Nigeria forward Odion Ighalo in an interview with FIF+ discusses Al Hilal’s ambitious quest to beat the likes of Flamengo and Real Madrid to the Club World Cup trophy in Morocco, the passion of his club’s fans, his admiration for Salem Aldawsari, Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe, and his Qatar 2022 experience
You suddenly joined Al Hilal just days before their Club World Cup debut last year…
It was exciting that they were playing in the Club World Cup and part of the reason I joined them, because I wanted to experience that. I was happy to join them. Straight after I joined them, we played in the tournament. It was great. I enjoyed every bit of it. I was happy, even though it was very tough playing against big teams like Chelsea. It was a great experience for me and the team.
You scored in a 6-1 thrashing of Al Jazira in your opener, while you gave Chelsea a really tough test in a 1-0 loss in the semi-finals. How would you assess Al Hilal’s campaign?
That campaign was good. The way we played against Chelsea, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we gave it everything we had that day. We fought from the first minute to the last. Unfortunately, we lost, but I think we can be really satisfied with what we did in that game. We were really happy.
How did you feel when the AFC announced Al Hilal would represent Asia at the upcoming Club World Cup?
I was very happy. We were waiting, looking forward to [the decision], hoping. We knew there were going to be some big games played in Morocco, so we’re really excited and looking forward to it. It’s always a great honour to play in these types of games against big teams. So, we’re working hard and looking forward to the tournament. The atmosphere is always different in this type of tournament, and given what Morocco achieved in the World Cup, you’re going to see a lot of people turn up for the games. It’s big teams, it’s going to be huge for Morocco, and we’re really excited to be a part of it.
What is Al Hilal’s target for the tournament?
(Laughs) This is a very ambitious club. They don’t understand losing. Since I joined, every tournament we go out there to win. The league, the Champions League, the King’s Cup, the Club World Cup. Every game we play is like a final. When you put on the shirt of Al Hilal, you always have to win. We want to go for every trophy. It’s exactly the same for this Club World Cup.
So, you’re confident Al Hilal can beat the likes of Flamengo and Real Madrid?
Everything is possible in football. Nowadays you can’t predict what’s going to happen. If you work hard and fight hard on the field of play you can do anything. Look at Morocco at the World Cup, for instance. Nobody gave them a chance. They got to the semi-final and they almost got to the final. I believe Al Hilal can fight and get to the final and win it, because in football it’s possible to do anything when you work hard and believe in yourself.
What are the Al Hilal fans like?
They don’t understand what losing is. They love football. As soon as I joined the club, I realised it is all about winning, winning, winning. Always. They always want to win no matter what tournament you’re playing in. It doesn’t matter how or where the team in playing, they always travel there and support the team. It’s going to be great for them again. I’ve been getting messages from a lot of fans saying they are excited. They’re coming out to the Club World Cup in Morocco to support us. We’re very happy. They always support us – even in our bad moments. Without them, it would be far more difficult. They are our 12th man.
You must be pleased with your own goalscoring form?
I’m happy. Strikers enjoy goals. Sometimes the goals don’t come, but I work hard and give my best to contribute. It’s a team effort. My target is to help the team win, to help the team keep progressing. Sometimes I score goals, sometimes I don’t, but I’m happy as long as we’re winning. As a striker though, you want to score goals to boost your confidence. I try to get a goal in every game I play. If not, I try to provide an assist. But ultimately, as long as my teams wins, I’m happy.
You could come up against a great No9 in Morocco. What do you think about Karim Benzema?
For me, at the moment, he’s the best striker [in the world]. He’s been incredible over the last two years. I’m very happy that he’s been winning awards.
Since you joined Al Hilal, which of your teammates has impressed you the most?
We have a lot of really good players in this team, but I think some of our players who went to the World Cup. Salem Aldawsari is one of the best players in Asia. Salman Alfaraj, the captain, is another.
The Saudi Arabia hero – who stunned Lionel Messi and Argentina – has previously made his mark on the biggest stage.
What did you make of Saudi Arabia’s Qatar 2022 campaign?
I was there. I went to Qatar to watch all Saudi Arabia’s games. I have 12 players at my club who were representing Saudi Arabia at the World Cup, so I simply had to be there. I was really supporting them. It was incredible when they beat Argentina and two of my teammates scored the goals. It was a real moment of joy for them, and for me. I was really happy for them. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia didn’t reach the next round, but I think they did really well.
These sound like real camaraderie in the Al Hilal squad.
Yeah, there is. We’re team-mates, we always support each other – on the field, off the field. We always have each other’s backs. We have an amazing team spirit.
Saudi Arabia aside, what did you make of the World Cup?
It was one of the best World Cups I’ve seen. A lot of teams did well. Messi did what he has always wanted to do. Mbappe, a young guy, gave everything but unfortunately couldn’t win the World Cup. I was very impressed with Mbappe. And Morocco were amazing. We have taken inspiration from them. If Morocco can do it, of course Al Hilal can do it too. A lot of teams who have been called underdogs have sprung surprises. We know we can achieve the same against big teams at the Club World Cup.