody’s own decision. I felt this support from Nigeria, I felt that they showed interest and I always wished to play for them. So, for me, it was quite easy but everybody has to make up their minds on whether to play for motherland or fatherland. Of course, if anybody asks me, I won’t say any bad thing about Nigeria because I was there one time and they showed me so much love and respect.
What do you hope to achieve with the Eagles?
Right now, I just hope to get fit and get another invitation and then I hope I can put my qualities, my speed, my tackles, my ability to read the game, and my heading into use to make the team better. If you ask me what I hope to achieve with the team, I will say I want to be as successful as possible. They’ve won the AFCON thrice already. Everybody wants to win the World Cup and with the Nigerian national team, there is a possibility. The World Cup is the bigger goal but never say never. I always say if your dreams don’t scare you, then they are not big enough. Maybe one day, we will make it.
How are you doing at Fortuna Dusseldorf in the German second division?
Right now, we are struggling. We had big goals; we wanted to go up straight but we’ve failed so far. Now we are in ninth position, which is not very good. We got down from the Bundesliga and we ended last season very badly; everybody had high hopes and expectations but right now, we are behind expectations. We must do our best to make the best out of this season. I think it’s going to be very hard to get to a position where we can think about going up again. There is still a little belief in it but I think right now, we have to watch from game to game and score as many points as possible in the next games, which are also very tough. I think that’s the way it’s going right now; winning the next game.
Do you like Nigerian food?
Of course. I have been asked this question a couple of times. I know fufu, my father eats it all the time; I ate a lot of it. Since I’m not living with my parents anymore, I don’t eat it as much but of course I know fufu and I love it as well.
Do you speak Yoruba?
No. My father wanted to teach me when I was a kid but he was afraid that I might have problems with the German language. Because of racism, he was just afraid. He had a bad experience in Germany, so he thought it might be better if I just focused on learning German and a little bit of English from time to time and that’s okay.
Lots of black players have been victims of racism across Europe. Do you have any experience?
When I was younger, I had to face racism. I was defending and this guy was a striker. I had him under control and he got frustrated, then he started to insult me, telling me, “Can you even speak German? Can you think? You are stupid.” At half-time, he even tried to shoot the ball at me from my back. There was another experience where I even had to run away with a couple of friends. In school when I was a child, there were so many different situations. There are people who suffer more. It’s not a nice feeling but I think you have to be strong. These days, it’s getting better. Berlin, my home town, is multi-cultural so racists more or less have to hide from foreigners. But if you go to the wrong corner of the city, you can have problems. Sometimes, you still hear something or people giving you strange looks but its better now.
Who is your football role model?
I never really had one in particular but one of my all-time player is Thierry Henry. He’s a striker and you’ll probably wonder but I started as a striker. Even now, I think he was just an amazing player. (Allseandro) Nesta was an amazing centre-back. I had favourite players like Ronaldinho, Pique and Thiago Silva. So, if I have to pick a role model, I can’t. There are many players I adore in different positions.
Are you hoping to play outside Germany?
When I started football, many people told me I would be the perfect man for England. England would be very interesting for me because I like the way they play there; a little bit rougher. It doesn’t mean I want to tackle crazily. Spain is also attractive but I think the Bundesliga has become very strong. It’s not bad to play there in a good team but England would be very tempting.
You speak very good English even though you haven’t played outside Germany before…
Thank you. It’s just interest. As I said, my father spoke English to me from time to time but not too much because he didn’t want me to have problems with German. But I started to learn it in school. The main drive was movies and music. I love music; I love to sing, so I listen to the lyrics of my favourite songs and try to understand what they mean.
Can you tell us about your family?
I have just a sister and my parents.
Are you married?
No, but I have a girlfriend, a German.