By Tlhabanelo Mohlamonyane
The Nigerian has been playing for Real Zaragoza in LaLiga SmartBank, Spain’s second tier, since 2018 and is pushing for promotion to LaLiga Santander next season.
Real Zaragoza are one of the most historic clubs of Spanish football and they’re pushing for a return to the top division this season, doing so with James Igbekeme at the heart of their midfield. The 25-year-old Nigerian signed for Los Blanquillos in 2018 and recently renewed his contract to 2023. His desire is to play in LaLiga Santander, Spain’s top division, over the next years of his contract and he recently discussed that ambition and much more with South African presenter Carol Tshabalala on Goal.com’s LaLiga Inside… series.
Adapting to the style of Spanish football
Before moving to Real Zaragoza in the summer of 2018, Igbekeme already had experience of European football given that he’d spent his entire senior career up to that point in Portugal. In 2017/18, the season before his move across the border, he was with Gil Vicente in the Portuguese second tier, but he nevertheless found the style of football quite different in Spain after arriving at Zaragoza.
“The football in Portugal was more physical,” he says. “When I came to Spain, I saw that they played technically. Because of my fitness level, I think I adapted quickly to the football of Spain. In Spain the ball moves more than you run, so you need to adapt to that mentally. That was difficult at first, but I was able to adapt.”
Having settled in and having already made over 50 appearances in LaLiga SmartBank, the midfielder is thrilled to be playing in a league with such high technical quality. As he told Tshabalala: “For me it’s a dream come true to play in Spain. Football in Spain is the best. The quality, the technique… it is all so special. I’m very happy to be in Spain playing now.”
Dreams of LaLiga Santander
Even though playing in LaLiga SmartBank is already a dream come true for Igbekeme, he has set his sights on LaLiga Santander with Real Zaragoza currently in the automatic promotion spots and targeting a return to the top tier. Historically, the club from Spain’s north-eastern region of Aragon have been close to an ever-present in the top division. In fact, only eight clubs have spent more seasons in Spain’s top tier than Real Zaragoza, with their 58 top-flight campaigns.
As such, there is serious determination at La Romareda, from the dressing room – which features the likes of former Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa – to the board room, to take the club back to the highest level of the Spanish footballing pyramid. As Igbekeme explained: “We have very good players in the team and we have a good coach. The president is doing his best also. The players are all ambitious to take the club back to LaLiga Santander.”
The coach he praised is Víctor Fernández, a club legend who was in charge back in 1995 when Real Zaragoza won the European Cup Winners’ Cup and who has returned to lead the side to promotion. Igbekeme and the coach have very quickly developed a strong relationship. “It has been amazing working with Víctor Fernández,” says Igbekeme. “Working with the previous coaches at the club was good too, but I have more playing time with Víctor Fernández. We have trust between us. If possible, I want to play under him also if we reach the first division.”
Dealing with the coronavirus halt to the season
Real Zaragoza’s momentum was completely disrupted by the global COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent enforced pause. They remain in the automatic promotion spots, but their form has dipped since the restart in June.
“As time goes on, we are trying to get our rhythm back as it was before the lockdown,” he says. “I think things are going better now and, with the fitness level, we are catching up little by little.”
Igbekeme also reflected on the fact that matches are behind closed doors and explained that the players understand why such measures are necessary right now. “Playing without the fans is not a good feeling, but we just need to adapt to the situation,” he said. “This is the reality and there’s nothing we can do.”
The Nigerians of LaLiga Santander
If Real Zaragoza do secure promotion over the final few weeks of the season then Igbekeme would come across several other Nigerian players in Spain’s top flight. Currently, there are five players from Nigeria in LaLiga Santander, namely Samu Chukwueze (Villarreal CF), Ramon Azeez (Granada CF), Oghenekaro Etebo (Getafe CF) and Kenneth Omeruo and Chidozie Awaziem (CD Leganes).
The 25-year-old revealed that the only one who he keeps in contact with regularly is Azeez, but that he is rooting for each of them whenever they take to the pitch. “I haven’t met them, but I do support them whenever they have their league games,” Igbekeme said of his fellow Spain-based Nigerians.
Igbekeme is confident that if he continues to impress for Zaragoza, and especially if the team reach the top flight, that he could finally receive a call-up to the Nigerian national team and be given the chance to represent the Super Eagles.
“It’s every young player’s dream to represent their country,” he says. “All I need is the chance. I think I will have a chance soon, but first I need to do my best in my team to make sure we go to LaLiga Santander. There, there are a lot of people watching and you have the chance to be called up by the national team.”