Interview

Robert Odu “Jaguar”, “Hong Kong is a good place if you know your ambitions”

As the Hong Kong Premier League comes to an end, foreign strikers have dominated the headlines, from Dejan Damanjovic firing 17 goals in 14 games to claim the golden boot, to Michel N’Dri hang up his boots in Hong Kong. In contrast to established veterans choosing Hong Kong as the final stops of their careers, a young striker from Nigeria picked Hong Kong to kickstart his professional career. Christie Leung and Adrian Kwong sat down with Robert Odu “Jaguar” to learn about his maiden season, his football journey and his future ambitions. 

Odu’s football story was familiar. He started playing football at a very young age around 3, 4  with his football-loving family in their backyard. His talent shone from this early stage and he has always been the best player on the teams he’s played. “I always pictured myself being a professional footballer, I always stayed around playing football alone [until] late, if I scored some goals, I would take off my shirt and run around to celebrate”, Odu described. 

A star student footballer in Lagos

What led him to make up his mind of turning professional, however, was after suffering a heavy loss at a high school tournament involving the best teams from across the country. When the usual coach had a fallout with the Sports Master, the latter then took over the team and deliberately froze out his best player. “He put me on the bench because I was too small, and we lost 9:0. I was angry. I swore that day I was going to play professionally. I wanted to prove him wrong.” The incident was later forgotten as Odu grew on his football journey, but the anger that sparked his passion for football burns brightly to this day. 

Since the day Odu was announced by Happy Valley, fans have flooded social media to support him from Nigeria. “The day I signed for HVAA, the news went around Lagos and everyone knew”, explained Odu, who was probably the most popular first-year pro that we’ve seen in Hong Kong. He added, “In Africa, everyone thinks it’s possible to go to school and play football, but I did it as a law student. I was so unique and was recognised as the lawyer-footballer.” Starting with a fanbase from University, where all students were media savvy and passionate for their school side, Odu counted himself lucky with all the support.

Odu in his UNILAG days

Outside of university, Odu also starred for Starbase FC, a grassroots club in Lagos. “The club president gave me so much trust by giving me special treatment due to schoolwork. Sometimes they would start the game with 10 men, just to wait for me to rush there after my exam!” Starbase FC participated in several competitions in Lagos, and it provided a further stage for fans (and other well-established clubs) around the Nigerian capital to hear his name.

In our discussion about fan atmosphere at games, Odu delightfully recalled the passion and intensity of the fans at universities pitches rivalled those of professional football, “My whole faculty used to come down to see me play and at games, there were thousands of fans coming over, with some fans climbing over the fences, climbing on trees and even on the floodlights just to watch the game.” All these made it easy for him to settle into his first year of professional life as he put it, “In fact I felt I was more a footballer than a student.”

Road to Hong Kong

On the day Odu finished his final exams, he signed for Remo Stars FC, a team in the second-tier competition in Nigeria. A few months later Odu already had calls from Europe, but then Covid-19 struck in March. During the wait, Odu’s agent suggested a move to Hong Kong. “Hong Kong? No, no, no, Europe.” “But you’ll have to wait if you go to Europe, time is passing. Take what you have now and start playing, to build up your career with less pressure.” Odu gladly took his agent’s advice and set off watching all videos on Hong Kong football on Youtube. “I said hi to every player on my first day, and I knew everything from their last season, every game, because I wanted to absorb the culture and the whole playing style and to know what is really going on in Hong Kong. I knew I wasn’t coming to the best team in the league [but I was eager to rip in].”

From coffin-houses to people’s English levels to Hong Kong’s lack of grassy football pitches, Odu thought he learnt a lot about his new home on the Internet, yet the transit was not simple or straightforward. “I thought Hong Kong football was easy. It looked easy from the outside.” There were too many things one would only know when you arrive, including a tough lesson of realising “professional football is not just football.” From the weather, to the long mentioned problems of training on astroturf, to different styles of tactics. After all, most notably, when you play for your living, then “money becomes an important factor”. There are way more involved in a club than just playing on matchdays in the professional world. Odu saw qualities in his teammates during training and how their performances on the pitch were affected by the surroundings. “Somebody plays for money, somebody plays for passion. But it’s impossible to make everybody play for passion.”

