My sister’s best friend’s mom had a best friend, and she was the witch. She could read auras, or some crazy nonsense like that. I was 19 years old when I was told about her. I was trying to become a professional soccer player in Berlin — I didn’t have time for nonsense. But I had this issue … I was injury prone. Every year I felt like I would take one step forward and two steps back in my career because of the injuries. My sister, who is 13 years older than me and also my best friend, had an idea: The witch. Maybe witch is a bad term. I’m not sure. But she was a little spooky.
When my sister first pitched me the idea, I sort of rolled my eyes, like, Yeah … I’m sure she’ll know what’s wrong with me.
“No, Leon,” she’d say to me, “She sees things.”
“Fine, fine. Let’s give it a try.”
Let’s meet the witch.
She was a middle-aged Russian woman. She didn’t look like much of a witch, or an oracle for that matter. Her eyes walked up and down me as soon as I entered the room. My eyes darted around. She started to talk to me and my sister. It was about nothing in particular really, but I think she was studying me — my energy. Her first diagnosis was that there was an hole in my aura. I was like, Alright, well, anybody could have guessed that.
She said, “It’s on your right side.”
“The hole in my aura?”
That’s where I had a scar from a bad right-shoulder injury. She had no idea about it, and she had never seen me with a shirt off … she just, felt it, I guess. Now she had my attention.
Then — and I’ll never forget this — she really blew me away.
She said, “Is this true, Leon?”
“Yes, my grandma.”
Courtesy of Leon Balogun
I was amazed. I hadn’t thought about my grandma that much since she passed when I was 16 years old. But, this lady was right. My grandma’s death had a huge effect on me, and I had never even met my grandma, who lived in Nigeria. That’s the part that was wild to me. My sister didn’t know anything about my reaction to grandma’s passing. This woman, though, she saw it. She told me I had to heal my soul, my heart, before I could become the player I wanted to be.
After we left, I didn’t completely understand if my experience with her was successful. The most important thing that came out of that day was that it got me thinking about my grandma. When I got home, my mind went straight back to the day my dad told me the news.
Because I had never met her, my dad didn’t tell me right when it happened. He actually waited a few days — that’s how distant my relationship was from her. She only spoke Yoruba. So when we talked on the phone when I was little, my dad would try to translate for us. He had never taken me to Nigeria, for reasons he didn’t make clear to me, and I only ever saw photos of my grandma.
When my dad told me, he pulled me aside in our home. I have this vivid memory of the feeling — like, this terrible, terrible feeling of sadness. I crawled up the stairs, sobbing my eyes out. I cried for an hour. My mom had to come to my room and ask me what was wrong … she couldn’t understand why I was so sad, either.
I think, what I knew at a young age was that my grandma represented a part of my life that I didn’t completely understand. I was mixed race. My mom was a German, my dad Nigerian. I was different than the other kids. And I knew that my grandma, and Nigeria, had a lot do with it.
I now wanted to understand more about that part of my life. And because of a witch, I knew how important that part of me truly was.
My dad used to walk three miles every day before school when he was growing up in Nigeria. I knew this because he never let me forget it. It was one of a handful of stories he would tell me about his childhood. He moved to Germany in 1966, learned the language, got his diploma and met my mother. He was the blueprint for immigrants. He made it sound easy — being a foreigner who looked different — but I knew it wasn’t. Because even though Germany is a progressive country, there is that group of people, especially in sport, who still lurk around waiting to knock you down if you’re different.
I met one of them when I was playing U-16 in Berlin, in 2003. I had given up on my dreams of being Thierry Henry or Ronaldinho, so I was playing at center back. The other team had this huge striker. He was bad news. I played really well, and I kept him in my pocket. We were up 1–0 at halftime, and as I was walking to the locker room, the striker kicked the ball at my head. It missed me by about an inch. Woosh. I turned, and he was yelling at me. He was calling me the n-word, using other racial slurs.
Nobody did anything. There were people all around us, and nobody did anything. After the game, while we were still at the park, I told my dad about him kicking the ball at me.
“Leon, you must always be calm. You’re smarter than they are. You’re better than they are.”
Then I told him what the boy said to me. And that, for the first time in my life, was when I saw my dad lose his cool. He had this look on his face. I told him I wanted to go home because Mom said she was making a nice dinner.
“No, we have to fix something.”
Courtesy of Leon Balogun
So we waited in the parking lot for the boy to come out with his parents. They did. And my dad let them have it.
