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CLOSE-UP: Ademola Lookman, boy whose football talent was overlooked until he clocked 16

The clock read 75:01, and the stadium was bouncing in praise and disbelief like a cathedral that had just witnessed a miracle. At the centre of the awe stood the little magician, whose bandy legs had conjured the brilliance of a lifetime. Ademola Lookman was the name, and they were all looking at him.

Under their grateful gaze, he froze in time. He cut the figure of a reluctant hero struggling to comprehend the euphoria and chaos he had unleashed. A virtuoso stunned by his gift to his audience, destiny and effort aligned, and everything Lookman kicked at the Dublin Arena turned gold. Ireland, a country with a rich history of saints, witnessed another entry into its hallowed reverence list.

Lookman had just scored three inspirational goals to help Atalanta win its first-ever European title in the club’s 116-year history. He became the sixth player to score a hat trick in a major European final. He sits on the gilded stool alongside names like Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Jupp Heynckes. On the night of his dreams, Lookman catapulted himself into football immortality.

It was not supposed to be Atalanta’s night because Leverkusen had not been beaten by any club throughout the season. The Xabi Alonso-led team are the champions of the Bundesliga. They are never dead in a match, especially with players like Florian Writz, Granit Xhaka and Victor Boniface. The German team was the favourite to win the final. But Lookman is nothing if not an individual who produces wonder when he is counted out. His performance in the Europa League final was a microcosm of his life story.

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As a boy from a struggling Nigerian immigrant family in Wandsworth, London, Lookman was counted out. His talent as a footballer was overlooked by numerous clubs in the city until his late teens. He was underestimated. But he succeeded, despite the odds stacked against him.

AN EXCEPTIONAL STUDENT FROM A STRUGGLING NIGERIAN IMMIGRANT FAMILY

Lookman: Life was tough growing up.

Lookman was born in the London Borough of Wandsworth. He was the only boy and the only member of the family born in England; his older sisters were born in Nigeria. He grew up with his mother while his father worked in Nigeria.

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Growing up in London was rough for Lookman’s family. The player said his mother “was working all kinds of jobs” to keep the house fed and clothed.

“Life was tough growing up. There were some nights when I didn’t have … how can I say this? I didn’t have the best of food,” Lookman told the UK Guardian.

“I also didn’t have certain things when I was younger. It was a real struggle for my mum, and she had to take care of all of us. She did the best she could, and she made sure there was food on the table and that I had clothes to wear.

Lookman with his mum

“Everything I could ask of my mum, she gave me. I was happy, but as you get older, you realise how difficult it must have been for her. She was working all kinds of jobs – cleaning jobs and anything she could take. She was always looking for work.”

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But away from the harsh life, Lookman was a bright student who excelled academically, attending St Thomas the Apostle College in Peckham.

He consciously decided to avoid the wrong influences in his low-income neighbourhood and focused on education and sports to help his family out of deprivity.

“Of course, there’s pressure from lots of areas. But, even as a kid, you need to make decisions that don’t put you or your family at risk,” he said.

“I was able to differentiate right from wrong, and hanging around with the wrong crowd and going around with the right people was key for me. I took school very seriously, and for my GCSEs, I got five As, four Bs and one C. It definitely helped focus me.”

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HIS FOOTBALL TALENT WAS OVERLOOKED UNTIL HE WAS 16

Lookman came out from a loan spell to become a champion

While Lookman could see the outstanding result of his academic brilliance in real time, his precocious football talent bore little fruits in comparison.

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Despite multiple trials at numerous clubs in London, he was never selected to join an academy. He joined Waterloo FC, an amateur club, and played in the Sunday League until he turned 16.

“I was only concerned when I turned 16 because, in school, you start to apply for college. It really hit me then – this may be the route I need to go down. That was when I thought I needed a breakthrough,” he said.

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His dreams manifested when Charlton Athletics faced his London County FA representative side in a friendly match in 2013. Lookman was not supposed to be on the pitch, but one of his teammates got injured and was substituted. His talent shone, and the club brought him into its ranks immediately.

Lookman with parents

Chalton were so impressed by the untapped brilliance of Lookman that the club offered him a scholarship immediately.

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His feats at the Chalton youth team fast-tracked him to the senior side within two years. England also picked him, and he played for the country across several age-grade levels. He was part of the England team that won the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2017. He scored three goals in the tournament.

Lookman joined Everton in 2017 for £11 million, and despite early positive signs, he was loaned out of the club due to a lack of first-team opportunities. He moved to RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga, where he was initially loved. The club made Lookman’s loan permanent after a few months. But he struggled to retain the form.

A couple of unsuccessful loan spells at Fulham and Leicester City followed until Atalanta paid a reported fee of €15 million for Lookman’s service.

RESURGENCE AT ATALANTA 

Lookman helped Atalanta win its first-ever European title in the club’s 116-year history.

Under Gian Piero Gasperini, the manager of Atalanta, Lookman began to flourish.

In his first season with the club, Lookman scored 13 goals and provided six assists, finishing fifth on the Italian Serie A goal chart.

He contributed 15 goals and eight assists this season, helping Atalanta reach the Italian Cup final and win the Europa League.

In a chat with The Athletic, the 26-year-old wished he had joined the Italian club sooner in his career.

“I’ve played a lot of football and learned a lot of things in my time here already. I wish it would have come earlier, but that’s the way football is sometimes, and it’s a process of continuing to learn.” Lookman said.

“The mister [Gasperini] is very big on playing forward and creating many opportunities to score goals. For me, he has made my football much simpler in how I think about it.

“I feel like I understand football a lot more now.

“Previously, I never used to view football the way I do now. When I watch games, I look for certain things in terms of movements and spaces — those little details that I never really used to look for before.”

SWITCHING TO SUPER EAGLES

He made an outstanding performance at the African Cup of Nations in Cote d’Ivoire

Lookman rejected the Super Eagles thrice before finally switching to Nigeria in 2022. He played his first game for Nigeria against Ghana in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

The winger scored three goals at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Cote d’Ivoire, and the Eagles finished second. He scored twice in the Eagles’ 2-0 victory over Cameroon in the second round and netted the winner against Angola in the quarter-final. He was also named in the competition’s best eleven.

At the post-match press conference following his Europa League hattrick, Lookman said the “unwavering support and love” from Nigerians since he switched allegiance to the Super Eagles has “taken me to a new level”.

He added that his game improved immensely “in the past two years” since he started playing for the Eagles.

“The unwavering support and love I get from our people back home are unbelievable. It gives me the motivation to inspire myself in different areas, not just in my game but also as a person,” Lookman said.

“It has taken me to a new level. Competing at AFCON this January, unfortunately we lost in the final. But the whole tournament catapulted us to be the Eagles back again.”

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