Alex Iwobi: The Everton star on a mission to deliver football for everyone

Alex Iwobi in action against Aston Villa
Alex Iwobi played the full 90 minutes as Everton lost to Aston Villa on Saturday

Many could be forgiven for wanting a day off after a scorching 90 minutes under the heatwave that ravaged England over the weekend.

But less than 24 hours after Everton lost to Aston Villa in the Premier League, Alex Iwobi landed in Northern Ireland.

Nigeria international Iwobi came to Belfast to link up with group Ethnic Minority Sports Organization Northern Ireland (EMSONI) through his own charity project Project 17.

EMSONI is a community-based multi-sport organization for the development of ethnic minority sport in Northern Ireland with the aim of diversifying the face of sport and integrating ethnic minority and local communities together.

Founder Adekanmi Abayomi, an asylum seeker from Nigeria who won BBC Sport NI’s 2020 Unsung Hero Awardfounded the Northern Ireland Confederations Cup – a football tournament that brings together teams from different ethnic groups and communities across the country.

It was hardly a relaxed off-duty day, with multiple stops and meetings with fans, volunteers and the Lord Mayor of Belfast, but Iwobi said he had a “great time” during his short stay in Belfast.

“It takes me back to my childhood. I played with different cultures, different backgrounds as I played all over London and Essex,” said Iwobi at Midgley Park during the NI Confederations Cup semi-final between Nigeria and Ghana.

“I want everyone to have the same or even more opportunities than I did when I was a kid. In football you experience many life situations and bring everyone together.

“I’m here to support the community and give something back. I’m always here to try and show up and support as much as possible.”

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It was a short but fulfilling day in Belfast for Iwobi. The first stop was for a press conference at ESMONI’s offices before the entourage proceeded to Belfast City Hall to discuss the project with Lord Mayor Tina Black and IFA President Conrad Kirkwood.

The 26-year-old took in everything from the people and photo opportunities to the architecture at City Hall in the heart of Belfast, with a big smile on his face at every step.

From there followed a trip to Ulidia Playing Fields, where the NI Confederations Cup Final will be held, before making his final stop at Midgley Park in the shadow of Windsor Park – home of Northern Ireland and Irish Premiership champion Linfield – to celebrate the to watch the NI Confederations Cup semi-finals before flying back to Merseyside for training on Monday morning.

Iwobi, who was born in Nigeria’s capital Lagos before moving to England, added that when he heard about EMSONI’s work in Northern Ireland he felt compelled to try and support their cause.

“When this opportunity arose, we certainly wanted to seize it,” he added.

“To see what they’ve done in the past, I want it to grow and rise. To come here and see it for yourself and witness it is crazy.

“She [EMSONI] 15 parishes were involved and now there are 20 this year. I’ve even met with the Mayor of Belfast so it’s great to have opportunities like this.

“Football offers opportunities for everyone. I’m like everyone else, at the end of the day I’m human.

“As a kid, the only real support I had was from Arsenal and my family. I’m thankful for what I had, but things like EMSONI didn’t exist in my area and can only help people in the future.”

Iwobi “a success story”

Abayomi said he and his team had worked for nine months to bring Iwobi to Belfast and the stars were aligned as the Confederations Cup semi-finals approached with a day off for the Everton midfielder.

“We are so happy with the passion from him,” he said.

“It’s amazing to see a promising young man who has done well in himself using his platform to inspire young people and bring communities together.

“Alex brings a lot to this project and a lot to Northern Ireland. He has done well and is a success story. We can use it as a good model to show what people can do for themselves.”

Abayomi added it “speaks a lot” that Iwobi was ready to travel to Belfast between Everton’s game at Villa Park on Saturday and before he resumed training with Frank Lampard on Monday morning.

“It’s incredible. You can see it’s organic and natural for him,” he added.

“It shows that he is genuinely interested in giving back to society. I would ask other internationals of his status to emulate something like that.

“That’s what they need, these guys need someone to relate to. Alex does it and is proud of it.

“I am proud of EMSONI and the volunteers who made it possible. Still fighting for this to become a reality, I’m glad it’s his first time in Belfast and loving the atmosphere. We can’t thank him enough.”

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