Picture: Brian Idowu interviewed before Amar Perm faced off against Lokomotiv Moscow in 2014. Source: Рыбакова Елена.
At a time where more and more foreigners are naturalized to fill the spots on the Russian national team, and Russian youngsters struggle to earn playing time in the Russian Football Premier League, it is irony at its cruelest that the country could soon end up losing one of the few youngsters who has actually taken the difficult journey from talent to RFPL regular.
The player is Amkar Perm’s defender Brian Idowu who has caught the eye of the Super Eagles. Idowu’s father is Nigerian while his mother is half Nigerian half Russian, which makes him eligble for dual citizenship. In fact, he was even called up to Nigeria’s World Cup qualifier against Algeria in November, but due to Russia’s law on immigration, there wasn’t enough time for Idowu to get his paper work in order to apply for dual citizenship, meaning he had to be excluded for the squad, and is yet to earn his first cap.
As a child however, Idowu didn’t consider himself Nigerian. Growing up in St. Petersburg, Brian Idowu was just like his friends. He went to school, played football and dreamt about one day playing for local side Zenit St. Petersburg’s first team. In 1999, when Idowu was seven, he joined Zenit’s famous academy, the same year Andrey Arshavin received his debut for the first team, and as a kid it looked like Idowu could actually follow in the footsteps of Arshavin.
Racism forced Idowu away from Zenit
When he became a teenager however, things suddenly changed. “Things never got further than training sessions with the youth team,” Idowu commented on the website of his current club Amkar Perm two years ago. “Then it was hinted to me that with my skin colour the path to the main team was unfeasible. The reason was the fans, who don’t like dark-skinned players.”
Before that, Idowu had never considered the colour of his skin an issue, he said.
“In high school, I did not often think about those issues [racism], but when I got older, I learned about skinheads but I did not often come in contact with them. One day, though, in the metro my friend spotted a group of them and shouted to me “Run!”. My parents were always worried about this and I was not able to move around in the city freely,” he told Amkar’s website.
Eventually Idowu left Zenit on a free transfer, without ever featuring for the first team, and in 2010, at the age of 18, he joined Amkar for whom he received his debut two years later.
Idowu found happiness in Perm
Despite the early debut, it took some time, and a season on loan at home town club Dinamo St. Petersburg, for Idowu to break through for Amkar, and it wasn’t until the 2014/2015 season that he regularly began to be included in the match day squads. By that time, Amkar had parted ways with the current Serbian national team boss Slavoljub Muslin and hired 1988 Olympic gold medal winner Gadzhi Gadzhiev as head coach.
A few months before Gadzhiev took over, Muslin gave Idowu his “debut” at Zenit’s Petrovsky Stadium in St. Petersburg as he played the last 16 minutes in Amkar’s 2-0 defeat. For Idowu this was a dream come true, as he told Amkar’s website, and to his surprise, he received a friendly welcome from the home fans. “Apparently they remembered that I was from St. Petersburg,” he recalled.
He went on to start two games before the curtain fell on the season, including a memorable 3-3 game at Otkritie Arena against Spartak Moscow in the last game of the season.
Gadzhiev clearly liked what he saw from the versatile Idowu, who can play both as a full back, central midfielder and as a winger, because last season he started 15 games, and became one of just a handful of young Russians to regularly start for their team.
Although Gadzhiev likes to move Idowu around – this season he has played left back, right back, central defender, winger and central midfielder – he is a natural left back, and due to his impressive endurance, he can cover a lot of ground for full games, and he is often praised for his eagerness to develop and his work ethic, something that has made him somewhat of a fan favourite at Amkar’s Zvezda Stadium. Idowu is furthermore a quick player, and he recorded the 9th fastest speed in the RFPL last season.
When that is said, Idowu, like most other young players, still has parts of his game to work on. Despite his impressive work rate, he still needs to work on his offensive contribution. According to InStat, he averages just 1.5 crosses per game, and the precision of these leaves much to be desired, while he is also relatively weak in the air.
Nevertheless, he managed to build on his break-through last season, and to date he has started 17 out of 18 games, and only been substituted twice. He furthermore managed to score his first RFPL goal in December when Amkar defeated Orenburg 3-0.
Last weekend, Idowu even got his ‘revenge’ over Zenit as he delivered a stellar performance in Amkar’s 1-0 victory at home against the Blue-White-Sky Blues. He even played a role in the goal as he was the man behind the pass to Sekou Conde, who made the cross that led to the winning goal in the 33rd minute of the game.
With Idowu’s performances for Amkar in mind, it is no surprise that Gadzhiev would like him to stay Russian and eligble for the national team.
If Idowu is capped for Nigeria, he’ll become a legionnaire in the eyes of the RFPL, meaning he’ll lose value, both on and off the pitch. On the pitch, Amkar are forced to have six Russian players eligible for the national team at all times, which means that this kind of player with quality are a rare and valuable commodity on the transfer market.
Speaking to Championat in November Gadzhiev said: “When Brian received the offer [to play for Nigeria], he turned to me for advice. My position was simple: I recommend him to take time to develop his skills, to become better and stronger and hope that he’ll get the opportunity to play for the Russian national team. If that doesn’t happen, he can always come back and talk with the Nigerian national team.”
Debut for the Super Eagles could happen soon
Idowu, who penned a new three-year contract with Amkar in February, is yet to receive his debut for Nigeria’s national team, but according to reports in the West African country, he has assured national team coach Gernot Rohr that he is ready to play if he deems him good enough.
Last year, Rohr travelled Europe in pursuit of players with Nigerian roots who could strengthen his team, and Idowu was one of his prime targets. Back then he said: “I have plans to visit [Ola] Aina and his father again in England very soon and Idowu in Russia as well. I’m interested in these two players because they have the quality to make the Eagles great.”
Recently however, Rohr’s plans has run into some problems, and in January he complained that the Nigerian authorities were working too slowly on the passports for his new players.
Head coach of the Russian national team Stanislav Cherchesov, who never gave Idowu a chance on the first team during his ten months in charge of Amkar between 2013 and 2014, hasn’t publicly expressed any wishes to keep Idowu, and it looks like the defender follow in the footsteps of his former Zenit teammate Ramil Sheydaev, who last year exchanged his Russian citizenship for an Azerbaijani one to turn out for their national team.
Nigeria currently lead their World Cup qualification group, but the Super Eagles have two games against the recently crowned African champions Cameroon this summer for which Rohr needs all the quality he can gather. If Nigeria get through them successfully, Idowu could play for his second home country at the World Cup in his home city.