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‘This is best Nigeria team I’ve played in’: Super Eagles captain Troost-Ekong

Born in the Netherlands and educated in England, Super Eagles captain William Troost-Ekong has not looked back at international level since opting to represent Nigeria.

Part of the team that lost to Lionel Messi and Argentina at the 2018 World Cup, Troost-Ekong is currently taking part in his third Africa Cup of Nations and he kept a remarkably cool head to score the decisive penalty in the 1-0 win over hosts Ivory Coast on Thursday.

That result left the three-time continental champions primed to clinch a spot in the last 16 when they play Guinea-Bissau in their last group game in Abidjan on Monday.

“It is so early still, but my belief in the team has stayed the same,” the 30-year-old centre-back, who won his first cap in 2015, told AFP.

“If I look at the players we have now, I think it might be the best team I have played in for Nigeria. That is with all due respect to some of the legends that have been there.”

Amid all the talk of Nigeria’s fearsome attack, spearheaded by African footballer of the year Victor Osimhen, it was Nigeria’s defence that perhaps surprisingly stood out against the Ivorians, with Troost-Ekong marshalling a five-man back line.

“I think we have the most exciting attack in Africa. We have the best player in Africa who is our number nine. But I was not surprised, I think I know what the defenders can do as well and I believe so much in this group,” he said.

“I think we have maybe been underrated a little bit defensively.”

Troost-Ekong, who is wearing boots at the AFCON made from bamboo and other sustainable materials, was born just outside Amsterdam to a Nigerian father and Dutch mother, and was capped at youth level by the Netherlands.

‘Haven’t looked back’

He admits he dreamed of representing the Oranje senior team before a call from Stephen Keshi, then the Super Eagles coach, convinced him to pull on a Nigerian shirt.

“I watched a lot of football with my Dad. He was always watching the Super Eagles, but growing up in Holland, I also dreamt about playing for the Dutch national team,” said the defender, who moved to the UK aged 12 to attend boarding school.

“But when I got the phone call from Stephen Keshi at the time, who was a player and a legend who I watched growing up as a kid, especially as a central defender, I was kind of taken aback, and for him to ask me to play for Nigeria, I didn’t have to think twice.

“I think I said yes before I even had to think about anything or ask anyone because it just felt right, and I haven’t looked back since.

“Something really feels right about playing for Nigeria.”

Troost-Ekong, who has family in the southern city of Uyo as well as in Lagos, spent several months on holiday in Nigeria every year while growing up and says the country “felt very much like home and still does”.

He has turned out for clubs all over Europe, notably playing in Serie A for Udinese and in the English Premier League for Watford.

However, he recently joined leading Greek side PAOK -– and opted to offset the carbon from the travel required to complete his transfer in another nod to the environment.

As he settles in Thessaloniki, he is now hoping this year to add some winners medals to the Olympic bronze he won with Nigeria in 2016.

“I have played in Serie A and in England, which are considered probably the top leagues, but for teams that are trying to stay in the league or to survive,” said the player who is so heavily tattooed he claims to have lost count of how many he has.

“Now playing at PAOK it is different because the ambition there is to win the league, win the cup, and win the Europa Conference League.

“I am really enjoying it and I am hopeful that I can add some silverware to my career, here as well as back home.”

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