The Nigerian Gunners


By Peter Akinbo.

This week, our series on Nigerian stars, who played in their numbers for foreign clubs, continue with North London giants Arsenal the focus, writes PETER AKINBO

Nwankwo Kanu

The first Nigerian to play at the Emirates was Kanu, who moved to the North London club in February 1999 on a £4.15m move, after just 12 league games and one goal for Serie A giants Inter.

He made his debut against Sheffield United in the FA Cup and assisted a controversial goal, but the match was later replayed. Despite the events overshadowing his debut, Kanu’s career was quickly revived at Arsenal. He scored his first goal for the club in the next round of the Cup competition against Derby County, coming off the bench to net the only goal of the game.

He quickly became known for his goals scoring prowess from the bench, scoring important goals against Sheffield Wednesday, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa as a substitute. He became very popular among the fans for his two-finger salute, which started in 1999 against Middlesbrough – something that he later explained was based on the team’s nickname, The Gunners.

Kanu was named African Footballer of The Year for the second time in 1999, and in the 1999/2000 season he scored 17 times in 50 matches for the Gunners, including a hat-trick in 15 minutes against Chelsea in October 1999 to turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 victory for his side.

Along with other stars like Thierry Henry and Robert Pires, Kanu is a member of the “Invincibles”, the Arsenal side that finished the 2003/04 season of the Premier League undefeated. He played 197 games for Arsenal, scoring 44 goals. In the summer of 2004, after his contract with Arsenal ended, he moved to West Bromwich Albion on a free transfer. In 2008, Kanu was voted 13th in the “Gunners’ Greatest 50 Players” poll.

In the summer of 2006, Kanu played as a guest for Arsenal in Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial game, the first match to be played in Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium. The game was tied 1-1 before Kanu scored the winning goal, making him the third person to score in the stadium.

Alex Iwobi

Iwobi joined Arsenal with a lot expected from the cousin of Austin ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha while he was still at primary school in 2004, but came close to being released by the club twice, first at the age of 14 and again at 16.

On October 27, 2015, Iwobi made his first-team debut for the club, starting in a 3-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in the Round of 16 of the League Cup. He made his Premier League debut four days later in a 3-0 win against Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium, as a stoppage time substitute for Mesut Özil. Iwobi then made his Champions League debut as an 85th-minute substitute in a 5-1 defeat against Bayern Munich.

After getting a first Champions League start in a 3-1 away defeat to Barcelona, Iwobi went on to score two goals in his first two Premier League starts in wins against Everton and Watford respectively.

In the following season, the midfielder went on to feature throughout Arsenal’s victorious FA Cup campaign of 2016/17, winning 2-1 against Chelsea in the final. He achieved further success with Arsenal in the 2017 Community Shield, in which Arsenal again beat Chelsea, this time on penalties.

In May 2019 he scored Arsenal’s only goal in the 2019 UEFA Europa League final, in a 4–1 defeat to Chelsea.
On August 8, 2019, Iwobi signed a five-year contract with Everton. According to the BBC, Arsenal received a fee of an initial £28m, rising to £34m with potential add-ons.

Chuba Akpom

Akpom joined Arsenal at the age of six and made his debut for the Arsenal U-18 side at 15, and signed his first professional contract with Arsenal on October 10, 2012, a day after turning 17.

In December 2012, Akpom received his first callup into the Arsenal senior squad as an unused substitute in a 2-1 Champions League defeat to Olympiakos. He made 20 U-21 Premier League appearances during the 2012/13 season and scored 13 goals, including 10 goals in 10 games in the Elite Group stage.

In the lead-up to the 2013/14 season, Akpom was selected for Arsenal’s pre-season tour of Asia and scored four goals in three games.

Akpom made his competitive debut in a 3-1 Premier League win over Sunderland on September 14, 2013, coming on in the third minute of added time as a substitute for the injured Olivier Giroud. Akpom’s second Arsenal appearance came in a League Cup third round tie away to West Bromwich Albion September 25. He replaced goals scorer Thomas Eisfeld after 82 minutes and with the score at 1–1 at full-time, the game entered extra time. Akpom played the full scoreless extra time period and scored Arsenal’s third penalty in the ensuing shootout, helping Arsenal to a win. He scored three goals in four UEFA Youth League appearances towards the end of 2013.

