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EXCLUSIVE: Lagos to Atromitos - The Intriguing Football Journey of Abiola Dauda

Abiola Dauda is a prolific Nigerian striker currently playing for Atromitos Athenon in the Greek Super League.

Dauda has two league championships to his name - he won the Allsvenkan with Kalmar FF in 2008 and the Serbian SuperLiga title with Red Star Belgrade in 2012-13 - both seasons in which he top scored.

The 29-year-old has also played in Holland for Vitesse Arnhem, and had a successful loan spell at Heart of Midlothian in Scotland.

Dauda recently moved from Vitesse Arnhem to Atromitos, where he has settled in quickly with five goals and an assist in his first five starts. Dauda is currently preparing for Atromitos' biggest game of the season so far - a quarter-final 2nd leg in the Greek Cup versus the mighty Olympiacos in Athens on Thursday night.

Ahead of the big game, Tribalfootball caught up with Dauda to discuss his career, his background and all things football.

You're already off the mark in Greece, what do you make of the standard of play and the atmosphere?

"The standard is good. Apart from Olympiacos the league is quite even with only 13 points between second place and 9th. We narrowly beat the bottom team Veria on Monday night, and we recently had a very tough win against Asteras Tripolis who are also in the bottom half.

"The atmosphere is exciting and it will be especially so for tomorrow's derby with Olympiacos. I've played in the Belgrade derby, one of the most hostile in the world, so I'm excited to see what the atmosphere will be like for the return leg."

What are your goals for the remainder of this season?

"My objectives for the remainder of the season are to score the goals that help the team obtain the points we need to qualify for Europe.

"It's really tight up there and we're only 4 points off our local rivals AEK Athens after our latest win. AEK are in 5th place and we need to finish in the top 5 to qualify for the play offs to have a chance of European football next season. I believe we can do it.

"It would also be great to beat Olympiacos and to go on to reach the Cup Final!"

Dauda was born in Lagos, Nigeria and he has the scars to prove it.

Small tear drop tribal marks under each eye serve as a humble reminder of his heritage, something that he cherishes. He remains close to his family in Nigeria.

Dauda recognises that football has given him privileges, and he is keen to give something back to his native Nigeria. He does this by providing valuable assistance to the running of a youth academy back home, the Kedge Academy in Lagos.

Dauda wants more young Nigerian players to have the opportunity to play in Europe just as he has. Dauda's journey started when he left home to pursue his dream at the age of 18. He made his way to Sweden where he first tasted success.

How was your time in Sweden?

"I started off in the Swedish fourth division at Solvesborgs GoIF. In my one season with them I scored 23 league goals in 25 appearances, which earned me a transfer to Kalmar FF in the Allsvenkan (Swedish first division).

"At Kalmar, I felt that it took a while for me to fully convince them of my ability and to establish myself in the first team. Until then I was being played out of position on the wing and left on the bench on a regular basis.

"Then it all clicked - I was played through the middle and began to score regularly in the Allsvenkan. I really enjoyed my time in Sweden and I came away with a league title."

How big an influence is Zlatan Ibrahimovic there? Is he a player you studied during your six years in the country?

"In Sweden, Ibrahimovic has a God like status and rightly so.

"I saw his goals for Manchester United in the EFL Cup Final at the weekend. He has scored over 200 goals since turning 30 and is someone I admire and look up to as he scores every type of goal.

"If my career has half his longevity and quality, I will be very happy!"

Following his title win in Sweden, former European Champions Red Star Belgrade came calling. He enjoyed more success in Serbia before moving on to Holland with Vitesse.

Tell us a little about playing in Serbia. Did you enjoy the country?

"I enjoyed playing in Belgrade very much. The style of football in Serbia is exciting, it means so much to the fans, and people there were very welcoming to me. I always enjoyed walking around Belgrade and talking to supporters.

"At Red Star, things were excellent for me on the pitch, and it is a really great club. However, they had some financial difficulties at the time which had an affect on the players.

"As a result I contemplated leaving Red Star as I had received a big money offer from a Chinese club. But my teammates persuaded me to stay, as we had a chance of winning the league title despite the club's problems. I then went on to score the goals that helped us to the league title that year [2013-14].

"My memories of that season and what we achieved will stay with me always."

How did you get along with Slavisa Stojanovic?

"My first manager at Red Star was actually Ricardo Sa Pinto, who is now my new manager at Atromitos. My first half-season at Red Star was with him and he was the catalyst for us to develop a strong team, winning 8 games in a row.

"Slavisa took over from Ricardo. Both are excellent managers, and Slavisa was our manager when we won the league title, so I will always have a lot of respect and admiration for him.

"As for Ricardo, he is tactically astute and has a strong winning mentality. He has achieved a recent upturn in results for Atromitos and I am very much enjoying playing under him again."

Was there other offers apart from Vitesse? Was it difficult to leave?

"There were other offers but I saw Vitesse as a natural progression to my career.

"I was sad to leave Red Star because there are a lot of great people there and the fans are really passionate but the opportunity to play in one of the top 6 leagues in Europe was too good to pass up."

Having realised that his future lay outside Serbia, Dauda was keen to make a big impact at Vitesse, however things didn't go totally according to plan.

It seemed like a great move initially as Dauda made a fantastic start to life in the Eredivisie, with 6 goals in his first 10 games. The Dutch media began to refer to him as "the new Wilfried Bony" due to his goals and playing style.

Then, inexplicably to him, Dauda was taken out of the team and dropped to the substitute's bench for the remainder of the 2014-15 season.

Bertrand Traore, a highly rated Chelsea player on loan at Vitesse, was moved from the wing into the central striking position. Traore did very well indeed and scored goals, but some Vitesse fans felt it would have been better to use both players together.

