When asked what he would consider his most memorable performance for the Nigeria national team, Ola Aina hesitates slightly.
Over his three-year international career to date, there have been quite a few standouts. The most recent of those came last November, when over two matches against Benin and Lesotho he was an unstoppable force: winning a penalty to get the Super Eagles back into the game in the former, and rampaging forward to set up Victor Osimhen’s first international goal from open play in the latter.
Ultimately though, his decision is easy enough to guess, but not for the obvious reason. “I really enjoyed my first AFCON game (against Burundi),” he tells The Supersub.
“Yeah, I really enjoyed that game, because it was my first AFCON, and I was just really happy to be there.”
In many ways, that warm June night in Alexandria has proved an inflexion point in Aina’s career, coming as it did at the end of a brilliant debut season at Serie A side Torino. His outrageous back-heeled assist for Odion Ighalo’s 76th-minute winner decided a tense affair, and set Nigeria on course for a third-place finish at their first Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) appearance in six years.
However, by the semi-final defeat to Algeria, the former Chelsea man had lost his place in the side, and what followed was an underwhelming season that fell well short of the promise that had convinced Torino to shell out 10 million euros for his permanent signature.
In July 2018, Chelsea announced the appointment of Maurizio Sarri as manager. The former Napoli boss replaced Antonio Conte, who had followed up a title-winning first season with a fifth-place finish, and whose irascibility and carping had become a source of aggravation for the club hierarchy.
The sacking came as a blow to Aina, who despite only making six appearances in total for the Blues under Conte, refers to the current Inter boss as “one of the best coaches I’ve worked with”. The chain-smoking Sarri arrived at the club with a reputation for flowing, attacking football, but immediately made it clear to the full-back that, despite a strong loan in 2017/18 at Championship Hull City, he would not be a part of his Stamford Bridge revolution.
“I wasn’t really disappointed, funnily enough,” Aina says. “When he (Sarri) came, I knew I wasn’t going to be in his plans, so… At least I knew from the beginning, but I wasn’t really disappointed. I just thought ‘OK, what’s the next best thing for my career?’”
That next step, as it turned out, was a move to Turin. For Aina, there were three key factors: first, Torino’s belief in young players; the desire to grow tactically; and also the persuasion of the manager. “I spoke with the coach and he immediately made me feel wanted,” he said at his unveiling. “I couldn’t say no.”
That manager was former Watford helmsman Walter Mazzarri. Under his guidance, Toro were bullish in the 2018/19 season, finishing the season in seventh and qualifying for the Europa League after AC Milan were thrown out for violating Financial Fair Play regulations. Even more remarkably, only champions Juventus lost fewer matches over the course of the season, and only four teams conceded fewer goals.
His management also got the best out of Aina, granting him license to get forward and affect matches. “What I liked about him is that he had total belief in me. So I really felt free to go and express myself and do what I wanted to do on the pitch, because I knew I had the backing of the coach.
“Don’t get me wrong. When I did do things wrong, he definitely told me about it. He would tell me like ‘Look, Ola, you can’t be doing these mistakes, you can’t do this, you can’t do that’, but I always felt he had that belief in me, and I think that’s what really showed on the pitch, especially in the first season.”
Across 22 starts, Aina scored once – the winner in a hard-fought triumph over Udinese in Feburary – and assisted three times, but more importantly brought invention and boundless energy to Torino’s Europa League charge. “His pace and flexibility were useful assets in Toro’s 3-5-2 formation, as he was often deployed as either a right or left wing-back,” Torino fan and blogger Rob Gillman tells The Supersub.
Club president Urbano Cairo was quick to move on the option to buy embedded in his initial loan contract, and Aina went off to the 2019 AFCON in Egypt with his reputation and stock at its highest.
In many ways, one might consider Aina a victim of his own early success at Torino.
By virtue of taking Milan’s place in the Europa League, the club entered the competition in the second qualifying round, and so began their 2019/20 season in late July with a 3-0 home win over Hungarian side Debrecen.
Nigeria’s semi-final run at the AFCON meant Aina was tied up until the 17th, but at Mazzarri’s request, he cut short his holiday to return to training early, and was named in the squad for the second leg of the third qualifying round tie away at Shakhter Soligorsk. “I’m happy to be back,” he told Torino’s YouTube channel. “I missed Toro: I missed everything, the city, the team, the environment. I am ready even though I have only been training for a few days.”
After playing 30’ in Minsk, he played 19’ and 70’ respectively over two legs in the next qualifying round against Wolverhampton Wanderers on the 22nd and 29th of August, sandwiching a 45’ substitute appearance on the opening day of the league season against Sassuolo. He then played the full 90’, posting a solid performance in a shock 3-2 away win over Atalanta after the Wolves second leg, before going off on international duty with Nigeria once more.
