Troost-Ekong proves a rare breed

When England face Nigeria on Saturday they will line up against a man with a more quintessentially English upbringing than anyone in a white shirt at Wembley.

Will Troost-Ekong was educated at boarding school in Bishop’s Stortford and speaks with the accent his parents intended when they sent him to these shores at the age of 12.

Troost-Ekong, the son of a Nigerian father and Dutch mother, received a privileged education at Hockerill college and it also set him on the path to his career, although not one usually associated with a boarding school alumnus. Now he is using his status as a professional footballer to help those less fortunate, recently becoming one of only four players going to the World Cup to sign up for Juan Mata’s Common Goal charity.

“It’s not an achievement but it’s a really exciting step for me to do something like this,” Troost-Ekong explains as we sit inside Bursaspor’s Timsah Arena. “I was looking to do different charity projects to get involved in,” he says. “I’ve done a few already, but it was nice to do something public like Common Goal, simply because it’s good that footballers unite and do something together. No matter how much you make or whatever club you play at, you can be part of something like that. I think I am very blessed to be here in Turkey and to have the things I have now, so it’s nice to give something back.

“I wanted to be part of it as a Nigerian, so then hopefully more of my international and Bursaspor team-mates will want to join. I think it’s growing steady but I think it will be infectious once people see the projects that we will do together or the impact we can have as football players, which is not very big to us, but is to some other people. I think it should be infectious and the more footballers that sign up, the more powerful it will become.”

The 24-year-old is expecting a busy summer, starting with the game at Wembley. He will then be at the heart of the Nigeria defence in Russia and his childhood sweetheart, from Hertfordshire, will be giving birth to their first child, leaving plenty on his mind. Troost‑Ekong was born in the Netherlands but there are few prouder Nigerians.

Having played in England, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium and now Turkey, Troost-Ekong has seen plenty and knows the importance of setting an example to the wider world. He is acutely aware that Nigerian players could be subject to racial abuse in Russia this summer and the team will not be afraid to take a hard line on it.

“We haven’t openly spoken about it in the team,” he says. “Everyone is aware of it but I don’t think until that moment, if it were to come, that you can prepare for something like that. I think if we felt in any way that there was very apparent racism, which everyone would be uncomfortable with, if anyone said: ‘We’re not going to play,’ then the team would make a unanimous decision. We have a great team spirit so if one player said they didn’t want to play, everyone would stick with that.”

The preparation for that starts with England in the country where he was educated, in which his partner grew up and where his first child will be born. It will be emotional for Troost‑Ekong, who will come up against his former Tottenham team-mate Harry Kane. “It’ll be nice to play against Harry again after all these years, so it will be exciting. It will be a bit of a homecoming seeing as I spent some time in England and I have such strong ties in England. And quite a lot of the team play in England and so many Nigerians live in England, so it will be a nice atmosphere.”

The journey to the World Cup started over a decade ago when he was spotted playing for Bishop’s Stortford as a teenager by Fulham, who he represented until Tottenham lured him to their academy. “At 15 I got an offer to go to Spurs – Man City and Liverpool were interested too at the time to give me a scholarship. I ended up signing at Spurs because I wanted to stay in London and I really like the set-up and the people working there.”

As a youth, Troost-Ekong represented the Netherlands but then chose Nigeria, a decision fully justified since making his debut in 2015. From that point he has won an Olympic bronze medal, captained the Super Eagles and helped them reach the World Cup. They face Argentina, Croatia and Iceland in Group D in Russia but Troost-Ekong is not fazed.

“It’s hard because we’ve got a really difficult group but I think we can surprise like we did in qualifying, as we were not the favourites to go through, with Cameroon and Algeria there, but we were unbeaten apart from the last game [awarded 3-0 to Algeria because of an ineligible player]. We have a new coach and a lot of young players coming through, so I think at the World Cup we can do the same.”

Originally published by The Observer

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