For William Troost-Ekong, the road to Wembley began only 30 miles away from the national stadium, at a private boarding school in the Hertfordshire town of Bishopâ€™s Stortford. Since then, it has taken him all the way from London to Holland, Norway to Belgium and Nigeria to Turkey, and seen him represent seven different clubs and two different countries, all before the age of 25. â€œItâ€™s a long way round,â€ he says with a smile. â€œThe longest way round.â€
The journey comes full circle this weekend, when Troost-Ekong pulls on Nigerian green and trots onto the Wembley pitch to face England in a pre-World Cup friendly. It will feel like a homecoming, and it will provide a reunion with Harry Kane, the striker who once helped Troost-Ekong fill out his registration forms when he was a fresh-faced scholar at Tottenham Hotspur. â€œHe was one of the first guys that sat me down and helped me,â€ Troost-Ekong remembers. â€œItâ€™s amazing to see how well he has done.â€
Troost-Ekong and Kane have trod markedly different paths since those teenage days, only five years ago, when they shared a training pitch in north London. While Kane is the local lad who became the nationâ€™s striking sensation, Troost-Ekong is the rugged centre-back who was born in Holland, raised in England and now praised in Nigeria as a leader of a side who could spring a surprise at this summerâ€™s World Cup.
Troost-Ekong, who earlier this year became the third African player to commit one per cent of his salary to charity as part of Juan Mataâ€™s Common Goal project, will be one of the more intriguing characters at the tournament. Born to a Nigerian father and Dutch mother, he grew up near Amsterdam but speaks, as a result of his schooling, with a discernible north London twang. He is at once Nigerian and Dutch, but is also at home in England, where his fiancÃ©e is expecting their first child.
This heritage has inevitably presented its own challenges, but it has also shaped his personality. â€œWhen I am in Holland they see me almost as a foreigner because I am not a typical Dutch guy,â€ he says. â€œAnd when I go to Nigeria they see me as a foreigner as well, so there has never really been somewhere where I can say: ‘OK, this is me.’ I have always had a bit of that, but it has become part of me.â€
Troost-Ekong played for Holland at junior levels but made his debut for the Nigerian senior team in 2015 after an impressive season on loan at Dutch side FC Dordrecht.
â€œThere were a lot of doubts over me because I did not play for a big team in Holland before my first call-up,â€ he says. â€œThen, on top of that, being â€˜Oyiboâ€™, or half-white, you have to prove yourself even more.â€
A bronze medal at the 2016 Olympic games was a highlight, but he was stung by criticism from his former manager, Sunday Oliseh, who once accused the defender of being incapable of coping with the physical rigours of African football.
â€œMy partner at centre-back (new Brighton signing Leon Balogun) is half-German, half-Nigerian, so he is the same as me,â€ Troost-Ekong says. â€œAfter a game, he (Oliseh) said we were too soft to play against African players. That upset me, because one of my traits as a player is that I am someone who does not back away from anyone. I am not the most skilful, but I know what I am good at.
â€œI think thatâ€™s part of being from different countries, different cultures. Itâ€™s not nice when people try to use that against you. I identify myself as being Nigerian as well, and I feel at home in the team. Not once have I ever looked around and thought â€˜this is not for meâ€™. But it spurred me on. I have played against African strikers since then and no one has bullied me. I have proven my point.â€
He has certainly done that under current manager Gernot Rohr, to the extent that he and Balogun have been affectionately nicknamed the â€˜Oyibo Wallâ€™ in Nigeria. Troost-Ekong captained his country for the first time earlier this year, and is a key part of a solid side which he says can be â€œlethalâ€ in attack.
In Russia, their opponents in the group stage will be Croatia, Iceland and, for the third World Cup in a row, Argentina. â€œCroatia and Argentina are probably the favourites,â€ Troost-Ekong says, but with familiar faces such as Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi and usual captain John Obi Mikel, Rohrâ€™s side have a threatening combination of power, flair and experience.
Both Moses and Iwobi could have played for England, but like Troost-Ekong chose to represent Nigeria instead. â€œYou have to go where you are loved, where you are appreciated,â€ he says. â€œIt is more appealing for younger players. It is opening doors for foreign-born Nigerians, and I think there are going to be more to follow. Nigeria is a giant of African football.â€
Troost-Ekong is now hoping that the World Cup will provide a platform to impress Premier League clubs. He is happy in Turkey, at Bursaspor, but has unfinished business in England after playing for the junior teams of Fulham and then Tottenham.
He credits his time at Tottenham, and particular the tutelage of academy chief John McDermott, as being crucial to his development, but left the club for Dutch side FC Groningen in 2013 following the appointment of Tim Sherwood as manager. â€œMe and Tim did not have the best rapport,â€ he says. â€œHe did not really believe in me as a player.â€
He may have taken the long road back, and may only be here for a few days, but Troost-Ekong is beginning to make a habit of converting those doubters into believers. â€œIâ€™ve taken a different route,â€ he says. â€œBut if I can get to the Premier League, I will feel like I have achieved a lot.â€ -Culled from UKâ€™s Telegraph