With 8 goals and 1 assist from 16 games under his name, Odu looked back to his first season as a professional footballer living abroad and gave himself a 7 out of 10. He was particularly dissatisfied with his injury that kept him out for a few games, including the crucial match against RCFC, “there is always room for improvement. Now that I know better how to manage, I could avoid injury and miss fewer games and therefore score more goals.” The forced break due to the 4th wave of Covid outbreak halted all training, where players had to go to hard grounds or go hiking to stay fit. Odu sustained an injury from that, because “I was too inexperienced and I trained in the same way I did in Nigeria.”

Odu has enjoyed and loved every bit of Hong Kong, by showing off his Cantonese phrases, understanding the culture and tendencies. When asked whether Hong Kong is an ideal place for his juniors to follow in his footsteps, Odu was honest, “It’s a good place, especially for players to make the start in their careers for those with a good mindset like myself, because it’s tough here. You need to have the right ambition to keep you going.”

Odu’s character is almost the most prominent part of his story. His positivity and strong belief in himself made him easily turn professional. Even though his initial plans were hit by Covid, Odu showed zero regrets of making his way here instead of taking up his Europe offer. He counted on the favourable side was the opportunity to play with players of different backgrounds, cultures and qualities than he’s used to, “I love how my impressions have changed. I wouldn’t have changed if I’ve gone to Europe. I am now more ready than I was then.”

Firm eye on Super Eagles

Kickstarting your professional career with a nickname isn’t uncommon, but Odu’s decision of taking one 3 years ago demonstrated how his well-prepared, target-oriented character fit the bill of an attention-grabbing striker. “I’ve always wanted to be a brand. Robert is a normal name, so I had two names in my mind, Tarzan or Jaguar. I wanted something to fit my playing style, so I picked Jaguar and people just loved it.” His choice has just clicked so well and he’s now well known by the name on the back of his shirt, wherever he goes.

“A better team, a bigger stage”, Odu answered without a second of hesitation when asked about his target for next season. In fact, it would always be his answer after every season because he always sets his sight for something higher and bigger. He is still very grateful for Happy Valley’s trust in signing him directly without any trial, something that no other club offered. But now, his eyes are set much further. 

Odu declared his long-term targets would be playing for the Nigerian national team, the Super Eagles, and eventually winning the Ballon d’Or. France Football’s golden ball remains one of the top accolades for any professional footballer, and what better motivations are there than to aim for the highest prize in the football world? As Odu explained, “Football is about efficacy. If you stay here and look at their level, you might feel ‘wow’, but after you get there, you have to do it. You have to keep training and working hard. You will see yourself doing it. It’s about the level you’re playing, after 2 years, you’ll play like home, it’ll no longer be strange. It’s how football is. You’ll never know how strong you are until you’re there”. 

Credit: Happy Valley Football Team

Is Odu dreaming too big? There are plenty of skeptics, but he is not fazed, and is constantly prepared to practise and work hard, because he believes football will fit in the level you’re playing at, citing his former compatriots, Victor Osimhen at Napoli and Paul Onuachu at Genk’s footsteps as examples. Extremely dedicated on the pitch (just look at his serious face that’s well-documented by the fans and press!) and a confident jokester off it, it is the determination and his strong belief in himself that will unlock many doors for him as a professional footballer.

At just the age of 22, his first professional season was completed in Hong Kong. Odu is well set on the path to realizing his dreams. Only a few years ago, Iván Zarandon took Equatorial Guinea in the 2015 African Cup of Nations to the semi-final, during his era with Rangers. Could Jaguar be the next superstar, honed in the 852, to lead Nigeria (and other clubs around the world) to continental success? Time will tell, and Offside.hk will definitely be following closely every step of his way.  

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