Why were you taken out of the team after a really strong start at Vitesse?

"Bertrand is one of the most talented players I have ever played with, but I felt that we worked well together, and I was shocked to be taken out of the team.

"I was never told the reason. All I can say is that I was surprised and disappointed because I was in great form and felt at a good point in my career."

Following an impressive pre-season, Dauda started the 2015-16 season as Vitesse's first choice striker.

It was like he had never been away. He scored 3 goals in his first 4 league games that season. However, unfortunately for Dauda, Chelsea sent Dominic Solanke to Vitesse on loan before the transfer deadline.

It was clear that Solanke was there to play and would be preferred. Once Solanke reached fitness, Dauda was taken out of the team again. Solanke's scoring record from open play compared unfavourably to Dauda's, but Dauda wasn't given another chance despite being seen as a model professional by his teammates.

The apparent close relationship between Chelsea and Vitesse has been the subject of ongoing speculation in the media. Tell us about the Chelsea influence at Vitesse. How did the Vitesse players deal with it?

"I don't know too much about the relationship other than Chelsea loanees come to play at Vitesse quite regularly.

"The Vitesse players know that each season Chelsea players might come on loan but we're professionals and we would see it as a challenge rather than a threat. It is our job to give the manager no choice but to play us, no matter who the club signs from Chelsea or elsewhere.

"Frustratingly for me, I didn't have the opportunity to really show the fans what I can do. I felt if I had played a full season in the Eredivisie I would have ended up with a good goal tally that would have helped the club."

Who were the best Chelsea players you played with?

"They were all talents. I think that Bertrand Traore has a very bright future and in my opinion can play in the Chelsea first team now. Josh McEachran [now at Brentford] was also very good technically."

Is there any resentment among the Vitesse players towards the Chelsea loanees? How did you feel about it?

"Not from me, though I can only speak for myself. Although I twice lost my place to Chelsea players, I harboured no ill-feeling towards those players.

"They do not pick the team and are just doing what they are paid to do. To sulk is counter-productive. It is not my style and I would advise any player in that position to channel their frustration and to work hard to get back into the team."

It became clear that Dauda would not get much further game time at Vitesse that season, so he moved to Hearts on loan in January 2016. He scored 5 goals in 7 league starts, including some spectacular goals.

His equaliser versus Celtic was a particular highlight, where he picked the ball up and drove at the Celtic defence from a deep position, shrugging off numerous challenges to eventually drill the ball past Craig Gordon.

Did you enjoy your time at Hearts?

"I really enjoyed my time in the UK.

"British people are very passionate about football. I love Scotland and Edinburgh is a very special city. The fans really welcomed me and Hearts is an historic club which is very well run.

"Craig Levein and Ann Budge are doing a great job there. The style of football is more physical than in Holland, but once I became used to the physicality I loved it.

"I still have good friends playing at the club and I hope the Jambos can finish top 3 again this year - it is looking hard to catch Aberdeen and Rangers now, but not impossible. I'll certainly be back when I retire to experience the famous Fringe festival!"

Was the Celtic goal the best you have ever scored?

"Scoring that goal against Celtic was an amazing feeling, especially as it was against high quality opposition. But in terms of technique and execution I would put it 4th or 5th in my personal all-time list."

Dauda returned to Vitesse last summer and again found game time difficult to come by due to the signing of their former player, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, from Norwich City.

This was despite Dauda scoring 12 goals in only 7 starts for Vitesse reserves. Thankfully his agent, Tony Verinder of SPOCS, secured his move to Atromitos in early January.

He has settled well into life in Athens and has had a fine start on the pitch also. Dauda is trying to pick up the Greek language having learnt five languages already on his football journey.

You have played in 5 different countries so far. Are there any countries you have not played in that you would like to? Is it an ambition to play in England and would you ever consider moving to China?

"England is the home of football with the world's most popular league. I had a taste of British football from my time in Scotland.

"If the right opportunity arose, then perhaps one day before I retire it would be nice to play in England. But that can wait as I am fully committed to Atromitos at the moment and getting this club where they deserve to be.

"With regard to China, I have had opportunities in the past to go there but the timing wasn't right. The Chinese Super League is a growing league and the quality is clearly improving rapidly."

What did you think of Odion Ighalo's recent move from Watford to China? Will it become a trend for players to leave big European leagues for China?

"A player has the right to do what is best for himself and his family, and clubs operate in the same way. If a club can make or save money from moving a player on then they will generally do so.

"I am sure Ighalo would have spent a long time carefully considering it, because he did very well at Watford. In the end he's taken a great opportunity and I wish him all the very best with it.

"Generally, I think more high profile players will make the trip to China, because the standard is improving and the rewards can be high, but the clubs there have a limit on foreign players so they will look to retain a Chinese core to their squads.

"I am sure that the long term ambition in China is to improve the Chinese national team so that they can compete at the World Cup."

What do you think the future holds for you in football? How long would you like to play for?

"My current focus is solely on Atromitos and helping them to achieve success in the league and cup.

"The club have really helped me to settle in well and I cannot look too far beyond this season.

"I feel that I have kept myself in good shape and if I am fortunate enough to stay fit I should be able to play at the top level for another 6 or 7 years.

"I really have my love for the game back at Atromitos. Nothing beats the joy of playing and winning."

Dauda has 92 career goals and 29 assists in 156 career starts with an impressive ratio of 0.79 goals/assists per 90 minutes played.

You can see him playing against Olympiacos on Thursday at 7:30pm local time.

You can follow Dauda on Twitter at @blackveron.

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