When Nigeria needed someone to step up and take what might have been the decisive penalty in their Africa Cup of Nations semi-final against South Africa, they did not turn to Victor Osimhen who steered Napoli to their first Scudetto since 1990.
They did not turn to Atalanta’s main man: Ademola Lookman or to Premier League star Alex Iwobi.
Instead, Nigeria’s AFCON hopes weighed solely on the shoulders of PAOK FC centre-back William Troost-Ekong.
History in the Making
Troost-Ekong scored to knock out South Africa in AFCON 2019, and once again he stepped up to put Nigeria one win away from glory.
Troost-Ekong celebrates after converting his penalty against South Africa
The AFCON 2023 final will mark ten years and one day since Nigeria last reached the pinnacle.
Joseph Yobo captained the Super Eagles to a third AFCON title in Johannesburg whilst a 20-year-old William Troost-Ekong was yet to kick a ball in the professional game.
Seven countries, eight clubs and ten years later, Troost-Ekong will lead his country out in Abidjan, looking for AFCON number four.
For the Nigeria skipper, it has not been the usual route to the top.
A difficult year
2023 was difficult, with him transferring from Watford to Salernitana before then moving to Thessaloniki and signing for Greek club PAOK FC.
Troost Ekong in a pre-season friendly for PAOK FC
Between captaining his country for AFCON 2021 and AFCON 2023, Troost-Ekong only made one competitive appearance for Nigeria and was considering retirement.
Speaking to ESPN in February, he said: “I wasn’t sure if I was going to play this AFCON or not and to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue with the national team either because I was weighing all my options.
“I felt that maybe the only thing that was going to stop me this time is that there was some disagreement with the coach before the tournament.”
Thanks to strong performances for his club and a tactical switch to a back three from coach Jose Peseiro, Troost-Ekong fought his way back in the team and has been one of the best defenders at the tournament.
It is testament to his character that he has gone from the footballing wilderness to leading his nation to a historic final.
His unique background might explain how he got there.
More than a footballer
Born in Haarlem near Amsterdam, he went to school in England where he ended up in the Spurs academy alongside England captain Harry Kane.
His academy coach at Tottenham Chris Ramsey spoke to the Athletic about what he was like in his earlier years, and he said: “He was very raw, very enthusiastic, very driven, and a student of the game, who asked a lot of questions.”
Former Spurs coach Chris Ramsey, who spotted Troost-Ekong’s potential from an early age
The natural inquisitiveness Ramsey spoke about was apparent last year, when Troost-Ekong partnered with eco-friendly football boot brand Sokito.
In an interview with FIFPRO, Troost-Ekong said: “I’m quite fortunate that I get to spend time in Africa, especially in Nigeria, and as much as I love it, you are really confronted with the effects of climate change a lot more bleakly than in Europe.”
To help combat the environmental challenges presented by football, he wears Sokito’s vegan boots and plants trees whenever he travels by air.
In 2018, he joined Juan Mata’s Common Goal iniative – a movement powered by players and managers donating one percent of their salary to high impact football for good organisations around the world.
Troost-Ekong (R) with his Nigeria team mates ahead of the 2018 World Cup
Nigeria’s unlikely hero
Troost-Ekong and his boots could make the headlines again should he manage to score against Ivory Coast in the final.
One more goal and he will be the highest scoring defender in AFCON history, surpassing his legendary compatriot, Stephen Keshi.
Amongst the Super Eagle’s selection of world-class strikers, Troost-Ekong is the highest scoring Nigerian at AFCON 2023.
Many would have believed that Nigeria would get to the final, but few would have expected William Troost-Ekong to be the man that got them there.