ChukwuEze : From teenage sensation to La Liga Submarine

Together with his alter ego in the shape of Kelechi Nwakali, Samuel Chukwueze breezed into the national U-17 camp in Calabar that eerie morning in November, 2012 clutching a bag  with some sundry football items while his soccer boot bag was delicately strapped around his neck.

Former Nigerian international, Emmanuel Amuneke, the first assistant to coach Manu Garba, announced with glee: “That is Samuel, the boy I’d been talking about; this boy plays like a machine and we would all see what he can do.

“Of course, golden fish has no hiding place and Chukwueze would soon reveal his repertoire in the coming days and weeks as the 2013 class of Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets intensify their preparation ahead of the FIFA U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates,” Amuneke said.

Prior to Amuneke’s recommendation, Chukwueze’s name first reverberated  along with his Umuahia-based  Diamond Academy at an invitational tournament in Portugal where he shone like a neon light in the dark.

“Chukwueze made a first huge impression on me in Portugal when we went for Elbar Cup in Portugal through my academy and he emerged the highest goal scorer in the team at the tournament,” recalled Amuneke who would later give the lad his major breakthrough at the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile. “I knew this player was going to be great because the manner and way he scored those goals was extraordinary because he  dominated the ball and  dribbled even  with the little body he has.”

Yet Chukwueze’s innate talent did not come as surprise to a certain talent scout and former player, Tony Adiele who saw the lad grew through the ranks in the dusty playing fields at Umuahia.

“I saw great potential when I first saw Samuel Chukwueze,” Adiele, who made his name with a string of clubs in the old Lagos Football, including the defunct IBWA, Savannah Bank, FHA, UAC and  Agip Oil.

“I saw the kind of potential that had not been found in recent times in Nigerian football and straight away I got interested in his development,” Adiele stated.

Adiele, who later in his heydays featured for elite clubs such as Vasco Da Gama of Enugu; Stationery Stores of Lagos, Julius Berger , Sharks of Port Harcourt  and Insurance of Benin, is  respected for his ability to spot talented players and he noted that the likes of Chukwueze comes once in a generation.

“When you watch Chukwueze, you see potential,” explained Adiele. “Potential is what we can call hidden talent and it’s like something that has not yet developed at all. When I first saw him, I saw qualities that are far beyond players of his age; he had something special,”he noted.

Back to the national U-17 camp, the nimble-footed winger displayed his dexterity with the ball by showing the wiles and guiles akin to that of his mentor, the legendary Dutch winger Arjen Robben to the amazement of onlookers.

“My first impression of him (Chukwueze) was here is a young player who has the potential to be among the best in the world if he listens to his coaches, work hard and be focused in his career,” recollected coach Manu Garba, the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup-winning coach. “He was very skinny and was about the youngest in  the national U-17 camp  then at the  Princeville  Hotel  in Calabar and I used to give him extra chicken  whenever we were eating  and I used to tell him to add to his chicken so that his muscles  can grow.

“All the coaches in the national camp were always giving him words of encouragement and I think technically and tactically, he learned from us.

“He is one of the listening types because he assimilates and delivers the information given to him well and that has guided him to perform extremely well in 2015 during the U-17 World Cup in Chile,”Adiele said.

Nduka Ugbade, former Nigerian international who was Garba’s second assistant equally recapped his first encounter with Chukwueze, adding that his potentialities were glaring and pleasing to the eyes.

“I had the opportunity to see Chukwueze for the first time in 2012,” explained Ugbade, who captained Nigeria to win the maiden FIFA Cadet World Cup at China 1985.

“Coach Emmanuel Amuneke was the first person to mention him (Chukwueze) and Kelechi Nwakali to me as two young players that he thought should come to the camp to learn one or two things that could be useful to the next set of Golden Eaglets but I marvelled at his ability when he joined us in camp.

“I knew then that he was going to be a very big player in the future; his  ball handling was very good and big for his age with a lot of childish behavioural patterns that would call for laughter most often,“ Ugbade said.

But for a freak injury, Chukwueze, according to Garba, had all it takes to have been part of his all-conquering Golden Eaglets class of 2013 that was populated with the likes of Musa Muhammed, Kelechi Iheanacho, and goalkeeper Dele Alampasu.

“Without sentiment, he was one of the players we registered for the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup but unfortunately he and Kelechi Nwakali were nursing some injuries. That explained why we didn’t take them to Dubai for the pre-World Cup camp so that we don’t endanger their career since their ages qualified them to play in 2015,” he explained.

In the following set-up under Coach Emmanuel Amuneke, Chukwueze became a major fulcrum in the Golden Eaglets at the U-17 AFCON in Niger en route to the FIFA U-17 World Cup championship in Chile where Nigeria claimed her fifth record title.

Amuneke said unlike some of his contemporaries, Chukwueze is a single-minded and disciplined player. Those qualities have stood him in good stead right from his days in the national youth team set-up.

“Chukwueze is a very good boy,” the no-nonsense Amuneke said matter-of-factly. “He never had any problem throughout his days in the U-17 team and U-20 team with me.

“He is very disciplined and I think he knows where he’s coming from, and realises that every opportunities count. He has been able to make the best out of the opportunity.

“As a coach, it’s always nice to see somebody that grew up with you from his youthful age to becoming a senior player and still playing very well with all humility,”Amuneke said.