“Hey, how can you raise your kid like this? Do you know what he said to my boy? We all come here to play football, and you lost, and that’s the game. But your son is 15 — he’s 15! — and he acts like this. I hope that you can one day fill his heart with love, instead of hate.”
Their back-and-forth went on for awhile, and the other parents weren’t very nice. But I will remember what my dad said forever: Love, instead of hate. He was very upset in that moment, but he used empathy over rage. And I began to understand, little by little, how he made being an immigrant look so easy. I think because my dad worked so hard to integrate into society in Germany, it gave me the opportunity to do the opposite and connect with my Nigerian roots.
I never supported the German national team, mostly because I thought they were arrogant and their football was boring to watch. Even in 2006, when Germany hosted and the whole country had World Cup mania — I secretly cheered for them to lose. Because I was a kid, and I was rebellious. And because, even though I felt in my mind that I was just as German as all the other kids, a lot of people didn’t see me like that.
I was always asked, “Where are you from?” Or, “How long have have you been here?”
I would think to myself sometimes, Maybe I was meant to be Nigerian.
One night in March, my phone rang. It was a Nigerian number … it was Stephen Keshi, the Nigerian National Team manager. I was sweating as soon as he introduced himself. I wanted him to say the words I had thought about for so long. He spoke for awhile about how he wasn’t totally familiar with me, but he liked how I played.Then he said it: “I would like to invite you to be a Super Eagle.”
Those words … they meant so much to me. It meant validation for every step of my footballing journey. It meant happiness for my family. Most of all, it meant an opportunity to go to Nigeria.
And that … that was everything to me.
Julie Glassberg/The Players’ Tribune When I told my dad the news, he was skeptical. “Are you sure it was the coach?” he said.
And he had a point. I don’t want to speak poorly about the people of Nigeria, but there are some that are real scam artists. They spoil our name. I think that was a part of why my dad never took me back there.
“Yes, Dad, it was the coach. I even listened to his voice on YouTube right after to make sure it was him!”
He warned me about some of the things I could encounter in Nigeria. It wasn’t quite the celebratory phone call I had played out in my head, but that was my dad, always preparing me. But he was proud, I could hear that in his voice. I knew, as much as I understood about myself, about my father, I would learn even more on this trip.
My first impression of Nigeria was probably same as that of any person who has lived in Germany his whole life: Man, it’s hot — heat like I’ve never experienced. I flew down with Anthony Ujah, a striker playing for Koln at the time. He helped me prepare for the trip a bit, too. Tips on what to do, how to act, all that stuff. When we stepped off the plane — the craziest thing was that people knew who I was. Some smiled and asked for photos. I couldn’t believe it. Just as I knew that in Germany I would always be seen as black, I assumed that in Nigeria I’d be seen as another white guy on a business trip. But they knew me, they were happy for me. Maybe I was meant to be Nigerian.
We landed in Abuja, the capital city. We were there for a few days before training started. When we drove to practice that first day, I was listening to music, headphones in. “Nobody Knows” by August Alsina was playing. I like that song because, as somebody with a little fame, people sometimes seem to forget that I go through things, too. As I was listening, I saw a boy on a skateboard on the street. He had a disability. He had to sit on the board and use his hands to get around — something you would never see in Germany. And I just started to cry. I think, because I had seen some of the poverty in the city — in this beautiful city, with wonderful people — that it just sort of put things into perspective for me. It made understand how fortunate I was to grow up in one of the world’s greatest countries, to have the family I did. It was a humbling few days, and that boy’s problems made mine seem so inconsequential.
Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images
It was a such an important trip for me, such a great trip. I felt a sense of … healing. I felt like I was connecting with a part of me that had been lost — or better yet, never truly found — a long time ago. I love Nigerian food; I love the culture. Everyone is always playing music, laughing … trying to have the best time. I felt at home. And I understood that I could have two homes.
I want to make both of them proud in Russia at the World Cup. Because Germany gave me this opportunity to have success with Nigeria. It is my footballing heritage. I get that. But when I wear that Super Eagles kit … it feels so good. And when we beat Zambia in October 2017 to punch our ticket to Russia, it felt amazing. I remember the final whistle, our stadium in Uyo erupting. I fell to my knees in tears. John Obi Mikel, our captain, came up to me.
“No, no, you don’t get to cry. You don’t get to cry. We’re going to Russia!”
We’re going to Russia. It still feels surreal to say. I just can’t wait.
I know when we get there and I hear the national anthem, I’ll feel that much closer to my family, to my two homes, to my grandma.
And that, more than anything, is going to make the World Cup incredible.