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Awoniyi hopes to attract Nigerian fans to Forest

By Oluwashina Okeleji Sports Writer, Nigeria

Nigeria international Taiwo Awoniyi believes his arrival at newly-promoted Nottingham Forest will attract fans from Africa’s most populous nation to the club.

The 24-year-old striker, who scored 20 goals in 43 games across all competitions last season, joined Forest from German club Union Berlin for club-record fee in June.

Nigerians are, like most of the world, obsessed with England’s Premier League and clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool have large fan bases in the West African nation.

“Our fans love to watch and support Nigerians playing in the Premier League and I believe some of them will try to create a Nottingham Forest fanbase, too,” Awoniyi told BBC Sport Africa.

“I know Nigerians like some clubs already, but when you have one of their own and play attractive football, you will automatically get them on your side.

“I believe they will support us, and of course I have my friends and family who were already waiting for me to play in England. It will be an exciting one for them.”

The Premier League is hugely popular in football-mad Nigeria, with millions of fans following fixtures on both terrestrial and satellite television.

With a population of over 200 million people, it is home to the league’s largest fanbase on the continent.

Likes of Kanu and Okocha blaze a trail for Nigeria

Kanu celebrates a goal for Arsenal
Kanu scored 54 Premier League goals during spells with Arsenal, West Brom and Portsmouth, making him the second-highest scoring Nigerian after Yakubu (95)

Nigerians’ love for English football stems from their British colonial history, while European champions like Forest and Liverpool enjoyed strong support in the 1970s and 80s.

The obsession increased in the early 1990s after the rebranding of the old English First Division and the birth of what is now the Premier League.

In 1993 Norwich City’s Efan Ekoku became the first African to score a hat-trick in the division, while Daniel Amokachi spent two seasons at Everton between 1994 and 1996.

The advent of satellite TV ensured most Nigerians truly got wind of the English top flight when Celestine Babayaro joined Chelsea in 1997 as the club’s record teenage signing, when he moved from Anderlecht for £2.25m.

Two years later Kanu arrived at Arsenal, attracting millions of supporters to North London, before Jay-Jay Okocha’s colourful spell with Bolton Wanderers between 2002 and 2006.

As Okocha’s skills enraptured the Trotters fans in England, it also won the hearts of Nigerian fans.

“The Premier League is very big in Nigeria because of players like Kanu, Okocha, Yakubu, Yobo, Odemwingie and many others who all played here,” Awoniyi added.

“Many people pick their clubs depending on where a Nigerian is playing or teams the family like. We all grew up watching it and love it, and it is actually a dream come true to know that millions will be watching me now.

“I want to give my best all the time and by God’s grace it will help us achieve our goals.”

Adapting from the Bundesliga

Taiwo Awoniyi ahead of a friendly between Union Berlin and Nottingham Forest
Awoniyi returned to former club Union Berlin for a pre-season game with Forest and got a warm reception at Stadion An der Alten Foersterei

Nigeria have contributed the most players from Africa to the Premier League since the top flight was rebranded in 1992.

Awoniyi becomes the country’s latest export, joining compatriots Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi (both Leicester City), Frank Onyeka (Brentford), Joe Aribo (Southampton) and Alex Iwobi (Everton).

Scoring 15 goals in 31 league games last season, Awoniyi was the Bundesliga’s sixth highest scorer and helped Union Berlin to a fifth-place finish – which guaranteed the club Europa League football for the first time since the 2001-02 season.

He joins Forest as they return to the Premier League after a 23-year absence, and boss Steve Cooper’s first target will be survival.

After failing to make any competitive appearance for Liverpool and watching from a distance at Anfield, Awoniyi is hoping for a big season in the Premier League.

“The Bundesliga is a big league and one of the toughest in Europe, so I’m grateful that I got a chance to play there,” he said.

“I’ve been through a lot in my career to get here and I know it’s not everyone that will get to fulfil their life ambition. I am here now and I know there will be another young player in Africa who will be dreaming of playing on this stage.

“The hard work starts now and I can’t wait to get started.”

Since making his senior debut for Nigeria last October, Awoniyi has won four caps and scored his first goal for his nation against Sudan at the Africa Cup of Nations in January.

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