One of the key players expected to make the difference when Nigeria’s U23 national team trade tackles with Zambia today (Tuesday) in a crucial African Cup of Nations Under-23 match, Tom Dele-Bashiru has opened the lid on why he shunned England to play for his fatherland.
The Watford midfielder, who watched from the bench as Ivory Coast won the group opener 1-0 at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo, has revealed that two Nigerian legends played their part in his decision to play for the African giants.
“Jay-Jay Okocha is my hero,” he said. “I just loved his playing style and watched videos of him all the time when I was growing up. He’s a big hero of mine, as is Kanu,” Dele-Bashiru told Watford Official as monitored by Soccernet.ng.
Born in Manchester, Dele-Bashiru has represented England at Under-16 level, but eventually switched his allegiance to Nigeria a few months ago, having been qualified to play for Nigeria through his father of Yoruba descent.
“I’m very proud of my Nigerian roots,” he said.
“It’s a great honour to play for my country and show everyone that Nigeria is a great breeding place for talent. It’s a massive country and we have massive support. Everyone there is a football fanatic so the country will be behind us during this tournament. We have got to make them proud.”
Nigeria is at the verge of elimination from a tournament they won four years ago, following their opening day loss to Ivory Coast. A chance to earn their first points is presented against Zambia, a must-win encounter if they are to get out of a group that includes South Africa. The top three teams in the eight-team tournament will qualify for Tokyo 2020.
The 20-year-old midfielder is not unaware of the magnitude of the task ahead.
“It’s a big tournament as if we qualify, we get to go to the Olympics,” Dele-Bashiru said.
“I’m really excited as it’s a massive competition. There is high expectation to do well and qualify. It will be really disappointing if we don’t qualify. We won it four years ago so we’ve got a lot to live up to. We’ll try our best and hopefully that will be enough.”
“The Under-20s is a good team and most of the lads are from that team,” said Dele-Bashiru.
“I haven’t been with the 23s before, but it looks like a team of very good individual players who work hard together. We’ve got a few guys from Europe so it’s exciting.”