Saheed Idowu stood out at the just-concluded ITTF World Championships in China, and this attracted a lot of attention to him from Chinese journalists, who wanted to know the reason for the cordial relationship between the Nigeria-born athlete and world champion, China’s Ma Long. Idowu’s friendship with Ma Long became the cynosure of all eyes in Suzhou that many wondered how their alliance has been strengthened in the sport. However, Idowu, who dumped Nigeria for Congo-Brazzaville in 2008, said that he never wanted to quit Nigeria but was frustrated by the actions of those in charge of the sport. Saheed Idowu became the second Nigerian male player to represent Congo-Brazzaville in the table tennis event of the Olympic Games after his appearance at the London 2012 Olympics. Saka Suraju, a Nigerian, was the first male player from the Central African country to make it to the Olympics during the 2008 edition in Beijing, China. The 25-year-old Idowu has won a lot of laurels for his adopted country but his decision to dump his fatherland for a foreign country was an experience the 2011 All Africa Games medalist will not forget in a hurry.

 

Idowu’s sojourn to Brazzaville was not what he planned for but fate took him out of Nigeria. “I was playing for Oyo State and I featured for the state at every National Sports Festival from 2002 to 2006. The 2014 ITTF Star Player, Aruna Quadri, was my doubles partner and we were fond of winning medals for the state. So, when I was in Nigeria, I was always representing my state – Oyo in most competitions,” he recalled.

“When the current President of The Nigeria Table Tennis Federation (NTTF), Wahid Oshodi, was the chairman of the Lagos State Table Tennis Association (LSTTA), he used to sponsor us to feature in competitions. It was my performance in these competitions that earned me a call-up to the national camp. So I was at the national camp on several occasions and in trials I used to be among the top five players, but most times I was never included in the final team,” he added.

Despite this, Idowu was still willing to wear Nigerian colours at major competitions but he never got that chance. So, when he got an offer from Congo-Brazzaville to feature for the Central African team in an African Club Championship, Idowu could not resist the offer; he jumped at the chance. His performance thrilled the officials of the Central African country who further wooed the Nigerian to change nationality in order to represent Congo-Brazzaville at international competitions.

However, Idowu’s romance with table tennis was not without any hassle as he had to endure the indifference of his parents to his soft-spot for table tennis. “My parents were really against my taking to table tennis because they wanted me to go to school, so, I made sure I satisfied them by gaining admission to School of Science, Oyo. But my passion for table tennis could not be stopped so I continued playing the game despite their scolding,” the Congo-Brazzaville number one player said.

In 2008, Idowu left Nigeria for Brazzaville to pursue his dream after being once more denied the chance to represent Nigeria by those in charge of the national team. Prior to his departure to Brazzaville, Idowu could not forget the enormous support he was getting from the former Chairman, Ibadan South East Local Council, Akeem Ademola Ige, who is now a member of the Oyo State House of Assembly. He said the lawmaker said stood by him despite the challenges he faced at home. Interestingly, what Idowu could not achieve in Nigeria was possible when he got to Brazzaville, as he was listed in the Congolese team to the 2009 World Championship in Yokohama, Japan, and since then he has represented his adopted country in most of the world championships as well as continental tournaments.

“I love Nigeria and I will remain a Nigerian regardless of where I am because I never wanted to dump Nigeria for Congo-Brazzaville, but the neglect I experienced under the then technical crew forced me to leave. Anytime I meet Nigerians outside Africa, I always want to be identified with my people but when we get to the tables we are rivals because I have to do the job I am being paid for. I cannot deny Nigeria wherever I find myself because I love my country and I am still a Nigerian,” he reiterated.

With the feat achieved by Quadri in 2004, Idowu confessed that this has put a lot of pressure on African players worldwide. “All eyes are on African players in the world because most countries now believe playing against African players is a tough task and nobody wants to lose. It is good that Quadri improved the fortunes of the game on the continent but in all the tournaments, everybody is now aware of the potential of African players and this has put pressure on most of us to perform,” Idowu said.

The Nigeria-born player, who took part in his eighth World Championship in China, last May for his adopted country, said international tournaments would also help players from Africa to improve their rankings as well as serve as a tune-up to the 2015 All Africa Games in Brazzaville. When the table tennis event of the 2015 All Africa Games serves off in Brazzaville on September 10, Nigeria and Egypt may not be considered as favourites because hosts, Congo-Brazzaville, are ready to shock the continent’s superpowers. The Congolese team is presently in Hubei, China, tuning up for the games and, although the dominance of the sport has been between Nigeria and Egypt, Idowu believes this will be halted in Brazzaville. He is confident his mates will spring surprises at the event.

“I know that Nigeria and Egypt have been dominating the table tennis event at the games, but with what we have been doing in China in the last eight months, I don’t think it will be the same story again. In table tennis, things can change and I am not ruling out such surprises this year. We are in shape for the tournament as we are hoping that we can easily secure our spot at the 2016 Rio Olympics in Brazil at the championship,” Idowu said.

Congo-Brazzaville’s number one player, however, admitted that he was aware that players from Egypt and Nigeria are in the best form of their careers but that this would not intimidate his teammates. “I know Aruna Quadri and Omar Assar are in the best form of their lives and this will surely pose a strong threat to us. But records or achievements do not win matches; let us wait and see what will happen in September,” Idowu