Leon Balogun defends Nigeria's Afcon chances, and his own reputation

Nigeria defender Leon Balogun bristles, in jocular indignation, when the subject of his perceived lack of pace is broached. He considers it a personal affront, and he quickly rises to his own defence.

"I need to correct that," he tells ESPN, just a few weeks out from the Africa Cup of Nations. "I think people are doing me wrong. It is just the way I run so people think I am slower.

"But I am unfortunate that I play alongside guys like Ahmed Musa, who are really fast. You cannot believe how fast these guys are. So when people see me, they compare me to these guys and they say I am slow."

Conceding that he will lose over short distances, Balogun insists he will keep pace over longer distances.

"Over a short distance, they will probably kill me; my pace is not the first few metres, necessarily. But over a longer distance, I can catch up with them."

Balogun noted as evidence of his speed that he "kept pace with one of their quickest players" - namely Anthony Martial -- in Brighton & Hove Albion's home game against Manchester United last August, when he made his English Premier League debut off the bench as an injury replacement for Shane Duffy.

He continues to make his point: "[Nigeria] is blessed with some quick players, seriously. Next time you want to compare me, just look at the guys I am playing with. I am above average fast. I just need to correct that."

And with that out of the way, Balogun settles down to deal with the issue of Nigeria's chances at the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.

"I think that what we are working towards is to be Africa's No. 1 again," he says with an air of thoughtful seriousness.

"It's a great chance at the Afcon to be Africa's No. 1, but it is nothing you can take for granted.

"We have to work for it, and we have to prove it each and every game over and over again. You saw our last game against Seychelles. It was not easy."

Nigeria won 3-1 at home in Asaba, as overwhelming favourites, but the result was not secure until Moses Simon scored in the 90th minute.

"The allegedly small teams, they have become bigger and bigger, and stronger and stronger. So it's always a test."

Afcon 2019: Who's on the plane? Confirmed 23-player squads for the Africa Cup of Nations

Victor Osimhen tops Nigeria Power Rankings ahead of Afcon

Welcome to the summer of soccer

Balogun is one of a growing number of players not born or raised in Nigeria, but nevertheless he wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to the country and the Super Eagles.

Born in West Berlin to a Nigerian father, Cesar, and a German mother, Orfa, Balogun says he is "blessed because of my father to be part of a great football nation, and one of the best teams in Africa.

"I am very proud of the achievements I have made with the team.

"That I have been part of a great football generation that we have with the Super Eagles right now, and we have a core for the last three or four years. We have lost some, gained some new talents, and everything just adds up."

The talent and belief convinces Balogun that the Super Eagles can hoist the Africa Cup of Nations trophy come July.

"Of course we can do it. We just have to believe in ourselves and work hard, and trust each other."

If that sounds like it is coming from an experienced campaigner, it is.

At 30, Balogun is one of the older members of the squad. Not the oldest -- 32-year-old skipper John Obi Mikel holds that distinction -- but he certainly comes across as one of the more mature heads in his carriage and bearing. Despite his optimism, that maturity sees him issue a cautious admonition.

"There might be some downs sometimes. We might have a bad game, we might play against a team that we are supposed to beat and lose. That is preparation.

"We can never be satisfied, we just have to stay hungry, keep learning, keep trying to improve. I think that is what we have been doing for the last three, four years, and I think that is why we have been successful."

Balogun's maturity has him also lining up to support out-of-form forward Kelechi Iheanacho, who has been struggling with both Leicester City and the Super Eagles.

Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr dropped Iheanacho from his squad but Balogun said before that decision was made that the striker was "an incredible player".

"He has great finishing quality.

"Talking about how he has been performing for the Super Eagles, he has always been fighting hard. Probably the only thing that has been missing is goals.

"It is hard to see him sidelined at the moment, but I just hope for him that he keeps his faith, that he keeps believing in himself and his ability, because I think for the past four, five years he is actually one of the biggest talents we have in Nigeria.

"And I just hope he gets another opportunity, not just at the Super Eagles but also club wise to prove it and that he actually does it."

Balogun points to a chicken-and-egg situation of playing time and confidence: "There are so many things coming together. You don't play as a regular, then you get your chance; you are supposed to score to make something happen for your club, but you don't have that high confidence level.

"It is actually harder. People outside think he should be so motivated, but it is actually harder because you are thinking 'what if I don't score, what happens if I miss a pass?'.

"I just hope for him that he keeps believing that he stays in high spirits and just believes in his abilities because, like I said before, his ability is amazing.

"Left foots are always special; he is a left-footer, and I believe he has what it takes to be up there especially to fight for a shirt."

International assignment aside, Balogun has had restricted minutes with Brighton & Hove Albion after he was signed as backup for the first-choice centre-back pairing of Duffy and Lewis Dunk.

How does he keep himself motivated and ready to come on and perform at the high level?

He says: "The motivation is that I always want to play. It happened already that I came in unexpectedly more or less. The first one was an injury, in the Man Utd game. The second one against Crystal Palace was a red card.

"I guess you always want to be ready. Thankfully I have had some experience in Germany. But of course, I would rather start the games; that is more fun.

"Motivation wise, you don't need motivation. What I can tell you is that I have never been not ready to come in and play."

With limited minutes, and the transfer window now on, would he be casting his eyes elsewhere for first team football?

The question is met with a mischievous, artful dodger smile, a shrug of the shoulders and a coy, "Anything is possible. Time will tell," from the defender.

He has learned to make adjustments to the English game after spending all of his career previously in Germany, the biggest being, "not to rely on the referee too much because [the game in England] is more physical".

"I was expecting that, but there are some situations where you think out of experience 'that is a foul' and they don't give it. Don't get me wrong, I am not criticising that, it's just something that you have to adapt to. Apart from that, Germany has prepared me for a lot already."

And he likes to stay prepared.

Even before reporting to Nigeria camp this week, Balogun was working with a trainer to keep himself ready for the task ahead in the summer.

"It is hard to play against the best players on the continent if you are not ready, and you have to work on yourself and be disciplined at all times."