Torino exercised their option to buy Ola Aina from Chelsea for £8.7 million ($11m) after a successful campaign on loan, but this season has done more than secure a long-term club – it also sees the 22-year-old make the African Cup of Nations after disappointingly missing out on the World Cup.
Aina was one of those placed on Gernot Rohr’s stand-by list and as such only narrowly missed the cut for Nigeria’s 23-man squad in Russia, despite having switched national allegiances from England to the Super Eagles.
Born in London to two Nigerian parents, long-time national team captain and former Chelsea team-mate John Obi Mikel had been laying the charm offensive on Aina to switch countries. The youngster did so and says he has no regrets as he aims for glory in Egypt.
“I just missed out on the World Cup last time, that was hard to not go,” Aina told Goal. “African Cup of Nations is around the corner and to play in it is a big thing for me. To compete and play after two times not qualifying for it, it’s really special for me to be involved in it.
“After I missed the World Cup, I bounced back quickly and moved on. You take that disappointment and turn it into hunger and desire to be in this tournament and be selected. It has just pushed me to be even more determined. Now I’m ready to go and do my best.
“We are going well. Training is at a high level. There’s a good spirit. The preparation has been good. I think everyone is confident. Everyone is happy. Everyone is at ease and it’s a good vibe to be around. We are raring to go.
“We would love to win it because the nation has missed out on two of these tournaments and the one before, we won. So, we want to go there, do our best and to try to win this tournament. I think everyone has improved in our young squad. I have improved in certain aspects.
“I have still got a lot more to improve on. I’m not the finished article. Mentally, I have been able to improve to deal with setbacks better and quicker. I’m better physically and definitely tactically. I am always improving and you feel the improvements.”
Now on seven caps and with over a year playing for the national team, Aina is increasing his status in the sport as he exits the 38-man strong Chelsea loan group.
Nigeria’s final warm-up game is against Sadio Mane and Kalidou Koulibaly’s Senegal, who many are calling favourites to win this year’s tournament. Aina admits that Senegal are one of the leading contenders but is excited about testing himself against some of the world’s best players – including a group of stars who won the Champions League with Liverpool.
“Everyone would say Senegal are one of the favourites,” he added. “They have a very good team and they did very well at the World Cup that just went. They will be very difficult. I don’t think we are looking at our opposition too much, we are trying to focus on ourselves and be the best we can be.
“You have players like [John Obi] Mikel and [Wilfred] Ndidi in our team. Then there is Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita all at Liverpool, the European champions. There are a lot of big players in these African teams. To go up against them and compete with them is a good thing for me.
“You see these guys on TV all the time and achieving great things, then you play them, it is surreal at times. It is my job though and you keep it professional.”
The Super Eagles have Burundi, Guinea and Madagascar in their group and they will kick off their campaign next Saturday.