Leon Balogun

The FootballCastle sat down with Rangers and Super Eagles defender, Leon Balogun, in an exclusive chat to discuss his season so far at the Scottish giants. The 1v1 session was aimed at gauging the 35-year-old’s thoughts ahead of what could be his final match in his second spell at Ibrox stadium. 

The German-born defender has had a topsy-turvy season at Rangers this term, starting the campaign on the bench under Michael Beale until he got sacked. Balogun forced his way back into the starting lineup under Philippe Clement and was amazing against Hearts in the Scottish Cup semi-final, three consecutive starts followed but he sustained an injury earlier this month.

As the Gers prepare for the 2023/24 Scottish Cup final against Old Firm rivals, Celtic, Balogun’s fitness has been a huge topic of interest in Glasgow this week. 

Here are excerpts of our interview:

Betway Nigeria

Question: How are you feeling ahead of the cup final?  

Leon Balogun: I’m good, I’m good. Trained the full week. Happy to be back out there with the boys on the pitch and looking forward to a big game on the weekend.” 

Balogun has had the pleasure of having another Nigerian in the Rangers squad, Cyriel Dessers, just like in his first spell at the club when Calvin Bassey and Joe Aribo were also teammates. 

Q: What’s it like having another Nigerian in the squad who is one of the top scorers this season 

LB: “He’s (Dessers) a very, very laid-back character, very calm character. He’s a nice guy to have in the dressing room. I think he had a tough start to his career at the club, but I think the way he redeemed himself, the way he then came back to scoring loads of goals and very important goals as well, I think shows the quality that lies within him and just is proof that sometimes you need a bit of time to get warm. 

At Rangers, you don’t get as much time as in other clubs. So he had to learn that, unfortunately, in the hard way a little bit, but I think it’s a testimony to his character that he just kept his head down and just worked hard and then obviously he got rewarded in the end. And now he’s, I think, one of the players that the fans are actually rave about the most. He’s got his own song. So yeah, it went well for him and obviously I knew him from before. He’s a really, really nice guy. You can talk to him, can have fun with him. Good character, very, very good character.”

Another Nigerian whom Balogun is very familiar with is William Troost-Ekong who he knows very well. The Super Eagles captain was Player of the Tournament at AFCON 2023 and has spent most of his international career alongside Balogun as they formed the famous ‘Oyinbo Wall’ in the centre of defence for so many years for Nigeria. 

Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong after winning the AFCON 2019 bronze medal

Distinct for their mixed-race complexion compared to the rest of the squad, both players formed a balanced pairing as Balogun was the aggressive, touch-tight defender who loved to drive forward with the ball while Troost-Ekong was the sweeper.

Q: What can you tell us about Ekong as a person? Your partnership and the nickname, Did you like it initially? 

LB: “I can’t even remember when this came about, probably during the World Cup qualifying campaign back in 2017. Similar to Cyriel, Will is a very confident character. I think you can see this in the way he presents himself. He’s got a good composure about him, he’s got leading qualities, which is why eventually he became a captain. I think it was always clear that he has leadership qualities and that he has captain material.

And apart from that, I think there’s nothing that I haven’t said about him. It always helps if you have a friendship outside of the pitch. I think the way we were brought up culturally, but also in football, helped us just to gain understanding and play alongside each other and I think the most challenging bit probably was as we both came up in our career, to then combine the ideas that we had from our respective clubs. 

And there’s been moments probably as well where then his ideas and my ideas collided, but we always found a way to make it work, it sounds like there wasn’t a huge clash or something, but every now and then in the game, if things have to go fast and have to be tidy, then you have a little go at each other.

But like I said, we have a friendship outside of football, which helps to just then communicate these things. And that’s why it’s like playing with a brother and obviously that made it very easy.”

Concerning the nickname: “I think we just got on with it. Obviously, it refers to the colour of our skin. I’m a bit lighter than Will even so I’m in two minds as much. I know it’s a show of appreciation, but at the same time it almost makes it feel sometimes like you’re being singled out for something and I think it doesn’t matter actually.

But you know what? I never had an issue with it. I used it myself in captions and all sorts because I know that whenever I put on the green, white and green jersey for Nigeria that there was just loads of love shown to me, to Will and to others and I just appreciated that. So yeah, that was fine in the end, it was a good wall.”

Moving on to the topic of goals, Balogun has never been a prolific goalscorer but whenever he does score, it’s always a memorable occasion. 

