IF JUWON Oshaniwa is as good a player as he is a talker then Hearts fans are in for a treat.
The ebullient 24-year-old left-back has bounced into Tynecastle brimming with positivity and clearly bursting to show the Gorgie faithful what he can do.
I wouldn’t say I’m hard, actually, but football is a contact game. It’s not table tennisJuwon Oshaniwa
At the end of a protracted transfer saga the Nigeria World Cup star finally signed for the Edinburgh club at the weekend and was in the stands to enjoy Sunday’s thrilling 4-3 win over St Johnstone in the Ladbrokes Premiership opener.
Yesterday he was introduced at Tynecastle and entertained the gathered media with an effervescent display of energy and self-confidence – qualities he drew upon when delivering an eye-catching display against no less than Lionel Messi at the World Cup in Brazil last summer.
Before we get too carried away, it should be pointed out that the little Barcelona genius did score twice that day in Porto Alegre, as Argentina won 3-2 in the second group game, so any talk of having Messi in his pocket should be tempered. However, it was generally felt at the time that Oshaniwa largely excelled in what is the most daunting task in the game – marking Messi – and is rightly proud of the tackles he made on the great man, keeping him quiet for large periods.
“Because I was his [Messi’s] direct marker, most of the pictures I’ve got from that game are against him.
“I wouldn’t say I’m hard, actually, but football is a contact game.
“It’s not table tennis. If you want to play a game where you don’t want anybody to touch you then you go and play ping-pong. Messi is the world’s best, so what do you expect?”
Oshaniwa was in the squad for Nigeria’s 2013 Africa Cup of Nations triumph, coming off the bench in the final for his only appearance in the tournament, but he played all four matches of the Super Eagles’ World Cup campaign, which was ended by a 2-0 loss to France in the last 16. He loved every minute and believes it gave him the belief that he can perform at a rarefied level.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “It’s what every living player on this planet has the desire to do, to play at that level. And, for me, at my age, to play at that level – wow. It was a dream fulfilled for me to play against big players like Lionel Messi, undisputedly the best player in the world, and then a collection of attackers like Aguero, Higuain, Giroud, Di Maria and the rest.
“These are players I can look up to and I played against them.
“My hero has always been Patrice Evra and now I can see me and him playing in the same game. Fifa have index statistics for every game and I am seeing myself ahead of him at the end of the game. My statistic in that game was six out of ten and, I think, Evra was a four.
“I said to myself ‘I have a bright future ahead of myself’.”
Oshaniwa has been Robbie Neilson’s No 1 transfer target this summer and patience has been rewarded as last year’s Championship winners finally got their man, signing him from Israeli side Ashdod on a three-year deal.
The player, who has also been linked with Celtic in the past year, had to be patient himself as a visa hold-up delayed the move. He has been keeping fit by playing and training with local sides back in Nigeria but admitted it had been a tortuous process.
“It’s taken a long time but when you’re coming to a new place you need to follow the protocols,” he explained. “It was very frustrating. It didn’t feel good, but what could I do? I never had any doubt that the move would go through because the management staff and the technical people at Hearts were always on the phone, calling me every moment to check how things were going. That made me strong when they called me. They have shown care for me and have genuinely wanted me and that is the main reason I knew I must come to this country and never turn Hearts down. I am so glad I am here.”
He got a taste of the Tynecastle atmosphere on Sunday and it merely confirmed that he has made a sound decision.
“Wow,” was, not for the first time, his response. “Amazing football, amazing fans. Total entertaining football. But even though we entertained, the most important part of it was that we won. We fought and earned the right to celebrate.
“I was on the pitch with the players at the end. I was so happy – I love victory. The first part of the season is always important for getting a morale-booster to project you into the next game. Hearts are champions from last season and you could see that in the game because they were able to pick themselves up after St Johnstone made it 3-3.
“It wasn’t just the goals that they scored, it was the way they keep the ball and try to entertain their fans.”
Oshaniwa knows Celtic defender Efe Ambrose well from his time with the national squad and the 17-times capped defender revealed he had spoken with his compatriot about the game here as the prospect of a move to Scotland, initially possibly to Parkhead, arose.
“I knew a lot about Celtic and Scottish football because I spoke to Efe Ambrose,” said Oshaniwa.
“I had a lot of issues with Celtic before and for the past two seasons I was supposed to be in Glasgow but stuff happened along the line and I did not go there. I spoke a lot to Efe about Celtic and we even sat down and spoke about them when we were with the national team. Efe is an experienced guy. I can’t wait for the day when I play against him for Celtic and what the result will be.”
Oshaniwa is now eager to show Celtic what they have missed and the four-in-a-row champions hold no fears.
He said: “Celtic have good players and they are a big team, but football is not judged like that. The 90 minutes judges it. It depends on what we do for ourselves and what we want for ourselves at this football club. We have to make sure that we are celebrating at the end of the season. This is our target. This is what the board, the technical crew, the management and the major participants, my team-mates, are at Hearts for, so that we come out celebrating this season.”
The Nigerian shares an agent with Hearts players Prince Buaben and Morgaro Gomis, and he played a key role in the move.
“My agent Ladi Salami said a lot of stuff about Hearts and Scotland,” said Oshinawa. “He talked to me a lot and told me why I should come. When I came myself, I thought ‘this man is making sense, why don’t I come?’ I saw marvellous things that convinced me. The future holds bright things for me.”