MICHAEL ADUBATO - Tuesday, March 24, 2020
Eduvie Ikoba has had to overcome a few setbacks in his fledgling professional soccer career, but he is now making the most of his opportunities at Zalaegerszegi TE in Hungary.
Born in the United States to Nigerian parents, Ikoba started his life in the state of Iowa where he also fell in love with the beautiful game. He played there for most of his childhood until his family decided to head south to Alabama where he continued his high school soccer career before it was time for higher education and college soccer in the Ivy League.
"My parents always pushed me in academics as well as sports," the Dartmouth alumni told Yanks Abroad. "So, I think I was able to make the most out of those fields by going to a good school."
The route that many American sportsmen go down is that of winning a full athletic scholarship in order to play and receive a university degree at the end of their college days. That's not exactly how it worked for Ikoba.
"Actually, the way the Ivy League works is that they don't give athletic scholarships; they work on a need based system so if my family is unable to pay the full tuition, which is a lot; around 70,000 plus, they're able to cover it with certain school funds. So almost all of my tuition was covered by different things but we did pay a little bit. It wasn't officially an athletic scholarship."
Scholarship or not, the 6-foot-4 striker suited up 62 times for Dartmouth's Big Green and found the back of the net 17 times, earning First Team All-Ivy League honors in both his junior and senior years, as well as the Ivy League Championship his freshman, sophomore and junior years.
The senior year recognition is all the more impressive due to the fact that Ikoba had missed out on some games that season due to injuries. Still FC Dallas selected him in the third round of the MLS SuperDraft. Unfortunately, those injuries took their toll.
"It was kind of complicated, my senior season and the draft and combine because I started the season in full health and then got injured my second game of the season. I missed about a month of playing. In my first game back, I re-injured the same muscle, which was my hamstring. I (recovered and) finished the last three or four games of the season and played really well. I think I scored like five or six goals," he said.
"I was invited to the combine but then in the time leading up to it, I reinjured the same hamstring muscle for the third time. After that I still went to the combine and tried my best but it was kind of difficult. Even at FC Dallas for the preseason, I was still dealing with that injury and wasn't able to train a lot, so I wasn't able to sign with them, unfortunately."
Spending time with the MLS team was a learning experience for the Ivy Leaguer, one that convinced him to stick with the game that he fell in love with as a child kicking the ball around in Iowa.
"To be honest, it was a step up but I enjoyed the increase in levels there," said Ikoba. "I think that's what convinced me to continue seeking professional opportunities because when I was there, I never felt out of place. I knew I had some catching up to do because I was starting later than some of the other players but it was like a new challenge for me. I felt comfortable and enjoyed it a lot. I think the team was really nice and respectful to me during my time there."
With the excitement of finishing his college soccer career and then being able to go and kick the ball around in Dallas, there was still the matter of returning to the New Hampshire campus for one more term before graduating. It was then time to find some opportunities and hopefully a new team.
"I finished the term and in the meantime I had a contact with a Hungarian. It's complicated - my girlfriend (who is Hungarian) has a family friend who has a connection to the club that I'm currently playing for, so he was able to get me a trial here after I graduated. I took the trial opportunity and was lucky enough to do well and they signed me," he explained.
The 22-year-old is now on the books for Zalaegerszegi TE, a team playing in the Hungarian Nemzeti Bajnokság, the country's highest soccer league.
"Things really worked out perfectly for me. I was able to finish my degree and still able to sign for a team professionally."
The jump from high school to college is a big one, but it's nothing like jumping from college to a professional team in Europe.
"It's definitely a new experience," the big front man said. "The league is a lot higher than anything I've ever played in but similarly I enjoy the challenges of playing in this league.
"There are some differences between being in Europe and being in the U.S. I think the biggest one that I've had to deal with is the focus on tactical play here; I think it's much higher. It's been challenging but at the same time I feel good because I'm improving individually as well because the players are a lot better than what I'm used to. I'm happy being here."
"There are definitely a lot of differences. I guess the fact that I'm living in a much smaller city than I'm accustomed to in the U.S. had been a bit of a shock but I've been able to visit Budapest often on the weekends. My girlfriend lives in Budapest as well so we're able to spend some time together. She's Hungarian but I met her at Dartmouth. I guess I was lucky to meet her because it was through her that I was able to get a trial and come to Hungary."
Having won three collegiate league titles, playing for ZTE was a real eye-opener as the team has a battle on its hands if it hopes to avoid being relegated at the end of the season.
"The league is definitely challenging. There are a couple of teams up at the top that are very, very good. One of them played in the Europa League this year and did alright. For the rest of the teams I would say that we're even with a lot of them. I wouldn't say that we're any worse or any better than the other teams but we've been really unfortunate with the results. There were a lot of games where we had leads and then given them up in the last few minutes. We had issues where we got a couple of red cards in games and times where we were unable to close the game.
Recently we've been able to fix some of those issues but I think we just have to be more disciplined and more organized in some of the small mistakes that we're making because that's proven to be the difference between the top half of the league and fighting relegation. As for the rest of the season, I don't really know what's going to happen because its cancelled right now. There is a possibility that we would be relegated but from what I've heard, it seems like the season will continue at some point or they may just keep all the teams in the league (D1) and use a different system for next season, championship rounds."
One of the best days of the year for Eduvie was back in January when fellow American Eric McWoods, who had just left Trans Narva in Estonia, signed on with ZTE.
"He's been one of my best friends actually. I've been happy to have him with me. We've ended up spending a lot of time together just talking about different stuff, hanging out or getting dinner together. I've been so thankful to have another American here with me because the first half of the year was pretty difficult. There's one Nigerian player on the team as well and I spent a lot of time with him but it's different having one person to spend your time with versus having two or three; it just makes things a lot easier. We have similar tastes, me and Eric. We became friends immediately.
I was excited to hear that he was coming. The sporting director gave me a heads up (that he was coming) telling me that we were planning to sign an American next week so you're going to have a new friend. I thought OK, this is perfect for me."
With the COVID-19 lockdown, most leagues in Europe have stopped playing and training (with the exception of Belarus), leaving the players to keep themselves fit for that day that we're all looking forward to, when play resumes.
"For me, I'm just trying to find ways to touch a ball inside the place I'm staying right now. I can't wait for the season to resume because I'm getting so bored just sitting inside every day. There's a treadmill in the basement of my girlfriend's house where I'm staying. I've just been doing sit-ups, jumping jacks, push-ups, running on the treadmill, juggling a tiny soccer ball in the basement and trying to find other creative ways to try to stay as sharp as possible for when the season does resume. If it does."
Ikoba's first professional season has been pretty much what he had expected, getting accustomed to a new league, a new country and a new culture. He has found the back of the net eight times in 25 games, so not a bad goal tally so far. He's hoping to add more when the season resumes.
"If we continue with the recent form that we've had then for sure we'll stay in the first division. It will be interesting."