MLSsoccer.com's "Under African Skies" series is a look at what the first World Cup held on the African continent means to Major League Soccer's African players. Today we feature Emmanuel Ekpo of the Columbus Crew, who was hails from Nigeria.
OBETZ, Ohio – Even though the World Cup is not in his country and Crew forward Emmanuel Ekpo won’t be playing in it for his native Nigeria, his pride shows when talking about the upcoming tournament in South Africa.
“It’s great," he told MLSSoccer.com. “It’s not only in South Africa—it’s in Africa. It’s a big achievement. The whole continent is happy.
"It’s our first World Cup, and every African is happy and proud about it, no matter where it’s played.”
He smiled when talking about the many visitors from around the world who will be stepping foot in Africa for the first time because of the sport he loves.
“They are going to see Africa the continent, and not just one country,” he said. “Africa is all about cultural and traditions. People who come will learn more about us, all of us. That is my hope.”
He grew up watching the World Cup, including as a 6-year-old in 1994 when it was played in the United States, and hoped that someday it would be closer to home. That dream will be realized on June 11 when the host nation plays Mexico in Johannesburg.
“I knew someday it might happen, but I didn’t know that I would live to see this day, so I’m happy about that,” Ekpo said. “Everyone I talk to back home is excited.”
Ekpo also had another goal: to play in the World Cup. That has not yet been realized, but two years ago he experienced another thrill of a lifetime when he was part of Nigeria’s silver medalist team at the Olympics in Beijing, China, in 2008. He was a substitute in all six matches.
“There is nothing like it,” he said. “It’s a scene of joy to represent your country. It’s national pride.”
It would be quite a feat for him to break into the senior national team known affectionately as the “Super Eagles.”
Nigeria, in West Africa bordering the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic Ocean, has an estimated population of 152 million, which ranks it eighth in the world and first on the continent.
“To be called upon is very special,” Ekpo said. “All the boys grow up playing soccer, so we have so much talent. When I was playing in the professional league in Nigeria I could see I could play to a system, and thought one day I could play for the national team.”
Like most in his country, he began at an early age without formal training. It was just his buddies and a raggedy ball without coaches or parental supervision.
“We played soccer in the streets,” he said. “A friend of yours maybe buys a ball, and he brings it out and we dig into it and play. We played for fun, but when you see you have a talent, then you can pursue your profession.”
His introduction to organized soccer came in secondary school, and he advanced to the youth system of the Rovers of Calabar before playing two years in the Nigerian Premier League with Akwa United and Enyimba FC.
The Crew signed him via a Discovery contract on April 15, 2008. He has appeared in 51 games and has four goals.
Ekpo will enjoy the Crew’s week off from training beginning Monday with his bride, Chidi Amadi. They were married March 14 in a civil ceremony and will have a formal wedding in the offseason in Nigeria. She is of Nigerian descent but was raised in Toledo, Ohio.
He’ll be watching and rooting for Nigeria from afar knowing several of his Olympic teammates are in South Africa.
“We’re definitely going to show what Nigeria is made of,” Ekpo said. “You can’t underrate any country. We’re not going to do bad, but I’m not optimistic we’re going to do good, either. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”