The consequence of his impressive debut season was also heightened demand for excellence. So enthused were the club by his prospects, they sanctioned the sale of Uruguay international Diego Laxalt to Milan. However, without a proper vacation following his AFCON exertions, Aina seemed to hit a wall physically upon his return from the September international break.
He was particularly underwhelming in a 2-1 home defeat against (to that point) winless, pointless, newly-promoted Lecce. Notably, for the visitors’ opening goal, he switched off, allowing winger Filippo Falco to run past him and into the box to receive a return pass; Falco’s shot was saved, and Diego Farias tucked home the rebound.
A “domestic accident” then ruled him out for Nigeria’s friendly against Brazil in October, and although he enjoyed something of a purple patch either side of Christmas, Aina is the first to admit his second season fell well below the standards his first had set. He also concedes fatigue may have been a factor, although he is reluctant to lean on that as an excuse.
“For me, I don’t think the second season was disastrous, but I know it certainly wasn’t one of my best seasons; it wasn’t like my first season,” he says.
“These things happen. If I know that myself (that I underperformed), it’s easier to deal with. If I didn’t know or didn’t want to know and was just being naïve, then there would be a problem. I know myself that my levels weren’t as great as the first season, but I still continue to try and strive and always better myself every day, every training session, in every match. So, that gave me a sort of comfort that I’m doing myself a bit of justice here.
“I don’t know if having a shorter break really played a role… It may have a little bit, you know, because I didn’t have enough time to rest, but as the season goes on, football is football at the end of the day.”
It was not a caveat the fanbase was willing to countenance, however. There is a prevalent impression of Aina in Turin: physically, he has everything, but he lacked consistency, and did not always convince. Therefore, he came in for more than his fair share of criticism and, as the club itself was failing to hit the heights of the previous season, was often the lightning rod for terrace frustration.
He did not take it to heart though. “I just think, one, the team wasn’t really playing well, so (in that situation) every mistake a player makes is seen as a big thing. I think the fans were frustrated anyways, and it’s entirely normal; fans get frustrated, they start picking up everything. I understood that, and I think the team understood that.”
At the start of 2020, the wheels came off completely for La Granata on the pitch, and on February 4 the Torino management answered three defeats on the bounce – including a 7-0 humbling by Atalanta at home and a 4-0 loss to fourth-from-bottom Lecce – by sacking Mazzarri with the club in 10th. The decision was “a bit difficult” to take for Aina, and his brief uptick in form swiftly abated. “He just didn’t seem to have the same enthusiasm both defensively and offensively,” Gillman observes. “Even his humorous Instagram story interactions – where he regularly mocked team mate Nicolas Nkoulou’s dress sense – seemed to stop.”
The club’s appointment of former Primavera boss Moreno Longo did little to improve matters, both results-wise and in terms of the Nigeria international’s form. Following his first game in charge, a 3-1 loss at home to Sampdoria, the new manager told the press he had been forced to bring on Christian Ansaldi – only just returning from injury – in place of Aina with 15’ still to play, implying dissatisfaction with the performance. After that, the 24-year-old did not start any of the next four league matches, with Alex Berenguer (nominally a forward) preferred at left wing-back whenever Ansaldi was unavailable.
Worsening matters was the lack of clarity from the manager regarding precisely why he was being left out, although Aina was savvy enough to smell the steaming beverage. “As a player, you can understand when someone doesn’t really fancy the way you play or the way you defend or whatever it may be. When he came, he was open, speaking to players and obviously myself a few times, and I understood that maybe I’m not his cup of tea.”
The club would eventually stave off the threat of relegation, finishing the season in 16th, and Longo was relieved of his duties. However, the club’s purchase of Ricardo Rodriguez was a pointed vote of no-confidence in Aina, and Cairo quoted a fee close to the amount the club paid to Chelsea to prospective suitors. Everton and West Ham were reported to have registered strong interests.
It is, however, on loan at Fulham that Aina will seek to rebuild his game this season, and return to something close to his best. For him, the goal is simple: “to play as many games as I can in the Prem.”
It is a move that has elicited mixed reactions, especially following a poor start to the season for the Cottagers. However, he remains adamant nothing is decided.
“You know, we have like 30, 31 games left, so nobody should write off Fulham. It’s a long season, and I’m sure if we continue to work hard and do the simple things and the right things, I’m sure that the club will be fine this season.” Fulham manager Scott Parker will hope that optimism is infectious.
On the whole, Aina views his time in Italy positively, regardless of how it ended.
“The experience was really good. I love the league, I love playing against the big teams, the big players. So it was a great experience for me, and I think it has taught me so many things. Good or bad, I’ve seen a lot of things about myself going to that league and experiencing life for myself. I’ve learnt and I’ve grown.”
It’s not just the football either; he praises the “really, really good” food, and speaks warmly of the culture. “It’s a fantastic place. Great people, great way of living.”
Italy was quite the education for Aina, who was born and raised in London, was part of a very successful Chelsea youth system, and represented England up to under-20 level.
