Fame can be menacing to rookies who take a first bite at it, and it seems young Arsenal upstart Alex Iwobi takes no exception to this.
The 20-year-old’s meteoric rise at Arsenal continued this week as he passed another milestone when scoring his first Champions Leaguegoal as the Gunners beat FC Basel 4-1 to secure top spot in Group A.
It is just 13 months since Iwobi made his senior debut against Sheffield Wednesday and he has since established himself as a first-team regular, elevating him to a level of fame which requires some adjustment.
“The only thing I do find difficult is when I am trying to go somewhere to eat with my friends and people are like, ‘Iwobi!’,” he said. “That takes getting used to. It’s nice to be acknowledged for what you do and the way fans react when they see you.
“When I was young, I didn’t react if I saw someone famous, but I seem to be like a hero to them. It’s crazy.
“With the money thing, it is mad. As a young kid, earning so much, having a house and driving a nice car, it is nice but it is something I keep level-headed about. I am more focused on what’s happening on the pitch than off it.
“There have been some crazy things. One time, I was going somewhere not too far from the stadium and a fan was following me. I thought, ‘this fan is going to follow me to my destination, I need to take a detour’. It was crazy. I was almost scared. I was getting worried. ‘Iwobi! Iwobi!’ For 20 minutes. It was a bit too much.
“Someone else did my celebration [in front of me]. I was trying to get trainers for my friend and this fan came and did my celebration. Okay, that was mad. It is funny.”
Iwobi prefers to stay incognito. It is well-documented his uncle, former Bolton and Nigeria midfielder Jay-Jay Okocha, regularly gives him advice, but his other family members also play a crucial role in keeping him grounded. Iwobi’s mother used to make him perform exercises in their living room, his father drove him to every training session and game during his formative years, while sister Marie, a year younger than Alex and studying at university, briefly had designs on becoming a footballer.
“She tried for two weeks and just gave up saying, ‘oh, I’ll just leave it to you’,” he told Standard Sport.
“We are always together, having a laugh. I went to see her the other day and I’m always trying to take care of her. She is just enjoying her studies now. People don’t recognise me because
I put my hood on and go disguised. I just want to enjoy the time with my sister.”
Iwobi has retained a sense of perspective in a whirlwind period during which he has made 39 appearances for Arsenal, including 28 starts, made his senior debut for Nigeria and scored his first international goal. It is perhaps why the work of the Arsenal Foundation has resonated so strongly with him upon a recent visit to discover the work done in the local area.
“I met a boy called Lloyd and he almost reminded me of myself,” said Iwobi. “I used to play football on the streets with my friends or at Power League and ended up where I am today. He used to do that and Arsenal is helping him to get to where he wants to be — he told me he wants to be a physiotherapist. What Arsenal can do for people in the community is a nice thing to give back.”
Iwobi admits he had no back-up plan had he failed to become a footballer. “I’d probably be in uni,” he said. “Studying what? I don’t know. I was alright at maths. I didn’t like it, though.”
Iwobi was nearly released twice — as a 14-year-old and aged 16 — amid concerns he was not able to physically impose himself on matches, but he came through a difficult period to earn a professional contract and rub shoulders with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
“Those two will tell you what you need to work on, but in a jokey kind of way,” added Iwobi. “I hadn’t scored for a while and then I scored the other day, so they would say, ‘Alex, your shooting is a bit funny’.
“It’s a jokey way, but they’re being serious, as I need to work on it. They do advise me, saying I just need to compose myself, relax, and the chance will come. Off the pitch, I talk to them, have banter. Mesut, in particular. I have to call him ‘my boss’ because he assisted me the other day. I socialise with them. They are funny. Alexis likes to take the mick when I don’t score in training. They are funny.”