Brian Idowu's journey from St Petersburg to Nigeria may end at World Cup
"I am an African with a Russian heart," Nigeria's Brian Idowu said in 2011. The story of the Russia-born defender who made his debut for the Super Eagles on Tuesday against Argentina, and could play at the 2018 World Cup in the country of his birth, is unique.
Idowu acted as a translator at Nigeria's news conference ahead of the fixture in Krasnodar earlier this week because he speaks perfect Russian. The defender then proved his worth on the pitch as well, scoring just eight minutes after coming on at half-time, as Nigeria completed a sensational comeback to beat their illustrious opponents (who were without Lionel Messi) 4-2.
It was a magical moment for the 25-year-old as, just a few years ago, his career seemed to be going nowhere.
When Russia were announced as future World Cup hosts in 2010, Idowu harboured hopes of representing them at the tournament.
He was eligible because he was born in St Petersburg (where his parents met while attending university; his father studied architecture, while his mother is a doctor) and his maternal grandmother Olga is Russian. His other three grandparents are Nigerian and, when Idowu was three, the family moved to Nigeria to live in the southern city of Owerri for three years before returning to Russia.
When they came back, Idowu had to learn Russian quickly before going to school -- where he eventually excelled at Russian literature -- and at the same time joined the football academy at Zenit. Inspired by watching Ronaldo and Roberto Baggio at the 1998 World Cup, he started out as a striker, then tried being a goalkeeper, before settling as an attack-minded right-back at the age of 12. He was considered one of the best talents in his age group, and was included in some provisional squads of the Russian Under-16 national team, but never played for them.
As time went by, it became apparent that he wouldn't get an opportunity to break into the senior Zenit squad, and he chose to leave for Amkar Perm, in the Ural mountains, in 2010.
When playing on loan at second division Dinamo St Petersburg in 2013, Idowu explained his reasons for leaving his hometown: "When I studied at school, people kept telling me that I would be the first black player for Zenit. But then, when I trained with the reserves, nobody told me anything. I was tired of waiting and joined Amkar. Later my agent openly told me that Zenit don't accept black players.
"I think it's not about the club policy, but rather about fans. They want to be different from the big rivals Spartak [Moscow] and CSKA [Moscow] who won their titles with the help of black players. Zenit fans are proud to be different, and the club doesn't want to disappoint them."
With little experience of first-team games, Idowu only made his full debut for Amkar in May 2012, a few days before his 20th birthday, and spent another season in the reserves before getting some playing time at Dinamo.
It took until the end of 2015 before Idowu finally proved himself at Amkar under the guidance of veteran coach Gadzhi Gadzhiev. He gradually improved his game and became the starting right-back in a team known for its defensive organisation (Amkar conceded 29 goals in 30 games in 2016-17, and 12 goals in 16 matches this term). That form was noticed and his first contact from Nigeria came soon after.
"Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr contacted me and told that he is following me," Idowu said in November 2016. "He wanted to invite me to the squad, but that was impossible because I don't have a Nigerian passport.
"Gadzhiev said that such a call is not incidental, and I should keep progressing. He advised me to wait and see if I get called by Russia as well. I don't see why I can't play for Russia if I keep getting better, but they have good players like Mario Fernandes [CSKA's Brazilian-born right-back] in my position. They don't miss me."
But with Russia yet to make a move, Rohr was keen to revisit Idowu's nationality switch -- made more complex by the fact he could have lost his place in the Amkar team because, according to Russian FA rules, each club can only field six foreigners [in a 6+5 system] at the same time.
"A year ago, Idowu was invited to the national team, but then he did not play because of the difficulty with the limit on the foreign players in the Russian championship,'' Rohr told Sport Express Russia ahead of the Argentina game. ''But now the situation has changed ... I look forward to Brian not only as a good interpreter in Russia, but also as a fully-fledged player who will make the World Cup roster.''
Amkar have more Russian players in the squad this season, which has made Idowu's situation easier, but there is a still a chance of a U-turn if he gets a call from Stanislav Cherchesov and only plays for Nigeria in friendly matches until the World Cup. Though, after his debut performance in the 4-2 win over Argentina, the chances are that will Russia will lose out on a top talent to the Super Eagles.
"I feel great [with Nigeria] I have been well received by both players and coaches," he said. "The atmosphere is very positive. For me this is a huge chance and experience.
"As for why I'm not playing for Russia, I shouldn't be asked this question. I want to go to the World Cup with Nigeria, because they believed in me."
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.