Tolu Arokodare: 'I see myself in the Champions League finals, playing in the World Cup'

Tolu Arokodare was playing for Valmiera in Latvia when he stormed into the ESPN Nigeria Player Power Rankings in August; less than two weeks later, his form had been recognised more widely and he had joined German Bundesliga club FC Cologne.

The move, a one-year loan deal with an option to buy, marked a remarkable change in fortune for a player who had been looking to force a transfer not quite a month earlier.

Having sealed the move to Germany, and made his debut in a 14-minute cameo, Arokodare wants to win trophies for his modest new club.

"My goal has always been to give my best for my team, have a good season and develop my game," Arokodare told ESPN.

"Now, I want us to stay in the Bundesliga and compete and win one of the cups. The aim is to be the best we can be and do my best for the team."

It was only in August that Arokodare, 19, tried to force a move away from Valmiera to join Anderlecht. The Latvian club rejected Anderlecht's reported offer of 1.5 million euros for Arokodare's services, leading to a standoff between the 198cm striker and his employers. A conversation between both parties eventually resolved the issue, and Arokodare returned to the field and scored eight goals in six matches.

Not only did his performances grab attention across Europe, they also saw him break into the ESPN Nigeria Power Rankings at No. 1 -- which left him stunned.

"I was surprised," he told ESPN.

"But I was just really happy to be on that list, and to be No. 1; I'm really grateful."

Arokodare was surprised again when Cologne moved so quickly.

"I have always known if I work hard the opportunities will come," he said.

"But the speed at which it happened, that was a surprise for me. It is good to know that they wanted me and acted quickly as well."

Arokodare teams up in Cologne with compatriot Kingsley Ehizibue, who only recently switched his international allegiance to Nigeria; the fullback is yet to play for the Super Eagles, but already he is showing that he bleeds green and white by helping the new boy settle in Germany.

"Having him here has been very comforting," Arokodare said of his teammate.

"It is always nice to have a bit of home with you anywhere you go. So far he has been a great help, helping me settle in comfortably, so hopefully I can focus on giving my best."

His best is exactly what Cologne will need this campaign.

The Billy Goats have started the season in woeful form, losing their opening two games to sit just one place above the relegation spots on goal difference.

The two matches have been settled by the odd goal each time, and Cologne would appreciate something like Arokodare's rush of 15 goals in 16 games for Valmiera.

"I want to score goals but there is so much more to my game than just my ability to score," Arokodare said.

But goalscoring is what seems to come naturally to him, from his time in Nigeria at Box 2 Box Academy and the International Sports Academy owned by Nigeria legend Segun Odegbami going all the way back to his baby years.

"I always say this to people... the first word I said as a kid was 'goal', but nobody ever believes me.

"My parents told me, my brothers told me. They said they remember clearly, we were all watching a Nigerian game. I think Nigeria scored and they said goal, like they all screamed goal and then after that, I said goal. It was probably not clear but that's what I said."

Good omens, naturally, but the German Bundesliga is one of Europe's top five competitions, and defenders there are much less forgiving than those in Latvia. Arokodare experienced a taste of just how hard it could be when he played in the UEFA Europa League against Poland's Lech Poznan in August.

"That was a totally different level of football," he said of the match against Lech Poznan.

"They were more experienced than us, and they were more physical. The opposition team, they were all big. Football is not all about physicality, but it matters, you know; it matters in football, and they were more experienced and they were playing on their home ground.

"For me football is football no matter where you play. Obviously the stage is more intense but for me it stays the same."

The fixture in Poland was the only game in which he failed to score in August, but he gleaned valuable lessons that he has taken with him to Germany.

"I learned that I have to go to the gym more because they were really physical. That was my only problem in the attack. I didn't get enough balls but I feel like if I was more physical, I wouldn't lose those balls."

Arokodare is always willing to learn and make improvements, which is why he developed from seven goals in 2019 to 15 and counting in 2020.

"I only watch the big games then I watch highlights of other games because when you watch you learn. Not just watching live games, watch old games, so you can go back and see a particular moment and think to yourself, 'If I was in this position, what would I do?'.

"Sometimes even when I'm watching the live game, I lose focus in a game because when I see a particular moment, I think if I was in this position, what would I do. And then I'm just thinking and forget about the game. That's how I improve. You have to watch to learn."

Arokodare knows the expectations will be high for him to deliver for Cologne, but he is not concerned. As for the future, Arokodare is thinking big, aiming for the UEFA Champions League Final and the World Cup through the next five years.

"I see myself in the Champions League finals, playing in the World Cup or something, but if I'm not in the top level I'm not going to give up. That doesn't mean I have failed as a footballer, you never know what happens. Andrew Robertson in Liverpool... nobody knew him three years ago , but look at him now. He's a Premier League winner, Champions League winner. So, you never know when it's your time to explode to the world. If I'm 25 and I'm not there, it means I have to work harder. But I really see myself being at the top level, playing the top level of football."

And it starts with helping FC Cologne get away from the bottom of the German Bundesliga table and winning silverware.