It was a long and nightmarish northern summer for Nigeria striker Odion Ighalo, who has rebounded to not only top of the scoring list in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, but worm his way back into the hearts of Super Eagles fans.
After a dire World Cup campaign, where he was roundly blamed for the defeat to Argentina that saw the Africans crash out of the tournament, he’s gone on to score five goals in two qualifier games against Libya.
Scoring a hat-trick, he heard his name sung from the stands as he was subbed off after 75 minutes of the first game on the weekend. He was then serenaded by supporters in the second game on Tuesday, as he scored twice and provided one assist.
Beaming as he deflected personal praise in his first interview since the World Cup, the trademark Ighalo smile, which had been dimmed for months, flashed as he pointed to team effort instead.
“The team really worked hard, it is a good team performance and I am happy to score five goals in two games but it is an all-round performance and I am happy with the team performance.
“We are 99 per cent sealed the ticket to the Cup of Nations,” he told KweséESPN in an exclusive interview in Sfax, Tunisia, where the second match was played.
But all of this nearly did not happen. Sitting down in the changing room of the Taieb Mhiri Stadium, Ighalo reflected on what has been a challenging last few months for him and his family.
For a fleeting moment, the ever-present smile turned wry, then retreated as Ighalo opened about on how he and his family — including his children — endured vitriolic abuse, and even received death threats on social media, after a World Cup performance where even he admitted he had not played up to his own high standards.
Things got so bad, Ighalo said, that he came this close to packing it all in.
“I know the fans want me to score goals. I understand them,” the China-based striker said. “But some of them took it to another level.
“They said a lot of things. To my innocent kids, to my wife, even to the extent they threatened my life and the life of my family.”
Despite trying to remain above it all and not respond to critics, he was deeply hurt by the attacks on his family, especially his children.
“I felt very bad [when they went after my family]. I had to talk to my wife because she could not take it. Some words they said about my kids, about me. Some words they said to her, threatening and all that. That is beyond football.
“You know women and how they react when you talk about their children. But I never said a word to nobody and I never replied anybody.”
He did not have to take any action to protect his family, as they live in England while he plays in China for Changchun Yatai. But with all of that going on, it was only natural that the forward wanted to quit, especially when his wife advised him to.
“My wife said ‘you don’t have to go there [to Nigeria] any more’ and it was because of all what they said to her and to our family.”
It took national team coach Gernot Rohr’s intervention to convince Ighalo to come back and suit up in green and white again.
Ighalo explained: “I want to thank Rohr because after the World Cup and all those things happened, he called me before the Seychelles game [in September] and I told him I was contemplating stopping because it is not easy.
“But the coach had belief in me. He said ‘I know you are a good goalscorer and I know you can do it. Come and show them that you can score.’
“If a coach believes in me, then I will come. I told hm ‘coach, if I am in your plans hundred percent then I will honour the invitation any time you call me.’
“He said ‘yes, you you are in my plans for the games’. Then he said ‘don’t be under pressure, just go do your thing, I know you can do it.’
“That gave me the confidence which I believed that I needed. I want to thank him for defending me, and giving me the words like a father, encouraging me, talking to me. He gave me more belief and I thank God for repaying him with these goals.”
Ighalo has since disabled comments on his Instagram account, where he is still active, and rarely appears in front of the media. And he has no intention of changing that decision anytime soon.
So does he feel like he has proven all those doubters wrong?
“I am not trying to prove anybody wrong,” he said. “I am just trying to work hard for my country and I always give hundred percent.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t happen the way I wanted it at the World Cup. But life did not end there. I went back to my club, and I continued my game.
“Now I am back here to play for my country. I just want to give hundred percent whenever I play, goal or no goal. As long as the team wins, I am satisfied.”
Nigeria’s next Afcon qualifier is against South Africa on 16 November.