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Leon Balogun interview: Nigeria international on Common Goal and keeping Wigan up
In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Nigeria international Leon Balogun talks to Adam Bate about his move from Brighton to Wigan and the reasons why he joined Common Goal
Last Updated: 25/03/20 7:33am
For Leon Balogun, it was on a recent trip to London that it really hit home.
"I was in a nice hotel and I looked down the street and there was a church," he tells Sky Sports. "There was an archway there with some pillars that provided some shelter and you could see three or four tents where people were sleeping.
"Maybe it is just me but when I walk around the streets and I see homeless people, the way that it has become almost acceptable is shocking to me. You just take it like it is normal but it should not be normal.
"It is ironic that it was in front of a church too because you think of that as a place that should be providing shelter and looking after the community.
"We have just become careless as a society."
The instinct to help is not a new one for the Nigeria international.
During his time in the Bundesliga with Mainz, the German-born defender provided a significant donation for a young cancer sufferer - an act that attracted publicity at the time.
"People were saying it was amazing that I had done that as a football player," he recalls. "That is always my problem with it. I don't like to differentiate between me and other people because footballers are normal people.
"People like to make a lot out of it. Some people do stuff for their image and I don't want to be one of them."
That was part of the appeal of Common Goal.
Balogun is not anonymous among the collection of football players and coaches who have pledged to donate one per cent of their salary to charitable causes but there is a certain anonymity that comes with being part of something bigger.
It is also a way of scaling the impact and inspiring others.
"I am part of a big team at Common Goal," he says.
"The first time I heard about it was through Dennis Aogo because he was one of the first guys to join in Germany. Then my good friend William Troost-Ekong from the Super Eagles joined too. He put me in touch and it gathered pace from there. It is funny because their office in Germany is on the same street where I went to primary school in Berlin.
"For me, this is just about doing the right thing. I want to give if it is the right thing to do. We are all part of this system and it is natural to think of yourself and your family first. But I am always trying to find ways to help where I can do something if it is in my power.
"I think football players could do a lot more. I try not to judge because people have their own things going on but, as lots of Common Goal members say, we have a responsibility.
"Everybody has a responsibility. The way this world works, there are a lot of people with a lot of money and then there are so, so, so many more people with almost nothing. It is our responsibility to help get them on their feet."
At Common Goal, members' contributions are tailored to an approved charity that is close to their heart.
"I connected with Nigeria because that is my country," says Balogun. "I decided to work with a company there that use football to help education, whether that's classical education or about empowerment or sexuality or all these kinds of things.
"When you make the annual pledge you receive updates. I had a clip that was addressed specifically to me and they showed me around the project in the video. That was really nice.
"I haven't had the chance to visit myself yet but that is something that I am planning to do in the future to show them that I am really behind it. It's not about me sending them the money and then getting them to leave me alone. I am really behind it.
"I am helping them to provide for a better future because what happens, not just in Nigeria but in Africa in general, is that there are a lot of countries with an inferiority complex to white people or Europe in general. I think it comes as a post-colonial consequence.
"It is about them realising they have a choice. It is partly about their structures, of course. But the basis for a lot of it is what has happened in the past. Our job is to give them a basis to expand their opportunities. It will take decades but there is so much talent in Africa.
"You see reports of people generating electricity out of garbage for their village. Their plan is to do so for the next village. We would not even touch it in Europe but they are using it to create something that helps the whole community. We need to encourage that.
"It is a long process obviously, but there is a saying - each one, teach one. If you do that right then hopefully you can affect a whole nation. It is a big movement already, it is just about the right people doing the right things to infect the right minds to promote more growth."
Balogun has a natural curiosity. The conversation turns to the coronavirus, unsurprisingly, but he is someone who will engage on any topic. He has been known to quiz the staff at Wigan for more information about financial fair play. His intelligence shines through.
It is easy to see why someone like this would be a positive influence on any organisation and so it has proved since joining the Championship club on loan from Brighton at the end of January.
Wigan finished that month in the relegation zone and 13 points behind Hull. Eight games on and Paul Cook's side have not only clambered their way out of the drop zone but they have overtaken Hull in the process. They haven't even conceded a goal in their last four games.
"If it has anything to do with me then that is a great compliment," says Balogun, who has started each of those last four games and remains unbeaten as a Wigan player.
"But I think it is a team effort. I came into this group not seeing any hint of doubt or lack of belief. There was a great atmosphere. That starts with the coaching staff actually. I think Paul Cook is able to transmit great confidence onto the lads and it was just a matter of time until we found some momentum. That confidence has steadily grown.
"All I could tell the players was to be patient. I wasn't going to come here and act big time just because I have come from a Premier League side. I have just tried to blend in and add some of my characteristics in the hope of uplifting people. I am a positive character and hopefully that helps. We are on a great run at the moment and I hope we can keep it going."
It is a fresh start for the 31-year-old central defender because he had found himself out of the team at Brighton under Graham Potter. His time on the south coast was not without its highlights, however. A win over Manchester United stands out. So too does his goal against fierce rivals Crystal Palace - scored within 30 seconds of coming on as a substitute.
"I will always have that," he laughs. "Some tell me the goal will never be forgotten. I have had people call me a club legend which I think is a bit too much because it was only one goal and I am not going to call myself that but if they decide that then I am happy to take it!
"I was very well integrated into the group at Brighton so not being involved was hard for me to take. I tried to do everything possible and if that is not good enough for the manager then you have to take that but obviously it was frustrating. Still, I tried to maintain a good mindset throughout. That helped me here because I was ready for the challenge.
"Just to be involved again is great because you dedicate yourself differently if you know that at the end of the week you are going to be playing a football match. Otherwise you are just training and then sitting in the stands. It is great to be part of something again actively.
"Even aside from the football, I have had the opportunity to live in a different country with a different culture. It is not too different maybe from Germany but still a different language and you drive on a different side of the road. It is nice. It is something nobody can take from me however it has gone on the pitch. Wigan is a chance for me to revive it again."
Balogun's immediate goal is to keep Wigan in the Championship. But his long-term goal - his Common Goal - is to do something much bigger.
"I am always thinking about what I can do next," he adds. "I am not going to say just yet but I have this idea and hopefully if it comes to fruition you will all hear about it. It is something that I have been thinking about for years but I need to think about how to realise it."
Do not be surprised if Leon Balogun's story is just beginning.