BY OLUWASHINA OKELEJI
Nigerian forward Olakunle Olusegun says he is “paying a heavy price” for his decision to stay at Russian club FK Krasnodar despite Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine.
The 20-year-old moved to Russia in August 2021, initially joining Krasnodar on loan from Bulgarian outfit Botev Plovdiv before sealing a permanent switch.
But unlike compatriot Sylvester Igboun, who departed another Russian side, FK Nizhny Novgorod, after the war broke out in February 2022, Olusegun refused to take advantage of a Fifa rule allowing foreign players to leave the country.
“Staying in Russia has really affected my career,” Olusegun told BBC Sport Africa.
“In my first season, I scored some fantastic goals which would have led to a call-up to the Super Eagles or Under-23s, but due to the sanction no one is watching the Russian League.
“My dream is to play for Nigeria again. But with where I am, maybe it’s a dream that has to wait. That is one of the disadvantages of me staying back in Russia.”
After shining with Fremad Amager in the second tier of Danish football, where Olusegun scored 12 goals and assisted four more in the 2020/21 campaign, the forward took to Russian football with surprising ease.
He started his debut campaign in Krasnodar’s second team before forcing his way into the senior side and helping the Bulls to a fourth-place finish. This season, he has scored five goals in all competitions and assisted twice.
While his exploits have seen him linked to clubs in Europe’s top five leagues, the ripple effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been felt in the country’s sporting arena.
Its exclusion from Uefa competition has limited Olusegun’s visibility while the outflow of talent has adversely affected the competitiveness of Russia’s top flight.
Olusegun first came to global attention as part of Nigeria’s 2019 Under-17 World Cup squad, where he scored in the Golden Eaglets’ Round of 16 elimination at the hands of the Netherlands.
He has been unable to fulfil his dream of progressing through the national ranks, with the player convinced his position in Russia is largely to blame.
“I was called to the Nigeria Under-20s last year but with the sanction of Russia – including flights in and out of the country – I could not meet up.
“I contacted the coach and reminded him that maybe next time I might be able to come if he invites me. That was the only call up I had.”
It came as a surprise when Olusegun declined to take advantage of Fifa’s special dispensation, especially considering that Krasnodar captain and Poland international Grzegorz Krychowiak was one of the first to do so, when the decision was announced in March 2022.
Olusegun suggests his own swift adaptation to Russian football was a double-edged sword.
“These past winter and summer windows, I got some interesting offers from some top leagues in Europe,” he revealed.
“But if they (Krasnodar) like your performance, and your dedication to the team, they will surely want you to stay. So they won my heart with that.
“We had a review of my contract and I decided to continue at Krasnodar, but with certain conditions and clauses.
“Maybe if I had accepted one of the offers elsewhere my career would have taken a different direction.
“I am loved at this club, they take care of me quite well and I feel at home.
“Maybe I am paying a heavy price for my decision but then again I am growing here and will continue to fight for the club.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February 2022. At the time, with its Premier League on a winter break, Olusegun was removed from the impacts of the conflict.
“I was in Turkey for pre-season when the problem with Ukraine started,” he recalled.
“I was like, ‘Okay, I will not be going back to Russia. I have to terminate my contract.’ But my agent told me, ‘It’s something that will surely happen [the Russia-Ukraine war] and it has happened already. I don’t think terminating your contract will be the best option for you.’
“I listened to him and I also didn’t think it was fair to leave the club in such conditions.
“My family and friends back home in Nigeria were also worried about my safety but I explained that nothing in Russia made me feel unsafe.
“This is my destiny. Coming to Russia, a lot of people criticised it. Many said, as a young boy going to Russia, it is to make money.
“I tried to explain that it wasn’t about the money. I believe maybe I will shine in Russia and people will get to know me.”