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Blood, sweat and tears: How William Troost-Ekong showed character in Nigeria’s AFCON 2023 campaign

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William Troost-Ekong was Nigeria’s joint top-scorer, alongside Ademola Lookman in Nigeria’s AFCON 2023 campaign in Ivory Coast.

Super Eagles and  PAOK Thessaloniki defender, William Troost-Ekong, showed character despite failing to lead his team to victory in Ivory Coast, Soccernet.ng reports.

Ekong, 30, featured in all but one of the games Nigeria played at the AFCON 2023 tournament, scoring three goals as the Super Eagles reached the final, writing his name into the history books.

Where did it all start?

Ekong was born in the Netherlands to a Dutch mother and a Nigerian Father and played for the Netherlands youth team before opting to play for the Super Eagles, making his debut in Nigeria’s AFCON qualifier against Chad in 2015.

He represented Nigeria at the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, winning the bronze medal in the side captained by John Mikel Obi, and afterwards became a regular for the Super Eagles, forming a great partnership in defence with Leon Balogun.

He represented Nigeria at the 2018 World Cup and the AFCON tournaments in 2019, 2022 and 2024. He won the bronze medal in 2019 and the silver medal in 2024.

Where things drifted apart

The 2022 AFCON tournament took a different turn in the club career of the 30-year-old. Watford F.C., the club he was playing for at the time didn’t want him to play for the country, but Ekong insisted on representing the Super Eagles.

With the coat of arms of the country inked on his arm, his loyalty to the green and whites was not to be questioned, but when he returned from the tournament, his spot in the team was lost, and he barely featured till the end of the season.

He joined PAOK in the Greek Super League and started playing football regularly, only to fall out of favour with Jose Peserio.

Several reports claimed that the Portuguese tactician wanted his defenders to be comfortable on the ball, and Ekong didn’t fit that stereotype, leaving the defender with no minutes of International Football under his belt.

I still want to play for Nigeria. I’m one of the senior players now, but if I’m called, I want to be there, to play in the AFCON tournament and possibly win it,” the 1.91m tall defender told Soccernet.ng after his side’s win over Frankfurt at the Deutsche Bank Park in the UEFA Europa Conference League.

Rejuvenation

The former Tottenham Hotspur man was included in Jose Peseiro’s 25-man squad list to travel to Ivory Coast and many were surprised when the coach included him in the starting line-up in the opener against Equatorial Guinea, handing him the captain’s armband.

He took each game in his stride, helping the team keep four clean sheets. He also scored three goals, two from the penalty spot, showcasing his ability to lead on both ends and was the team’s joint-highest goal scorer at the AFCON tournament.

Ekong put his glory aside during Nigeria’s penalty shoot-out against South Africa. He was scheduled to go fifth, but after Ola Aina’s miss, he opted to go to further help the team in their quest for victory, before Kelechi Iheanacho sealed the win emphatically with a well-struck penalty.

The defender also played through pain as he was struggling with a knee injury he picked up in training ahead of Nigeria’s final group game against Guinea-Bissau.

His treatment by Watford, how he was despised by the coach, and how he felt didn’t matter to him, the team needed him and he stepped up, showing leadership and character, and most importantly letting his football do the talking.

With the most goals by a defender in the history of AFCON and the Best Player of the Tournament award in the bag, William Troost-Ekong inspired Nigerians and football fans all around the world to keep getting the work done in the face of criticism.

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