Nine years on from Vladimir Romanov’s infamous statement of intent, Hearts can finally boast their own World Cup star.
The previous owner ultimately failed to deliver on his claim, made in August 2006, that he was “negotiating with two World Cup stars”, but his relinquishing of power at Tynecastle some two years ago hasn’t stopped the resurgent Jambos recruiting a man who fits the banished Russian’s criterion.
Juwon Oshaniwa may be a relatively unheralded name compared to the genuine superstars of last summer’s World Cup, like James Rodriguez, Lionel Messi, Manuel Neuer, Neymar and Thomas Müller. However, Hearts’ newest recruit certainly wasn’t in Brazil just to make up the numbers. The Nigerian left-back played all 360 minutes for his country as they reached the last 16.
He helped them keep two clean sheets – against Iran and Bosnia – and then spent most of the game trying to knock the world’s greatest player out of his stride as the gallant Super Eagles lost 3-2 to Argentina in their final group match. They eventually bowed out in the second round after going down 2-0 to France, but the whole experience, coming a year after helping Nigeria win the Africa Cup of Nations, is one that 24-year-old Oshaniwa will cherish forever.
“I managed to get a few tackles in against Messi,” he recalls. “I had to because I was his direct marker. Most of the pictures I’ve got from that game are against him. I wouldn’t say I’m a hard man, but football is a contact game. It’s not table tennis, if you want to play a game where you don’t want anybody to touch you then you go and play ping-pong!
“Messi is the world’s best, so what do you expect? He is protected. For our first equalising goal, I actually won the ball from his leg and the ball was passed forward for Ahmed Musa to score. Football is all about self-belief. Even before the game we said ‘we’re not going down. We are champions of Africa and we are respected all over the world and we need to show our class’.
“We needed to justify why we were in the World Cup and that’s what we actually did. It was a great experience. It’s what every living player on this planet has the desire to do, to play at that level. And, for me, at my age, to play at that level – wow!”
For all that Oshaniwa will never forget his battle with Messi, he was equally satisfied with his display when he outperformed Patrice Evra, the French left-back he idolised as a youngster.
“It was a dream fulfilled for me to play against big players like Lionel Messi, undisputedly the best player in the world, and then a collection of attackers like Aguero, Higuain, Giroud, Di Maria and the rest. These are players I can look up to and I played against them.
“My mentor has always been Patrice Evra and now I can see me and him playing in the same game. FIFA have index statistics for every game and I am seeing myself ahead of him at the end of the game. My statistic in that game was six out of 10 and, I think, Evra was four. After that, I said to myself ‘I have a bright future ahead of myself’.
“That was a fantastic game. Even though we were knocked out it was the best game of our tournament. The World Cup and the African Cup of Nations of 2013 have come and gone, though. Now, I face the future and I will see what the future holds for me, but I believe it is a positive one.”
Everyone at Hearts is excited that Oshaniwa’s immediate future lies at Tynecastle. The ebullient African has made a significant impression on the club staff since arriving in Edinburgh to finalise a three-year deal on Friday, with director of football Craig Levein joking that he couldn’t get a word in edgeways while driving him to the stadium for yesterday’s official unveiling to the media.
The Nigerian certainly talked a good game, and if he’s as confident on the field as he seems off it, then Hearts will have some player on their hands.
He appears genuinely enthused by the prospect of playing for the club after a move which took more than a month to complete due to delays in obtaining first a work permit and then a visa.
“It’s taken a long time but when you’re coming to a new place you need to follow the protocols,” he said. “It was very frustrating. It didn’t feel good, but what could I do?I never had any doubt that the move would go through because the management staff and the technical people at Hearts were always on the phone, calling me every moment to check how things were going. That made me strong when they called me. They have shown care for me and have genuinely wanted me and that is the main reason I knew I must come to this country and never turn Hearts down. I am so glad I am here.”
Oshaniwa’s desire to play for Hearts increased further while watching from behind the dugout as his new team-mates beat St Johnstone 4-3 in their Scottish Premiership opener at a frenzied Tynecastle on Sunday. The new recruit warmed up with the rest of the squad before the match and was then back on the pitch at the end high-fiving his colleagues following an exhilarating victory.
Asked for his reflections on his first experience of Scottish football, he replied: “Wow. Amazing football, amazing fans. Total entertainment. But even though we entertained, the most important part of it was that we won. We fought and earned the right to celebrate. I was so happy at the end – I love victory.
“The first part of the season is always important for getting a morale-booster to project you into the next game. Hearts are champions from last season and you could see that in the game because they were able to pick themselves up after St Johnstone made it 3-3. It wasn’t just the goals that they scored, it was the way they keep the ball and try to entertain their fans.”
Oshaniwa cannot wait to be a part it for himself. He is in line to make his debut at Dundee this Saturday, and has no concerns about his fitness despite not playing since turning out for previous club Ashdod against Hapoel Tel Aviv in the Israeli top flight in mid-May.
“I’ve been training myself this summer, but if you come from Africa, whenever you are back in your homeland you usually have a local team you can train with. If you are not lazy anyway! I had a programme to follow. When you know you are going to a new place and you are not going to be able to join them for pre-season, you know you must be doing something.
“I had an academy team in Abuja I worked with for a while to keep fit. It’s a football nation so there was no problem. That is the reason I am fit just now and was able to train with the team on Saturday and warm up with them on the pitch before the game on Sunday.”
Oshaniwa, an international colleague of Celtic defender Efe Ambrose, confirmed he could have been in Scotland before now, with the Parkhead club having shown an interest in him.
“I knew a lot about Celtic and Scottish football because I spoke to Efe,” he said. “I had a lot of issues with Celtic before and for the past two seasons I was supposed to be in Glasgow but stuff happened along the line and I did not go there.
“I spoke a lot to Efe about Celtic when we were with the national team. He is an experienced guy and I can’t wait for the day when I play against him for Hearts.”