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‘My career has always been a testament of not giving up’: Nigerian captain William Troost-Ekong’s rollercoaster journey to the AFCON final

By Callum Sutherland and Amanda Davies, CNN

(CNN) — From the ecstasy of firing his side ahead to the agony of seeing that advantage overturned, Nigerian captain William Troost-Ekong’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) final experience earlier this month was as turbulent as could be. Then again, he is no stranger to rollercoaster journeys.

Only six months ago, the Super Eagles skipper had been considering walking away from international football entirely following disagreements with coach José Peseiro. Charged with rallying a team left reeling from the disappointment of failing to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Troost-Ekong was concerned with how he was being treated by the Portuguese manager.

“[It] resulted in us not actually speaking for a few months,” the defender told CNN World Sport’s Amanda Davies in a recent interview.

“That was the time where my pride and ego, I think maybe got the better of me. I thought about stopping,” he added. “Thankfully, I’ve got a good group of people around me who took me out of it.”

Subsequent discussions with family and friends cast the 30-year-old’s mind back to 2015 and his international debut. Born to a Dutch mother, Troost-Ekong played for The Netherlands at the youth level before eventually choosing to represent his father’s homeland, accumulating over 70 caps to date.

“[It] made me think about my younger self and, how much it meant and how proud I was to play my first game [for Nigeria],” he said.

“I deserved to give my younger self a better ending. So that was the thing that changed my mind … I think my career has always been a testament of not giving up.”

Through gritted teeth

Troost-Ekong arrived in the Ivory Coast for the 34th edition of AFCON as captain of a team haunted by their first failure to qualify for the World Cup since 2006.

The Super Eagles made a nervy start to the group stage with a 1-1 draw against Equatorial Guinea, but back-to-back 1-0 wins over the Ivorian hosts – secured via a Troost-Ekong penalty – and Guinea Bissau booked their spot in the knockout stages.

It was hard-fought progress for the captain, who had picked up a hamstring injury in an early match but continued to play through often-excruciating pain.

“A lot of times I was gritting my teeth when I had a chance to breathe,” he recalled.

“If you have strong enough painkillers and enough adrenaline, you can do a lot more than you think sometimes.”

Victories over Cameroon and Angola set up a semi-final bout with South Africa, and the captain led by example with more spot kick heroics. After dispatching a penalty in regular time, Troost-Ekong made no mistake during the subsequent shoot-out to help send his side into the final in Abidjan.

That set up a rematch with Ivory Coast at Alassane Ouattara Stadium. Despite the partisan home support, however, it was the visitors who were edging towards lifting the trophy for the first time in nine years with just 30 minutes to play. Once again, it was a lead that came courtesy of a Troost-Ekong goal; this time from a powerful header.

Yet the hosts rallied in the second half, equalizing before Sebastian Haller drilled home a winner just 10 minutes from full-time to secure a third AFCON crown for Les Éléphants and break Nigerian hearts.

“We should have pushed on a bit more to try and get the second goal, instead of trying to wait to see what would happen,” Troost-Ekong rued.

“They grew into the game, especially with the crowd … as soon as they scored the equalizer you could feel the momentum completely change.”

Despite defeat, the Super Eagles captain believes there were strong positives to take from a run to the final that settled any lingering differences with Peseiro.

“He gave us an identity this tournament which we needed,” he said, “because before the tournament, I think there was not enough of our real playing style.”

Changes ahead

After a whirlwind tournament for Troost-Ekong and his country, more changes lie ahead – especially for Peseiro, who on Friday announced the end of his contract with the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), calling it “a pride and honor to coach the Super Eagles.”

Troost-Ekong’s future is similarly open-ended. In a club career that has taken him from Holland through Belgium, Turkey, Italy and the English Premier League with Watford, he is enjoying his football at Greek side PAOK Thessaloniki, but refused to rule out another change of scenery eventually.

“I can’t reiterate enough how happy I am here at PAOK, but you never know in football … you might get tempted by something bigger and better,” he admitted.

“I think at my age of 30, you have to think about all your options. It will be something that I definitely consider.”

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