His only goal in the sole season at QPR last term came against his former club, Wigan. The only goal he also scored in a frustrating spell at Brighton was a beautiful volley in the M23 derby against Crystal Palace, 25 seconds after coming on.

His one international goal from 46 caps for Nigeria was against the Central African Republic, a crisp finish just three days after losing to the minnows in a 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifier in Lagos. Balogun had a share of the blame for that winning goal and he made instant amends with the opening goal in the away leg.

LB: Oh, I wish I would score more. Obviously, I had a few good chances this season that I probably should have scored from, but obviously it’s a great feeling, especially if it’s an important goal. It’s even more meaningful and obviously it’s nice as a defender to get on the score sheet. Definitely something I’m going to try as long as I’m still playing to keep pushing more for. 

I understand all the strikers who get angry if they don’t get a pass for an easy tap-in.”

The veteran defender’s international career looks to be winding down given his last game for Nigeria was the record 10-0 win against Sao Tome & Principe in June 2022.

Q: What’s up with your international career? Can you effectively rule yourself out from future call-ups? Are you still open to invitations to the national team? 

león balogun

LB: “I never said that I’m not open for invitations. So when I signed for QPR last season, I was really, really unfortunate with untimely injuries at that point. So there was one thing in the first call-up around September I had just moved to Queens Park Rangers, and obviously I had a delayed start into the season. So it wasn’t something serious, but it was better for me to stay away. And that was communicated with the coach then, Jose Peseiro, and then after that, during the World Cup break and everything following, it’s just one injury that kept lingering on, which then ruled me out unfortunately.

But I never said to anyone that I’m not available for call-ups anymore. I was actually a bit disappointed not even to be considered in the end for the 2023 AFCON, because I thought in the two months leading up to it, I had a very, very good run of games, was in form. But yeah, I mean, there’s speculations around things I don’t really know if it’s the truth or if it isn’t, but that’s also not my job. I can only put up or put my performances out there and I’m still very much keen on representing Nigeria, but I can only do so much. If the invitation comes, I will always honor it but if it isn’t, then there’s other things I have to think about.”

Should he earn a callup soon, Balogun would be walking into a slightly different setup. 

Finidi George is the new head coach, Ademola Lookman’s status has risen after his crucial goals on the road the the AFCON final and a sensational hat-trick in the Europa League final, Victor Boniface is also a Bundesliga winner courting interest all over Europe.

Q: What are your thoughts on the current Super Eagles team and the coaching crew?

LB: “It’s hard for me to say. I’ve met Finidi George as the assistant, but he was very composed, like in an observant role, more on the quiet part of things, and then he would sometimes grab players. So from that side, that was good.

But I don’t really know his coaching staff. So I don’t think I’m in a position where I could even give any judgment. But I think it’s always good to have players who have been in the game, who had success in their career, which he’s a perfect example of, if you have them, and then also becoming the coach of the national team.

But it’s also on the boys to make sure that he has a good start because, you know, in Africa, it’s never easy. It can be very challenging. I think our squad, we talk about it all the time when players like Mola (Lookman) right now or Victor Boniface, they come up, but then this is no taking away from them because over the past five, six years, we always had very, very strong squads. It’s just a matter of, can we take that next step? I think the AFCON was a showcase of what we are capable of. I think we still probably played a bit under our levels in terms of how we can attack because I think there’s even more in that team.

But you can see how we, even in a quite defensive setup, how successful we can be. And that shows you that there’s a sleeping dragon, kind of. And I really hope that Finidi George, with all his experience as a player, can bring out the best in the team and that we go back to even more exciting football.”

Leon’s one-year contract is coming to an end and it brings back fresh memories of similar circumstances at the end of the 2021/22 season when he hoped in vain for a contract extension at the club he has described as his ‘spiritual home’.  

Q: Your contract with Rangers expires this summer. What’s your plan? 

LB: “I think my love for the club here is… It’s pretty obvious. That’s not up for questions. So I hope that there will be an indicator in one or the other direction very, very soon as the season’s about to finish on Saturday. But again, for me, the main focus right now is the cup final on Saturday. And I also have to respect that there’s things going on around the club, around the team, obviously. And then any personal situations, I think, are going to be clarified very, very soon after.

So that’s where I’m at at the moment.”

The no-nonsense defender is no stranger to 1v1 situations, and he oozed calmness throughout our conversation. Certainly, Rangers fans will be hoping he can make a return and contribute to what would be a domestic cup double this season. 


Bolu Alabi-Hundeyin

Chief Editor of the Football Castle, Bolu Alabi-Hundeyin is a football junkie and writer of the beautiful game.


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