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Wilfred Ndidi:How I juggle my football career with studying for a business degree

Wilfred Ndidi:How I juggle my football career with studying for a business degree

Wilfred Ndidi says he has learned more in nine months under Brendan Rodgers than at any other time in his career — and the lessons carry on long after he has finished training.

The Leicester midfielder has been one of the best players in the Premier League this season, earning the nickname The Octopus from team-mates because of his long legs, which he uses to great effect snuffing out danger before it reaches the Foxes’ defence.

He leads the top-flight tables for tackles and interceptions, with 59 and 36 respectively, and is key to a team who are second in the division after 12 matches, with one more point than champions Manchester City.

Ndidi never switches off, either on the pitch or away from it. When his team-mates disperse at the end of a session, he makes the two-mile journey from the club’s Belvoir Drive base to De Montfort University, where he is studying for a degree in business and tourism.

Many students will have done a double take at the sight of a Premier League footballer strolling around campus during the afternoons, but their eyes are not deceiving them. Ndidi is determined to further his education as part of a plan to improve that of many others in his home country.

‘I have spare time, so instead of sitting and playing FIFA, it’s good to understand the four walls of schooling,’ Ndidi tells Sportsmail. ‘When I was 12 or 13 I left home to further my football career and, while I kept up my studies, I always wanted to continue my education later in life.

‘I go for one-on-one sessions with a lecturer and I’ve recently done an exam, involving a project and a presentation. I got 63 per cent in the presentation and 65 per cent in the project. I’m really happy that De Montfort have been able to help.

‘I want to understand the outside world of business and I have a plan to build a school, similar to Aspire in Qatar (a sports academy that also provides secondary education). I’ve been there with the Nigeria national team and you see that young players are also receiving an education.

‘In Nigeria some players want to play football and then they forget about school. But if you do both you can continue with whichever one works out, instead of just hoping for football, football — and then you don’t make it.

‘All my life I wanted to play football and this is my career now but there was pressure from my dad not to go that way because he wanted me to stay at school. He was not convinced I was doing the right thing until he first saw me on television, playing for the Under 17 national team. The population of Nigeria is massive and it is so hard to make the grade as a footballer, so I have a clear vision of a place where you can play football and study, either in Lagos or Abuja.

‘I have spoken to my godfather about making it happen. If kids don’t make it in football, I want them to think they can get a degree and work, instead of roaming the streets.’At 23, Ndidi’s outlook is strikingly mature but he has been overcoming challenges from a young age. When he was barely a teenager, he left the family home to join the Nathaniel Boys Football Academy in Lagos. He then spent nine months in a training camp in Calabar, in the south of the country, with the Nigeria Under 17 squad.

Players were allowed access to their phones only for a few hours on Sundays so they stayed focused on the qualifiers for the African Under 17 Championship.

By the age of 18, Ndidi had moved to Europe permanently after accepting a contract with Genk in the Belgian top flight.

He stayed with a local family who remain friends to this day and travel to England once a month to watch him in action for Leicester — even though Ndidi’s lack of adventure with his diet was a constant source of frustration.

He recalls being offered lobster but they ‘complained as the only thing I asked them to cook was rice’, he chuckles. ‘Just rice! They would say, “Try this, try that?” and I would say no.’ Ndidi has become a little less fussy at the table since then and there is no doubt that Rodgers’ recipe at Leicester is working for him.

Having grown up as a centre back, Ndidi is still adapting to his role at the base of midfield but feels he is making up for lost time. Since joining Leicester in January 2017, he has worked under four permanent managers — Claudio Ranieri, Craig Shakespeare, Claude Puel and Rodgers — and only now does he feel his potential is being unlocked.

‘He (Rodgers) has given me so much information,’ Ndidi reveals. ‘If I had known this for a long time, the way I think I’m going… I feel comfortable and happy, knowing these things.

‘What have I learned? First of all it’s about facing the larger part of the pitch when I receive the ball. Then it’s knowing when to go with one touch, two touches, or when to leave the ball and just go with the body. At first, when I’d been converted from a central defender to a midfielder, I didn’t know these things.

‘I just went out and played. When it’s a tight situation on the pitch, sometimes I don’t really go and ask for the ball, but this information has really helped my confidence, even to ask for the ball during the game.

‘Brendan Rodgers has changed the way the players see and understand the game. When he came, at first we didn’t understand everything, but the manager has brought out this fire in everyone.’

Ndidi first became aware of Leicester when they won the title in 2015-16, shortly before he joined the club. Veterans from that campaign remain — Kasper Schmeichel, Jamie Vardy, Wes Morgan — while Jonny Evans has title-winning experience with Manchester United.

They understand the pressure involved but so does Ndidi, thanks to his international career. He has won 35 caps for Nigeria and says: ‘It’s serious pressure. There are no friendlies in Nigeria.

‘Last month we played a friendly against Brazil in Singapore. We drew 1-1 and should have won. It was a good result but with the pressure coming before the game, it felt like a final. But you have to adapt — look at Leicester when they won the league.

‘There are no small teams, no small countries any more. Anything can happen in this game.’

 

 

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