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'My ma wants me to play for Nigeria... But I've been playing with Ireland for a long time'

Jonathan Afolabi is set to represent the Boys in Green at the U19 Euros.

Jonathan Afolabi pictured at an Ireland U19 Media Event.
Jonathan Afolabi pictured at an Ireland U19 Media Event.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

DEBATES INVOLVING IRISH players and dual allegiance are nothing new.

Nevertheless, the issue has come under further scrutiny in more recent years, especially since the early 2000s, when new Fifa rules facilitated the switching of players from representing one country at underage level to another in senior competitive matches.

And with the onset of globalisation over the past few decades, sagas such as those involving former Irish underage internationals Jack Grealish and Declan Rice are likely to become more commonplace in the coming years.

Their respective well-documented decisions to switch allegiance to the English national team means that young Irish players who are also eligible to represent other countries are increasingly being quizzed about this issue.

Jonathan Afolabi, who looks set to represent the Boys in Green at the upcoming U19 Euros, is one example of a player who could still play for both Ireland and Nigeria at senior level. His mother is especially keen for him to line out for the latter, but for now, the teenager appears intent on following in the footsteps of another young Irish-born striker with a Nigerian background, Michael Obafemi, and opt for the Republic.

“Ireland are starting to produce all types of players at different age groups,” he says. “We’ve different nationalities, but we’re all Irish and want to play for Ireland. I’m glad to keep up my record [of consistent wins] and it proves we can do anything as a team. Not just individually, we can create history together.”

In recent times, Afolabi has impressed in green, with Ireland the only country to qualify for the Euros while retaining a 100% record. With more high-profile young attackers such as Troy Parrott and Adam Idah unavailable in the elite phase of qualifying for the tournament, he stepped up impressively, scoring three goals in three games, while captaining the team on one occasion.

Perhaps surprisingly given this form, he says no Nigerian representatives have contacted him to try to tempt the player away from the Republic.

“Nothing has come up, so my head is fixed on Ireland. I’d like to represent them in the future and hopefully get that chance.

“I’ve not heard anything from Nigeria.”

That is not to say he is ruling anything out, however. Both his parents came to Ireland in the early 2000s from Nigeria, with Afolabi growing up in Dublin and retaining an affinity for both countries.

“It can be tough. I’ve thought about it a couple of times, but I’ve overthought it.

“Whereas I’ve grown up in Ireland, I know where I’m from is Tallaght in Dublin. I’ve spoken to my parents.

My ma doesn’t know much about football, but she wants me play for Nigeria, because it’s her home country. But I’ve been playing with Ireland for a long time and want to keep that going. That’s the way I see it.

“My da is involved more, he’s into the football and helps me. He gets around. He’s asked me the question and I’ve told him Ireland, but I can’t rule anything out, because it’s too early.

“I’d like to play for Ireland, that’s who I feel I should be representing.”

Wigan Athletic v Southampton - FA Youth Cup - Fourth Round - DW Stadium Jonathan Afolabi is currently unattached, having been released by Southampton. Source: EMPICS Sport

As a youngster,  Afolabi grew up idolising Chelsea’s Didier Drogba and lined out for local team Marks Celtic, before moving on to Shamrock Rovers, Lourdes Celtic and finally St Joseph’s Boys, catching the attention of both Stoke City and Southampton at the Milk Cup, and ultimately choosing to sign with the latter in 2016.

Towards the end of the most recent English football season, however, the 19-year-old was told he was surplus to requirements at Southampton.

“It was a bit of a shock, because I thought I was doing well. They saw other aspects and probably favoured someone else. I’m not in control of that.

“All I can do is keep doing what I’m doing and end up at the right club.

“[Mentality is] a very big part of it. When I was told [about being released], you could be down for the next few days, you wouldn’t feel yourself, but I chose to stay in for the rest of the day. I finished off the day as normal, on the same time as the rest of the boys. We cleaned up and did our boots. It did hurt, but it’s just another stepping stone. I’m still young and I have time to make amends in a way.

“If I did wrong there, I can fix it somewhere else. It’s only the start.”

Afolabi even sought feedback from the club as to why he was being released.

“I pulled them aside, in a professional way, to get a couple of pointers, so I can improve at the next place.

“In fairness, they told me a couple of things I could get better at, on and off the pitch. Wherever I go next, I can improve on that.

Being young, you’d be a bit arrogant to what you’re hearing. Some of the stuff, I was like: ‘Where did they get that from?’ But they give you video clips as evidence to what they’re talking about. I just put my hands up and will take it on the chin to go again.

“You get an explanation. You know what you can improve to hopefully putting you on the path to where you want to go.”

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Afolabi has since been on trial at Millwall and is currently training with Shamrock Rovers.

“Not to sign, purely to keep fit,” he adds. “I’m keeping my options open at the moment, just concentrating on the Euros.

I can’t speak on what’s gone on, but I’m not in a bad position. The way I see it is, I’ve spoken to the manager and agents, so I have got support. But I feel going to the Euros will give me better exposure than just sitting waiting for something. I’ve to make it happen myself. The Euros could be a big opportunity.”

And does he expect to continue playing football in England ultimately?

“That’s the aim, but if I have to go abroad to show my worth, that’s what I’ll do.”

He still stays in touch with fellow Dubliner Obafemi, despite Afolabi’s Saints departure, and says people have sometimes mix the two of them up.

“I was talking to him the other day on the phone. We’re still good mates. Sadly, he’s probably gone past this [U19s] stage.

“[A mix-up has] happened a couple of times. Even at the club when they’d call out the team, they’d say Michael as me. We just laugh about it. Similar names, we don’t look alike, it’s not too bad.”

The duo had been part of a substantial Irish underage contingent at the Saints.

“We’re all quite close. We all played against each other in Ireland, except Mikey and the two Wills [Ferry and Smallbone].

“So the likes of Sean Brennan, Kameron Ledwidge, Aaron O’Driscoll and Thomas O’Connor. We might have played against each other in the All-Ireland schoolboy competition.

“We meet up sometimes and chill out together.”

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Paul Fennessy

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