It’s all happened rather faster than he expected but precocious Super Eagles forward Samuel Chukwueze already has his sights fixed on being the continent’s best player within two years.
And anyone who watched the 20-year old’s mesmerizing performances in his breakthrough year at Spanish side Villarreal CF last season knows this is no impossible feat.
Although he won the Bronze Ball for being the third-best player at the 2015 U17 FIFA World Cup where he was part of Nigeria’s victorious side, Chukwueze truly came into national and international limelight on the back of some truly electrifying performances for the Yellow Submarines in Spain’s topflight last season.
His virtuoso performance in the 4-4 draw against Barcelona at the Estadio de la Cerámica where he scored and assisted another as Barcelona narrowly escaped a chastening defeat announced his prodigious talent to the world.
For a player who started the 2018/2019 season with Villarreal’s “B” team in the Segunda Division B – Grupo III and only made his La Liga debut in November, performing such feats and rubbing shoulders with the game’s best players – players he used to watch on television as a kid – was the stuff of dreams.
“It was a very great feeling to be in the stadium and to be on the same field with great teams and great players like Lionel Messi and [Luka] Modric,” Chukwueze who joined Villarreal from Nigerian Academy side Diamond FC told in August of 2017 told busybuddiesng.com ahead of Villarreal’s 2019/2020 La Liga Santander season opener against Granada.
“It’s a very, very great feeling and it’s a dream come true because I remember when I was watching them on the TV winning Champions Leagues, I will say one day I will play alongside them if they’re still playing. But I’m very, very surprised the thing came up early so that I was on the same field with them so it was a fantastic feeling.”
Chukwueze had long anticipated making his league debut for Villarreal but when the time eventually came, at home against Villarreal in November, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) 2018 Young Player of The Year admitted to being plagued with nerves at the thought of playing in front of thousands of fans.
Those nerves however dissipated and a soothing calm enveloped him at the blast of the referee’s whistle as he put in an indelible debut performance to leave his name on the lips of everyone in the stadium.
“In La Liga, it was a great feeling to make my debut. My first experience in my debut, let me just be sincere I was scared! You know the feeling; your first time, the crowd, everybody was just chanting. I couldn’t believe; ‘Samuel you’re on the field where so many thousands of people are just watching,'” Chukwueze, who has been likened to Dutch legend Arjen Robben for their similar style of cutting inside from the right flank said.
“But by the time the referee blew the whistle, the scare just left and I focused on the game [and] let me say that was my best game for the season because I really did well and the coach and officials, everybody was appreciating me.”
It wasn’t just fans and club officials who took notice of his eye-catching performances at club level last season. Many Nigerians did too. Not since 1994 when another left-footed forward, Emmanuel Amuneke announced himself with such forceful bang at the AFCON in Tunisia has there been such an outpouring of excitement across the country over a left-footed player.
Such that there was an almighty furore when it emerged that Chukwueze who made his senior national team bow against Uganda in November of 2018 was being considered for the 2019 U20 FIFA World Cup in Poland when many believed he should be one of the first names on the list for the Super Eagles 2019 AFCON campaign in Egypt.
He made the team and acquitted himself well in the six matches he played as the Super Eagles finished in third place. A particularly outstanding performance was in Nigeria’s 2-1 quarter-final defeat of South Africa where he scored a goal and was adjudged the game’s player.
It’s safe to say Chukwueze who has made the list of invited players for the September 20 friendly against Ukraine will be a mainstay in the senior national team for years to come having made the step up from the U17 national team.
Not that the player himself takes his national team status for granted as he understands there is a world of difference in the expectations that come with playing for the Super Eagles as against the U17.
“In the Super Eagles they play [a] very serious game and you need to be serious-minded and you need to know when to do mistakes. You can’t lose the ball anyhow you need to know when to pass and when to dribble and when to shoot,” he says.
“In the U17, you can do anything you like, so that you can be like ‘ah, you want to sign a contract’ but in this place, you need to be serious and business-minded in the Super Eagles because you can’t afford to lose your place.”
Such clarity of thought and singularity of purpose is not surprising for a player who had to show doggedness in the face of family pressure to reach this point in his career.
His experience growing up, as with so many African players who choose football over completing their schooling, was one of always getting into trouble because of his love for the game and his dream of being a professional footballer.
All that trouble, he says was worth it because “now the football is paying off”.
“I got in so much trouble [playing football growing up] it wasn’t easy for me because they’d [my parents] will say “Samuel you need to go to school’.
“[And] although I finished my secondary school and got admission to [the University of Agriculture], Umudike, I said I needed to focus on my career and it just happened.
“When I was small and I was playing they’d seize my boots and my mum would burn it and she’d say ‘Samuel you can’t play football’. I’d come back late from training and they’d give me punishment sometimes my mum would say ‘you’re going to sleep outside’ and I’d stay outside till 10 pm and she’d still come and tell me to come in and my uncle and everybody was shouting ‘Samuel you need to focus on your studies’ but now the football is paying off.”
And from being chastised for pursuing his dreams, he’s now being held up as a role model with many parents wanting their sons to be like him.
“Everybody is happy now [and] everything is just on Samuel [and people now say] ‘Samuel, I will like my son to be like you’,” he says.
But even though he was able to forgo continuing his studies and broke through as a professional footballer, Chukwueze says he understands the importance of education and would always counsel parents who bring their kids to him to ensure their wards receive proper schooling.
“But I always tell them ‘your son needs to study also’ because education is important also.
“If you don’t know how to read and write, you won’t be able to understand any contract you’re signing so, education is also good for young players, you can’t only be focusing on football because if the football doesn’t pay, you know you have something to hold on.
“Even me, as I’m playing, I need to finish my schooling too because this head needs to understand many things. Because you can’t be only playing football because after football what next?”
Such foresight has led him to become the first Nigerian footballer and just the second player from Africa to be signed on to American hip-hop mogul Shawn ‘Jay Z’ Carter’s Roc Nation Sports agency where he joins the likes of Borussia Dortmund’s Axel Witsel, Bayern Munich defender Jerome Boateng, Inter Milan’s, Romelu Lukaku and Manchester United’s Eric Bailly, on the list of football stars associated with the brand.
At 20-years of age, the Umuahia born player who revealed that he’s a Medical student in Spain still has years of his career ahead of him even though he has already started giving thought to life after football.
“Life after football? I have so many ideas but I need to finish school and when I finish then maybe I’ll be a fashionista or to open so many brands or I may [become] a doctor.”
Those plans are still far in the future but in the meantime, there’s a wholly achievable footballing target he’s set himself and that is being crowned the best football on the continent in two years.
“I have already set my target but I pray maybe in the next two years if I keep on working hard and keep my head down maybe in the next two years maybe I will win the African Best.
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