Akpom then grabbed a hat-trick in a 6-1 FA Youth Cup fourth round demolition of Peterborough United on January 6, 2014.

Before his treble against Peterborough, precisely December 30, 2013, it was reported that League One sides Brentford, Peterborough United, Leyton Orient and MK Dons were in a four-way battle to sign Akpom on loan.
Brentford emerged as the favourites to land the striker, due to the club’s head of recruitment, Shaun O’Connor, having originally signed Akpom while working for Arsenal. The loan was thrown into doubt due to injuries suffered by Arsenal strikers Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner in early January 2014, but was completed January 9, 2014, with Akpom signing for a month.

He had further loan stints at Coventry City, Nottingham Forest, Hull City, Brighton and Sint-Truiden, before he finally moved away from the Emirates, joining Greek side PAOK in 2018.

Semi Ajayi

Shortly before he was due to make his debut for the Charlton first team, Ajayi caught the eye of the Gunners. The Nigeria international joined the Arsenal Academy on a two-year deal after impressing as a trialist with the club in September 2013.

Ajayi made his Arsenal U-21 debut as a trialist against Blackburn Rovers on August 30, 2013, scoring with a header in a 3-0 win. The defender, who first featured for Arsenal’s senior team in a friendly against Boreham Wood, made the Arsenal bench four times during the 2014/15 season as an unused substitute against Hull City, Stoke City and Newcastle in the Premier League, as well as in the home League Cup defeat by Southampton.

Ajayi never made a competitive appearance for the Arsenal first team before he moved to Cardiff City, following the end of his contract at Arsenal.

Folarin Balogun

Balogun joined Arsenal at the age of eight after being scouted while playing for Sunday League side, Aldersbrook. Before trialling with Arsenal, he had trialled with North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and nearly signed for them.

In 2017 he was an integral part of Trevor Bumstead’s Arsenal U-16 side that won the Liam Brady Cup, beating Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Juventus respectively.

He then signed a professional contract in February 2019.
In July 2020, after failing to agree a new contract with Arsenal, he was linked with a transfer away from the club, including a proposed £8m sale to Brentford.

He made his senior debut in the Europa League on October 29, 2020, coming on as a substitute in the 74th minute in a group stage match against Dundalk. He scored his first senior goal a month later on November 26, 2020, in the group stage of the same competition against Molde.

On April 26, 2021, Balogun signed a new long-term contract with the club and made his Premier League debut in a 2-0 loss against newly promoted Brentford August 13, 2021.

In the summer of 2022, he joined Ligue 1 club Reims on a loan deal until the end of the season and the striker has impressed at the French club, scoring 18 goals in the French topflight, and sits ahead megastars Lionel Messi and Neymar in the top scorers chart.

Born in the New York to Nigerian parents but raised in England, Balogun is eligible to represent Nigeria, USA and England at senior international level, even though he’s represented the US and England at youth levels.

Kelechi Nwakali

Nwakali started his career at the Diamond Football Academy in Nigeria. After his fine performances at the 2015 U-17 World Cup, where he won the Golden Ball, he signed with Arsenal.
On September 2, 2019, Nwakali joined Spanish Segunda División side SD Huesca on a three-year deal. After leaving the league leaders, the midfielder thanked Arsenal for his time with them, despite not making a first-team appearance.

Ethan Nwaneri

Nwaneri joined Arsenal at nine. At 14, the UK-born player of Nigerian descent was already playing for their U-18 side as a midfielder.

Nwaneri started the 2022/23 season playing for U-18s, but he was quickly advanced to the club’s U-21 side. Having made a sole appearance in the 2022/23 Premier League 2, he joined the first team for training in September, and made his first senior match-day squad September 18, when he was named as a substitute for the Premier League match against Brentford.

Coming off the bench to replace Fábio Vieira in second-half stoppage time, he became the youngest player ever to appear in the Premier League – breaking the record previously held by Harvey Elliott, and the all-time English topflight record held since August 1964 by former Sunderland goalkeeper Derek Forster, by three days.

He also became Arsenal’s youngest-ever player in any competition, breaking the previous record of 16 years and 177 days set by Cesc Fàbregas in the 2003/04 League Cup.

In the post-match press conference, manager Mikel Arteta explained that they had to name Nwaneri and two other U-21 players on the bench because the first team had several injuries.
He is eligible to represent Nigeria and England at senior international level.