Ameobi shooting for Rio

It is late March 2001 and, inside a country house hotel just outside Leeds, Howard Wilkinson looks anxious. England's Under-21 manager plans to give Shola Ameobi his international debut against Finland at Barnsley the following evening but the news from Lagos hints at a potential hitch.

"I'm worried the Nigerians are going to kidnap Shola," says Wilkinson, only half joking. "They want him to play for them." In the end, England's team bus was not waylaid en route to Oakwell, the businessman of west African appearance spotted checking into the hotel had nothing to do with football and no international calls from the country of Ameobi's birth were put through to his room but Nigeria's interest in Newcastle United's dual national striker remained real.

Twelve years on, at the grand old age of 32, he is currently in Calabar, south-eastern Nigeria, as part of Stephen Keshi's squad, which faces Ethiopia in the second leg of a World Cup play-off qualifier on Saturday. Leading 2-1 from last month's first leg in Addis Ababa, Nigeria are poised to reach their fifth World Cup finals and Keshi has made it clear Ameobi is integral to his plans.

"It's been a dream this late in my career, it's almost surreal," says the striker, who won his first of four Nigeria caps last year. "It's not something I thought would happen, so to be given the chance to do something I cherish, to represent the country of my birth and to try and help Nigeria reach the World Cup finals is really exciting. It's great to have the opportunity to see a different environment, to experience something totally different."

These days, surrounded by acacias, jacarandas and oleanders and with Calabar's 28C heat warming his back, Wilkinson's West Yorkshire training camp seems like another world.

When the then England Under-21 coach introduced Ameobi from Oakwell's bench he responded by scoring twice in a 4-0 win against the Finns, collecting the first of 20 under-21 caps. At the time, the forward was fully immersed in life on Tyneside and not overly keen on revisiting his roots in Zaria, northern Nigeria, from where his family emigrated to Newcastle when he was five.

Yet as the years passed, things changed. It was not only that, despite some extravagant praise from Sven Goran-Eriksson, no senior call-up came; almost imperceptibly, Alan Shearer's long-standing understudy developed a fascination with Nigeria.

Having recovered from career-saving hip surgery in Colorado, he finally received Fifa clearance to switch international allegiance – his brother Sammy, who was born in England and is also at Newcastle, played for Nigeria Under-20s then England Under-21s – but things hit a snag last January when Shola had to withdraw from the Super Eagles squad bound for South Africa and imminent Africa Cup of Nations glory because of a gentleman's agreement with Newcastle.

"When I signed my last contract I basically gave Newcastle my word that I would miss the Africa Cup of Nations," reveals Ameobi. "They didn't want me to go. I was disappointed not to play in it but I am a man of my word and I had to stand by what I'd said but I only gave my word about the African Nations, nothing else and everything is fine now.

"Possibly playing in a World Cup finals is not something I thought was going to happen to me. I always thought I'd be sat in a bar watching the next one but I might play in Brazil now. At my age, it's refreshing to have that chance, so I'll be doing everything I can to get there."

Already he has edged in front of Senegal's Papiss Cissé in the pecking order at St James' Park. "Playing at the highest level is all I've ever wanted to do but I thought my chance to play international football had gone," says Ameobi. "It's great that Stephen Keshi has recognised what I can bring to the squad.

"Most of my family still live in Nigeria and this is something my dad has wanted me to do for a long time. He's delighted I've been given this opportunity. I have one foot in the door now and, hopefully, I can keep it open. I'm really excited."

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