Now capped 13 times for the Super Eagles, winger Chukwueze is credited with two goals, including the opening goal in the 2-1 defeat of Bafana Bafana of South Africa and deservedly voted Man-of-the-Match in that volatile quarter-final match of the Africa Cup of Nations, Egypt 2019.

Apart from doing well with the Super Eagles in recent times, Chukwueze’s fine form for his Spanish LaLiga side Villarreal was rewarded in the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) Awards with the Best Young Player. He has also been celebrated on global pedestal too.

The first born with two other siblings, Chukwueze, according to Spanish influential tabloid, Marca is one of the players in Europe’s top five leagues who have progressed the most in recent time with a market value of about 2.5 million Euros at the start of the 2018/19 season to over seven million Euros on current form. Yet, Villarreal has tied the player down with a release clause of about 40 million Euros–meaning he can only be priced away with a mouth-watering fee.

Aside, the European soccer ruling body, UEFA in its 2019/2020 appraisal listed him in an exclusive list of ‘50 For The Future’ and even described him as a ‘precocious winger with UEFA Europa League experience.’

Such adulations for Chukwueze did not come as a surprise for former Nigerian international midfielder, Mutiu Adepoju who incidentally earned his own stripes in the LaLiga with Racing Santander and Real Sociedad. He said: “He (Chukwueze) has learnt tactical discipline and awareness since his days in the junior national team and that is why his transition into the first team at Villarreal and even the Super Eagles was possible.

“He has been showing it in all the games he has been playing; there is no doubt on his technical abilities because he is a very good player with abundant skills, dribbles with speed and blessed with a good left foot,” Adepoju said.

Amuneke, the former Barcelona winger and 1994 Africa Footballer of the Year, corroborated Adepoju’s assertion on Chukwueze’s tactical and technical progression, adding that his exposure to the demands of LaLiga has broadened his horizon.

“Tactically, Chukwueze has improved and that’s one of the things I taught them during the time I was their coach in the Golden Eaglets,” Amuneke explained.

“I knew we had good players among who is Chukwueze in the team but there were other aspects that the player needed in order to improve: the ability of playing without the ball, positioning with or without the ball; ability of knowing when to mark and when not to mark.

“But having the opportunity to go to Villarreal has afforded him a lot of time and more insight to become a more compact player,” Amuneke noted.

Now in his third season with the Yellow Submarines, Samu as he’s fondly called by his colleagues at the club, has played  almost 80 matches  and scored 13 goals, including three  goals in the ongoing season.

“He is young and willing to learn and that will help his career here at Villarreal and maybe even beyond; the reason he is here is because he is special,” noted Villarreal legend Santi Cazorla.

But it is his near-perfect performances for Villarreal since the restart of the LaLiga after the COVID-19 lockdown that has certainly made Chukwueze one of the most-sought-after youngsters in world football today.

The 22-year-old attacker was named man of the match in his first start of the post-COVID-19 era in the Yellow Submarines’ 1-0 win over Mallorca on June 16  where his pace and skills were a handful for the opposition defenders.

He  has featured in all Villarreal’s post-Covid-19 games, starting five out of  the eight matches played so far, including Wednesday’s  3-1 vital win at Getafe to keep their Europe dream alive.

Villarreal, which have won six, drawn one and lost once, moved to the fifth position with 57 points, just three points off Sevilla that are occupying the last champion league position.

“It’s a good development for Nigerian football with Chukwueze doing well with Villarreal,” surmised Garba, who twice captained El-Kanemi Warriors to win the Challenge Cup in his playing days.

“Technically, his ball reception and retention has been so good because when he is in control of the ball, he hardly loses possession to opponents.

“He carries dribbles and can also guard the ball well; his ball release is equally good but he has to improve on his long passes and crosses,” Garba said.

Though with huge visibility on the social media, Chukwueze is never carried away with endorsement of his army of followers  and in definitive interview at the outset of his career  with this writer, he enthused about the prospect of hitting global acclaim.

“I love playing football as well as cracking jokes. I like catching fun with my friends. But there are other things I like doing too. I like playing and watching lawn tennis,” he said. I like Roger Federer and Serena Williams because they are very talented and they are my two favourite tennis players. I want to be as famous as Serena Williams.

“I don’t like losing; losing a match can make me cry. I want to be a winner and I think I have the opportunity of learning new things by playing in Europe,” Chukwueze said.

Already, a FIFA U-17 World Cup winner in 2015  where he was also rewarded with the Bronze Boot Award, Chukwueze  was in the top three list of players for the 2019 Africa Youth Player of the Year but Super Eagles’ coach Gernot Rohr is of the opinion that the Villarreal winger would join  exclusive list of Nigeria’s great players.

The 67-year-old experienced coach and former Bayern Munich defender said with more consistent performances for Villarreal, Chukwueze can emulate the feat of some of his illustrious compatriots such as the late Rashidi Yekini, Emmanuel Amuneke, Victor Ikpeba and Nwankwo Kanu who were crowned African Players of the Year at the peak of their careers.

“For the future, Samuel has to be careful and work hard because he is a great player for Nigeria like Okoch and Kanu,” explained Rohr in his usual frankness. “He has to work hard because he can be one of the best Nigerian players ever. That is sure but he has to work hard because he has everything technically, tactically and mentally to be the best,”Rohr said.

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