William Troost-Ekong has made bruising tackles, led the defence and team vocally from the back, and even scored a penalty for Nigeria, emerging as one of the more outstanding players in this squad as they aim a fourth African title.
But the veteran defender, who faces Angola in the AFCON quarterfinals on Friday, almost did not make it to this tournament. He actually came very close to not putting on a Nigeria jersey ever again.
Last year, the 30-year-old was this close to calling time on his international career after a series of snubs from selectors saw him go a whole year without playing for the national team. The defender, who had left Watford for Salernitana last January, struggled with injury for most of the season, and saw his name left out of squad after squad by coach Jose Peseiro.
With little to no explanation, despite being fit and making the move to PAOK Saloniki in Greece where he is back to playing regular domestic and European football, he was left on the sidelines.
His last game before the Nations Cup squad was announced late last year was the pre-World Cup friendly against Portugal in November 2022, which the Super Eagles lost 4-0. Following that, he was an unused substitute twice, for the Nations Cup qualifying games against Sierra Leone in June and São Tomé e Principe in September.
He was not even called up at all for the squads in October and November. That hurt, especially for a player who, along with Leon Balogun, had formed what appeared to be Nigeria’s best defensive partnership in years, so much so they were self-christened the “oyibo wall”.
It led to some deep introspection, he told ESPN in an exclusive interview: “I wasn’t sure if I was going to play this AFCON or not and to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue with the national team either because I was weighing all my options.
“I felt that maybe the only thing that was going to stop me this time is that there was some disagreement with the coach before the tournament so I wasn’t sure if I was going to be part of the squad or not.
“I had to think about it. It was more of a decision for myself. Do I want to continue to play with Nigeria, which I have done for a long time and I have enjoyed several amazing experiences?
“Or do I want to focus more on my club football which I have been able to do and play well in the last few months because I was solely focused on PAOK and spending time with my family?”
While he was going through that uncertainty during his year in the wilderness, Troost-Ekong kept in constant contact with the team and coach, wishing them well and eventually decided he was not ready to quit yet.
He added: “I stayed in communication with the team, I was wishing them well. I also reminded the coach that I am available and I think everyone was impressed with how I was playing in the league and also the European Conference League.”
Having made the decision to play on, he fought his way back into the national team, regained his place in the starting line up in Jose Peseiro’s reimagined three centreback defence, and has been not just the lynchpin of the back five, but one of the most solid performers in a Super Eagles team that has suddenly gone from being no-hopers in the minds of their fans, to strong contenders for the title.
WTE on how Nigeria are dealing with the unpredictability of the tournament
We are considered a big team at this AFCON, but we have quickly dismissed that. Look around and see what is happening in this tournament. There is no such thing as big team, small team in the AFCON anymore. Everyone has raised their level.
Because of that, one thing that hundred percent isn’t something we can compromise on is our work rate. We are willing to do the dirty work defensively, making the runs to give people options when we have the ball. We know that if we do all those things, then our quality would come out, because there are not many teams in Africa that have more quality than us, player for player.
But you have to earn the right to win the game and that was a key message from Jay Jay Okocha when he came to speak to us. That really hit home and now you see that there is no team we have faced in this tournament that has outworked us. It is a great compliment to everyone.
WTE on lessons the team learnt from the loss against Tunisia last tournament
That was a really big lesson for us. A lot of the players that are here now were part of that experience in Cameroon and it kind of kept us very focused for the last game against Cameroon because we knew if we got carried away with the euphoria of qualifying, we could go home in the round of 16 and nobody wanted that.
The positive that I see from the 2021 AFCON is that it was a lesson that really hit home, and we learnt the hard was because you don’t want to go out of tournaments that way but of course, we learnt our lesson. With the way I see the team training and performing, and the mentality that we have now, I can say that the tournament really just started now in the knock out rounds.
No danger of underestimating Angola, then?
No, none at all. We have spoken with each other as a team. We watched their games and everyone is saying this is going to be the toughest game for us. I think the mentality is there to prepare the best way we can. We can’t play the game until Friday so I can’t be telling you what we want to do but we are definitely focused to do it.
Looking at the way you have played so far, did you have to make any changes to the way you play?
I have been with the team now for about nine years. There have always been question marks about things like whether I can pass the ball and I think I have shown that and I’m happy to keep answering them on the pitch. Now I feel calm and I feel like the more responsibility I have, or sometimes the bigger the pressure gets the better it makes me perform.
I’m really just enjoying my football. Being here now, I feel very grateful, I just want to enjoy it and I feel like with what is coming out now, this may be the best football I will be playing for Nigeria and I am grateful for it.
WTE on how much has the team’s new shape helped the team.
All of us feel comfortable. We played the same shape in the World Cup and we got results against Iceland. We played very well in the second half of the friendly against England and we were completely back in the game.
So, I think it has proven to work very well for us, and it is not just for the defenders but the way we can push away the pressure and stay very compact and actually open up the space for us to counterattack. It really suits us because we have so much space upfront. I believe it is a formation that really suits our play.
I also have to give massive compliment to all the defenders, the midfielders and even Victor Osimhen who has been helping us like a defender when we’re out of possession. It is a real collective effort and it is nice to get the recognition now as one of the defenders, but it has really been a team effort.
Nigeria’s forwards have done their part in helping on defence during this AFCON, says William Troost-Ekong. FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty ImagesWTE on how the forwards pressing high helps the team.
Oh yes, it helps us because we are also feel more comfortable pressing forward and playing with space behind us because if they can keep pressure on the ball, it is going to be difficult for their midfielders or defenders to find a good path behind our defense.
That way, we always keep the opposition players with their heads down and not have time to look out or find a good pass. You need that to start from your forwards so we have to help them by playing the high line so they don’t have to cover too much space.
It is really a combination of all things and whenever I’m playing in this tournament, I feel that our team feels like it is in sync, and I really take that as my job as well, to try and command and demand from everyone that we are on the same wave length.
How much work has the coach done to get to this point?
He has really tried to make his mark on our playing style. It took a while for it to really hit home with the players. Maybe because there were a lot of changes, but the team already inherited that discipline from the time with Gernot Rohr. We were very disciplined with set pieces but he [Peseiro] has given us a more clear playing style and I think all the puzzle pieces are falling into place and you can see the kind of football we’re playing now. It is really working.
WTE on playing with freedom
I’m enjoying myself now and when you stop thinking about how long you want to continue and free all the old experiences you have, you can enjoy it more. I’m very grateful that I get a chance to play for Nigeria, that I get to be the captain, and I’m here again for another AFCON tournament.
I just say to myself I’m a star, I’m going to give it my all, enjoy it, it is not going to be perfect but I am going to try to be perfect as long as I am going with that mindset. If I make any mistake, I trust my teammates to help me and that is the way I’m trying to play.
We are here in camp together every day since the 2nd of January, of course, it has been a long time now with this coach and when you work together every day, I think you have a better understanding that you can do a lot.
So, no more immediate thoughts of retirement?
No, I like how it is going now, I’m really enjoying it. I feel like I’m probably in the best years of my career so I would want to continue to play. But if there comes a moment where I’m no longer considered by the coach, then I would weigh out my options to think about my club football and my family.
I did have that thought in my mind in November before the AFCON started but I feel like the last three weeks here have re-energized me and I’m happy to show everyone what I can still bring to this team for some time to come and it is not something I’m thinking about now but it was something I thought about a couple of months ago.