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For African Manchester United fans, Odion Ighalo’s success means more

To see Ighalo in Red is to see someone - in whom you can see yourself - live out their dreams

Manchester United v Club Brugge - UEFA Europa League Round of 32: Second Leg Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

There’s likely no other feeling that rivals stepping out on the football pitch for the first time, playing for your dream team, dressed in the kit bearing your side’s crest. The vast majority of us will never know that pleasure. For a select few of us though, seeing Odion Ighalo represent Manchester United is the closest we will get to that experience. A dramatic, last-minute loan signing on the final day of the January transfer window (what a much simpler time that was), the Nigerian embodies the ultimate United fan literally manifesting his dreams, and for that I have nothing but pride and respect for my fellow African.

I’m fully aware that Ighalo isn’t the first (nor won’t be the last) African to don the United red kit in the club’s storied history. When analysts release their own “United All-Decade” team ten years from now, the 30-year-old might even be long forgotten. Nonetheless, there’s no denying the impact he’s had in his short tenure under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and what that means for the community he represents in the Motherland.

Admittedly, I wasn’t fully convinced Ighalo would supersede expectations so fast. Thankfully, I was proven wrong from his debut. Watching the former Watford man play, there’s a sense of pride that resonates with the thousands of supporters inside the grounds and the millions more watching worldwide. The touches, tackles, or passes don’t have to be extraordinary, but it validates his 2016 statements made long before he would be ever linked with this club:

“There has been speculation from Spain and Italy but I’ve played there and now want to play in England.

“I don’t think I will be moving but I’m not sure I’d say no if [Manchester] United called. They were my team growing up.

“I loved watching Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke on TV. They were my idols and playing at Old Trafford has always been a dream.”

The best thing about Ighalo’s presence is just how quickly he fits into the system. You can tell that he has studied “The United way,” which has often been criticized in recent times because some say it doesn’t mirror modern football. But United have achieved an incredible, unprecedented amount of success in the Premier League era playing this way — bold, brash, relentless.

Unfortunately, fans need no reminding of the recent run of form the first team has been producing. Marred by horrid leadership at the managerial level and above since 2013, I look forward to the days of no longer celebrating a draw against a bottom-table side. Sadly, we’re likely another campaign from avoiding these circumstances.

Thankfully though, before the COVID-19 outbreak, United were on their way to rectifying these troubles and Ighalo was one of the catalysts to those achievements.

I grew up loving Samuel Eto’o. A fellow Cameroonian, I wanted nothing more than to see the Douala-born striker wear anything Manchester United. While this vision never materialized, the back-to-back Treble winner was my own poster child for prosperity. Someone who looked like me, from the same nation as me, excelling at the game I once played and now have the honor of writing about.

While Eto’o’s playing days are over, I’m comforted in knowing that somewhere in Lagos, Manchester, or even the United States, an adolescent Manchester United fan was recently introduced to someone who was once in their position and who now calls Old Trafford home. For that, I’m all the more satisfied that Odion Ighalo’s dream of playing for his boyhood club is no longer just that.