Fulham star and Nigerian international Sone Aluko in this interview with Completesportsnigeria.com's JAMES AGBEREBI in Lagos speaks about his ambassadorial role with COD United, Fulham's Premier League promotion heartbreak, Super Eagles 2019 AFCON qualifier and England's Nigeria-fuelled FIFA U-20 World Cup triumph…
What is the concept behind the COD Ambassador's Cup which is in its third edition this year?
The concept behind it was when I started coming back to Nigeria more regularly, I was already in grassroots football. I was keen to start something on my own or partner with someone who shared the same value as I did. I met COD and I have known them for five years now, three years ago we made it official, I became an ambassador. The concept was just to give the youth the platform to come and play. Every year it's grown, we are even spreading out. We are going to universities and I am going to talk to universities. So I want to invest in Nigerian grassroots football.
What inspired you to get involved in this exercise?
One reason that I am doing this is because I want to be like a pioneer for the other Nigerian players who have gone abroad and who can come back and recreate these same things. If I can give opportunities to thousands of kids, imagine 20 people doing something like this, we are now talking hundreds of thousands of kids. So if it is done well, it can be recreated. So I am very keen on it being done well, to make sure it works so that other players can feel like doing something like this. I look at the next few years of it growing.
How has it been for you as an ambassador of COD United?
It's very fulfilling. I feel very blessed to be able to provide this opportunity. I didn't grow up in the Nigerian system so this is me investing. I don't see it as giving back because I didn't take from this system. There's talent here but the problem in Nigeria is lack of opportunity. And the few opportunities these players have, a lot of them miss it because they don't see it as a big opportunity. So this is my way of letting the boys know that the opportunity is there for them. I know not all of them will be professional footballers but they can still learn some things from sports like discipline, intergrity, how to conduct themselves which in any work of life will help them.
And what are the challenges you have faced as an ambassador of COD United?
I have been fortunate when it comes to challenges as an ambassador for COD United. In COD United, I have a great team, a great infrastructure. If it was me alone, it would have taken me a couple of years to get the right team in place, the right people to organise it because I can only be in Nigeria two weeks in a year because of other committments. So it's key getting the right people in place. It's been relatively easy for me, so I am blessed. I am fortunate and credit to COD United as a team, City of David, the church, for backing and supporting and we are starting to see the fruit of our labour.
How would you describe Fulham's performance last season and what are their chances of getting promotion to the Premier League?
The challenge that every Championship club face is how to get to the Premier League. I played 50 games last season which is a lot of games. For me the Championship (the English second tier) is tougher than the Premier League. Fulham is a good club, they have some unbelievable structure, they've been in the Premier League before. We have a good coach, we have a good team, we were very close this year (gaining promotion to the EPL) but we came short in the play-offs. Next year we will go further, I think we will grow as a team, we will be stronger and I believe it is a team that can get promoted.
Do you think the Super Eagles still have a chance of qualifying for the 2019 AFCON following their 2-0 home loss to South Africa in the qualifiers on Saturday?
We just lost one game. The worry is not the loss this time, but the manner of the loss. You can lose any game in football but one thing I know about the Super Eagles is that they have top players. We have a very strong squad, I believe in the manager (Gernot Rohr). Since he came in he has done well. So this looks more like a blip than this is the way it's going to be. I still think Super Eagles will qualify, I have complete faith in them.
Do you still nurse the ambition of being invited again to the Super Eagles?
I have always said that if I get invited by the Super Eagles I will come but I have not been called of late. They've brought in this kind of rule where if you are not playing in the top leagues in your country, they won't call you to the Super Eagles. In principle I understand it but in practicality, it doesn't really make sense. Some players would be in a big club and are not playing regularly. The English Championship is the fifth richest league in the world, that's a fact. In other top leagues in the world, it's not as strong as the Championship. Other countries who have players in the Championship are willing to pick from there and these countries are presently doing better than Nigeria. Funny enough, when I was in the Premier League, I wasn't always called, that rule wasn't in place yet. I have just been unfortunate, if you want to call it bad luck in that sense, and when I played for the Super Eagles, I feel I played well. For now, I just want to focus on my club career, keep working hard, keep playing well. Like in the last season, I had a very good year. I know I will be pushing again to get back into the Super Eagles team and when that chance comes, I will take it.
England were crowned FIFA U-20 World Cup champions for the first time ever. What do you think was the secret of the team's success?
I think they took the best players that they have. When I was in the U-20 team of England, many players didn't go to the World Cup because their first team didn't allow them. But now, these players are not crucial to their first team so they were allowed to go but they are top players. Players like Dominic Solanke and Ademola Lookman are not key players for their clubs so they were allowed to go which made the team gel. And the route they had to the final was somewhat favourable because all the teams they faced were teams they could handle. So for me that team is fantastic, England have only won one World Cup ever in 1966 and it was on home soil. So for these young players to go out and win this competition, these players are pioneers and they've done very well.
The England U-20s had six players of Nigerian descent (Dominic Solanke, Ademola Lookman, Ovie Ejaria, Sheyi Ojo, Fikayo Tomori, Joshua Onomah). What do you think should be done to make these players switch their allegiance to Nigeria?
The onus is on Nigeria and not the players. Nigeria have to make it attractive for these players to leave the path they've known. After being in the English system, and Nigeria who have never invested in their career invite them, it would be difficult. Even me that can be described as a success story, I only have six caps, I haven't started in a competitive game for Super Eagles but I have scored two goals and people said I have done well. So it is the responsibility for Nigeria to make it attractive for them which I think is what they are trying to do now in getting these players.
But left to you, where would you want them to play?
If I am being selfish, I will tell them to play for Nigeria because they will make the team stronger.