Sometimes, dreams do come true. Nobody knows that better than on-loan Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo. The Nigeria international, who typically wears the number 9 shirt for his national team, had his lifelong ambition finally realised in the January 2020 transfer window.
That said, the trajectory of his career is perhaps more akin to something we might see in the Football Manager games. You know the story: the journeyman striker who moves from club to club, country to country, never quite realising his full potential. Then, all of a sudden, he explodes on the scene at one of the big clubs.
Indeed, during his time at modest La Liga outfit Granada, the Nigerian also became somewhat of a cult figure in Football Manager. He was often regarded as one of those hidden gems; a player that could be signed for a bargain transfer fee yet still perform well at bigger clubs in other top leagues around Europe. Remarkably, he’s now doing just that in the real world.
— NigerianSportsAward (@ngrsportsaward) November 29, 2019
Undoubtedly, such stories can explain why virtual, simulation games like Football Manager are so popular. We get to create our own stories and journeys, making the impossible happen with different players and clubs. It’s also one of the key reasons why these days, the world of virtual football has become just as popular as the real game, even leading to virtual football betting opportunities offered by an increasing number of mainstream and niche online bookies alike.
The journey of Ighalo has finally landed him at the destination of his dreams, which previously might only have happened in the world of virtual games. What’s more, he’s also sported an impressive variety of shirt numbers during his much-travelled career in professional football, even sporting several different numbers with each club.
Ighalo’s Shirt Numbers
After he proved himself as a youngster with Julius Berger in Nigeria, the first European stop for Ighalo was at Norwegian side SFK Lyn 1896, where he wore number 16 during the 2007-08 season. The highly prized number 9 shirt was then handed to Ighalo following his move to Udinese, although he didn’t even make that many appearances during the 2008-09 campaign.
— Granada C.F. (@GranadaCdeF_en) February 7, 2016
Thankfully, increased playing opportunities came for Ighalo when he moved to Granada ahead of the 2009-10 season. While there, despite wearing the wrong squad numbers for a centre-forward, he was pivotal in helping Granada rise from the third tier to LaLiga. During a total of five campaigns with the Spanish outfit, Ighalo wore 16 in Segunda B, then 7 in Segunda and his first campaign in LaLiga, followed by 25 and his favoured number 7 again.
Arriving at Watford for the 2014-15 Championship campaign, Ighalo quickly became popular with Hornets fans, scoring 20 goals in the number 24 shirt as they won promotion to the Premier League. It was clearly a sign of good fortune, so he decided to retain that same shirt number during the entirety of his stay at Vicarage Road before departing for China midway through the 2016-17 season.
Changchun Yatai paid £20 million for Ighalo in the January 2017 transfer window, and – immediately regarded as their star striker – he was handed the number 9 shirt. Now sporting the true number that’s traditional for centre-forwards. Getting to keep the number 9 when he switched to Shanghai Shenhua in 2019, Ighalo ended up with an impressive tally of 46 goals in 71 Chinese Super League appearances.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) February 17, 2020
Of course, the chance to join Manchester United was an offer Ighalo couldn’t refuse. Despite expressing a preference for 9 (which was unavailable), he eventually settled for number 25. Realising his childhood dream, in fairness, he probably would have taken any number that was offered. However, given that Quinton Fortune had also worn 25 in the past, Ighalo was more than happy to follow in the footsteps of another African icon at Old Trafford.
Should he get the opportunity to remain at Manchester United with a permanent move, it will be interesting to see if Ighalo decides to keep wearing number 25 on his back, especially if some of his more favoured numbers become available next season. So long as he’s still getting to wear the famous red shirt, he probably won’t mind what number is printed on the back. It will just be one of many he’s worn during a fascinating football journey.