From England youth to AFCON star: Lookman plays leading role for Nigeria

Ademola Lookman has stolen the limelight from star man Victor Osimhen on Nigeria's run to the Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals, with the former England youth international scoring all their goals so far in the knockout stage.

AFP , Tuesday 6 Feb 2024,
Angola s defender #21 Eddie Afonso (L) fights for the ball with Nigeria s forward #18 Ademola Lookman during the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2024 quarter-final football match between Nigeria and Angola at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium in Abidjan on February 2, 2024. AFP

While reigning African footballer of the year Osimhen has not found the net at the tournament since the Super Eagles' opening 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea, Lookman bagged a brace in the 2-0 defeat of Cameroon in the last 16 and followed that with the only goal in the 1-0 defeat of Angola in the quarter-finals.

Nigeria may need Lookman to extend that run against South Africa on Wednesday, with Osimhen a major doubt for the game with an abdominal problem.

Most analysis of Nigeria has focused on Osimhen's lack of goals as well as the approach adopted by coach Jose Peseiro, who has successfully put the emphasis on not conceding.

"I have chosen another strategy. The players believe in it -- don't concede goals because we will score at least one," Peseiro said in one press briefing in Abidjan.

His side have kept four straight clean sheets en route to the semi-finals, following a switch to a three-man central defence.

However, the 26-year-old Lookman is the difference-maker just now and has quickly made it impossible for Peseiro to drop him.

That is despite the formidable depth available to Nigeria in attack, with AC Milan's Samuel Chukwueze, Kelechi Iheanacho and the veteran Ahmed Musa kicking their heels on the bench.

Perhaps Lookman never would have started in the first place but for an injury to Victor Boniface which ruled the Bayer Leverkusen forward out just before the AFCON began.

Yet there is a sense that every Nigeria player is pulling in the same direction as they set their sights on winning a fourth Cup of Nations crown for Africa's most populous country.

"We are behind each other. We don't take anything for granted. I think that shows in our work ethic, how we fight for each other, how we defend, how we attack," Lookman said after collecting the award for man of the match against Cameroon.

- Settled at Atalanta -

He was not part of the Nigerian team that bowed out of the last AFCON in the last 16 in Cameroon in 2022, but that was the year big changes happened in Lookman's career.

The Nigeria Football Federation had already been trying for some time to get London-born Lookman to change allegiance despite having represented England as a youth, just like Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses had done previously.

He eventually made his debut in a decisive World Cup qualifying play-off against Ghana in March 2022 and has not looked back.

"Both of my parents are Nigerian and my two older sisters were also born in Nigeria. So I was the only one out of us to be born here," he told British newspaper The Guardian in 2021.

Lookman began his career at Charlton Athletic but was in the Premier League with Everton by the time he played in the England team that won the Under-20 World Cup in 2017 alongside the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Dominic Solanke and Fikayo Tomori.

He has since played for RB Leipzig, Fulham and Leicester City, but is now flourishing at international level at a time when he appears in better form than ever in his club career.

A move to Italy to sign for Atalanta in August 2022 has been key, as he quickly settled and scored 15 goals in his first season there.

Lookman has added seven more so far in this campaign, and playing under Gian Piero Gasperini for one of Serie A's best sides has helped him become established in the Nigeria side.

"I definitely have a defensive role, to help the team within the structure, but that defensive role also allows me to attack," Lookman told The Times in an interview last year of his club manager.

"Italian football is known for structure... They're so drilled on structure here."

From Bergamo to Bouake, where Peseiro's well-drilled team face South Africa as Lookman aims to take a step closer to adding the AFCON title with Nigeria to that Under-20 World Cup winner's medal he picked up in the colours of England.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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Group A W D L P
2 1 0 7
Equatorial Guinea
2 1 0 7
Cote d Ivoire
1 0 2 3
Guinea Bissau
0 0 3 0
Group B W D L P
Cape Verde
2 1 0 7
0 3 0 3
0 2 1 2
0 2 1 2
Group C W D L P
3 0 0 9
1 1 1 4
1 1 1 4
0 0 3 0
Group D W D L P
2 1 0 7
Burkina Faso
1 1 1 4
1 0 2 3
0 2 1 2
Group E W D L P
1 2 0 5
South Africa
1 1 1 4
1 1 1 4
0 2 1 2
Group F W D L P
2 1 0 7
DR Congo
0 3 0 3
0 2 1 2
0 2 1 2