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Nigeria’s Odion Ighalo: Nwankwo Kanu and Jay-Jay Okocha were my Super Eagles heroes when growing up

9:02 pm AEDT 1/3/22
Odion Ighalo - Nigeria
The 32-year-old Super Eagle picks the two legends as his favourite players when he was following the Premier League

Nigeria international Odion Ighalo has named fellow countrymen Nwankwo Kanu and Jay-Jay Okocha as the heroes he looked up to when growing up.

The 32-year-old forward says the two Super Eagles' legends – Kanu while playing for Arsenal and Okocha for Bolton Wanderers – gave him the happiness that one day he will also play in the Premier League.

“Growing up watching [Nwankwo] Kanu for Arsenal, Jay-Jay Okocha at Bolton Wanderers, you watch the league and see fellow Nigerians doing well, and it gives you joy and happiness that one day you will be there,” Ighalo told Watford’s official website.

On his thoughts about the Nigerian Premier League, Ighalo said: “It means a lot because we grew up watching the Premier League in Nigeria.

“Me especially, when I was growing up it was the league we all talked about. It’s a very big thing in Nigeria and every Nigerian wants their countrymen to play in the Premier League. If they play in the other leagues they think something is missing.

“I’m happy there are some Nigerians at Watford, I just hope the team do well and avoid relegation. Even in the national team now, you have to play in the Premier League to have a strong fit in the national team.

“Playing in the Premier League gives you an edge ahead of other players playing in different leagues. No disrespect to players in other leagues but it’s the best in the world.”

The Super Eagle, who is currently playing for Saudi club Al Hilal, has featured in several top leagues across the world including Italy, where he featured for Udinese and Granada, and also had a stint in the Chinese Super League.

“I’m enjoying my time here. It’s my second year here in Saudi Arabia with a different team and everything is going well,” added Ighalo, who also played for Manchester United. “I’m scoring goals and the team is doing well, so I’m happy!

“Everybody knows the Premier League is the best league in the world and the standard of the league is very high. The intensity, the coverage, the fans, and the stadium, everything is top.

“The league here is still growing, a lot of foreign players and managers are coming in, I would say it’s a good league and a tough league, but you can’t compare to the Premier League.

“I would say it’s Championship level. It’s very tough, physical and each team has foreign players playing and foreign coaches, a lot of tactical work, and intelligent players in the league.

“In England, we train in the mornings, but due to the weather here, it’s very hot and we train in the evenings. We have a longer day, train and then come back and rest. In China, we trained in the mornings because the weather is not too hot there.

“It’s a different league and culture entirely. I’m happy I get to learn and live in difficult cultures, it’s something I will cherish for a long time.”

Ighalo, who missed out on representing Nigeria at the 33rd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, has further explained why the Saudi Arabian league is tougher than the one in China.

“I played in China for three years and really enjoyed my time. This is my second year in Saudi Arabia and the league is tougher than in China,” Ighalo continued.

“I think I’m enjoying it here more. I enjoyed it in China, don't get me wrong, but this is tougher and more challenging, and I’m playing in a team that is playing in the Asian Champions League, the Club World Cup. It’s more demanding and I love it.

“No country will compare to England! It’s a tradition. Like weekends, when people get ready to go to church, that’s how it is in England. I don’t think any country can compare to England apart from maybe Germany.

“The stadiums here are packed for the big games, we played Al-Nassr three days ago in a derby and the stadium was packed and full. Apart from that, you don’t see that stadium full.”

Ighalo also revisited his time with Watford in the Premier League insisting he wouldn’t be where he is now if it was not for the Hornets.

“If you want to talk about Odion [Ighalo], my career, my success, and my life and career, you can’t take Watford away from it,” said Ighalo. “Without Watford, I don’t think I would be where I am today.

“What I did at Watford in the first season in the Premier League, that is what I am still enjoying today. People remember what I did in the Premier League, and I really enjoyed my time at Watford.

“I'm grateful for the club, the fans still love me and I love the fans. I still follow Watford. I just hope things will change and the team stays up.”

Ighalo has already scored two top-flight goals since moving to Al Hilal, and he will hope to keep his scoring form when they face Al-Nasr in a Saudi Pro League fixture at King Saud University Stadium on Thursday.