He however opted to represent Nigeria, his country by parentage, on the international stage, sensing a clearer path to the senior team with the Super Eagles than with the Three Lions. He made his debut in 2017, coming on as a substitute in the 1-0 win over Zambia that earned Gernot Rohr’s side a place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
His ambition of playing at the Mundial was dealt a blow, however, when he failed to make the tournament squad of 23. In his stead, Bryan Idowu, also a dual national, was selected. It came as a surprise to Aina, who believed he had done enough to justify a place in the team.
“I was disappointed,” he admits.
“But it was… I always say God’s time is the best time. I didn’t really get too down on myself. I just worked hard and tried to put it behind me and support the team from home. I wasn’t really dwelling on it as much as I thought I would. But yeah, initially it was a big disappointment. I felt like I should have gone.”
In fairness to Rohr, Aina’s case was not helped by a 45-minute cameo in a pre-World Cup friendly against DR Congo in Port Harcourt. He gave away a penalty with 12’ to play, gifting the visitors a 1-1 draw, and did not feature again for the national team for five months. It seemed a pivotal moment, especially as months earlier Idowu had replaced him at half-time in a friendly against Argentina and scored in a 4-2 fightback in Krasnodar.
“I don’t know whether that (the penalty give-away) made the decision for the coach, I don’t know. Maybe it did, maybe it did not. These things happen in football, you know.”
Did he feel like he had blown his chance in that moment?
“On the pitch, I’m not worried about anything. I have confidence in my abilities and in what I can bring to the table. When that happened against Congo, I just looked at it as [part of] a learning curve.”
He returned to play a key role in qualifying for AFCON the following year, and has been almost ubiquitous in squads since, fitness allowing. That has given him a broader understanding of Rohr’s requirements and methods; and though it appears Aina is currently out of favour – as is apparent from his snub over this latest international break, the Fulham loan player has come to appreciate the German’s approach.
“The coach has his own style [in terms of] how he wants us to play. I think it’s good that the team and myself, any time we come here, we all adapt and we manage to get it right on the pitch, so it’s good for the team.
“I don’t think there are any specifics (to Rohr’s game plan). Coaches are very unique; I think he understands every individual’s strengths and weaknesses, and he knows how to implement that into our team. I don’t think there’s really something that I can say, ‘yes, this is what the coach likes to do or doesn’t like to do’. I think the coach is very smart with the way he sets up a game. And it may change, every game is different.”
One of the more intriguing aspects of Aina’s personality is his proclivity toward art: it was his favourite subject in school, and he still practises. He also enjoys listening to music – RnB, hip hop and Afrobeats, in particular.
That artistic bent certainly comes through in his play, which is typically adventurous and unfettered. It can be a curse, especially in defence where, for all his physical attributes, the tendency to switch off remains. However, it also lends itself to unorthodox solutions.
Like that famous assist for Ighalo against Burundi.
“Being an artistic person helps because your mind is just free, it’s just open,” Aina explains. “Like when I’m drawing or painting, my mind is open, and it’s just like that football also. My mind is free, it’s open to different decisions and different ideas, so when it comes into my head, I just try it. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, then you move on.
“It was just like what happened in the Burundi game: I came in, inside of the pitch and I didn’t really have any options. But I saw Ighalo, and I knew I wanted to play a through ball into him, but if I had played it with my right foot, I knew the defender would have got it and it would have been on the wrong side of Ighalo. So I just thought, ‘you know what? I’ll back-heel it’, because even if I wanted to turn and use my left foot, the time and space would have closed up. So I thought I’d back-heel it and see what happens. It was good, and it ended up as a goal.”
Some might contend that level of imagination is wasted at full-back. Aina did play in central midfield as a youngster, and believes he might have been used there had he remained at Torino this term. However, his focus is very much on improving his output in his current position, and that drives an ambition to score more goals and be more influential in the final third.
“Obviously the modern day game is changing. While I wouldn’t say there’s more pressure on defenders and full-backs, I think it’s just given us more opportunities.
“As a younger player I used to always score goals, because I was more in the attacking third of the team. Obviously, as I’ve become a defender, the goal scoring has gone down a bit but yeah, it’s still something I’d want to achieve in my game play. You see full-backs scoring regularly these days. It’s just something I need to get back into the flow of and get myself into positions that enable me to score. So yeah, it’s something I always work on as well, just so when the time comes, I’ll be ready.”
A star athlete as a youngster – he played rugby, and did gymnastics and athletics – physically Aina is built for football, and at the same time seemingly inhabits that space where the sport can seem too easy for him. “For me, football was always going to work out,” he says, but now he finds himself at a critical juncture in his career: the point at which potential must begin to calcify into something heftier. That next step, he believes, is mental.
“Going forward, I just need to believe in myself a bit more, and continue to work hard like I always do, make sure I’m giving myself the best opportunity always.
“I think I’ve got what it takes to be a top player, you know?”
When he plays at his very best, it is near enough impossible to disagree.