Street footballer to Bundesliga pro in three years | Africa | DW | 16.04.2012
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Africa

Street footballer to Bundesliga pro in three years

Young Nigerian soccer player Anthony Ujah has had a fast rise to the top. Two years ago he was playing for Abuja, now he's in the Bundesliga. He says it's all a "dream come true", but admits, it's still quite a struggle.

It's a sunny afternoon in Mainz and fans are watching on as their club's first-team players go through a typical mid-week training session. The Mainz players are playing piggy in the middle - a practise drill where the ball is passed from person to person, and the player in the center has to chase it down. In the middle of the circle is young African star, Anthony Ujah, and he's moving fast.

Mainz fan Robert is looking on closely. "Ujah hasn't played much for us yet. I think that's a shame. I like his style of play, I'd like to see him get more game time."

Anthony Ujah fools around with teammates at Mainz team practise

Ujah enjoys training, but would like more game time

Indeed if you look at the season statistics so far, the 21-year-old striker hasn't been in the starting eleven all that often. After training, Anthony seems pretty relaxed about it all though.

"My move to the Bundesliga all happened so quickly. Even if I am not playing a lot yet, I am not too bothered. I feel very privileged to be where I am today today."

A dream start

At the age of just 19 Anthony moved from Nigeria to Norway and went on to have two amazing seasons at the Lillestrøm club. He scored 27 goals in just 36 matches and the rest of Europe started to take notice. Before he knew it, he was signing on at Mainz.

"Our pre-season match against Bayern Munich was amazing," says Anthony as he sits beside the pitch after training. "I needed five to 10 minutes to settle into that game. These were people that three years ago I was watching on TV with my dad. To be on the same pitch as them was like a dream come true."

Anthony Ujah - or Tony as his friends call him - grew up in the little town of Ugbokolo in central Nigeria. He describes his life as typically African middle class. Still, he learnt football the hard way.

"I started football playing barefoot. We always used to play on the streets - sometimes we would just play with an orange. I didn't concentrate on my studies at all." And then he grins: "But, I was the best at football in the school."

In the family

Anthony's father was a top footballer, too, but decided to opt for a steady job and an international education. As Anthony started to show talent as a youngster, he gave the young striker the support he needed to get ahead.

Anthony Ujah runs through on goal to score against Stuttgart in the 12th round of play.

Anthony's two goals against Stuttgart marked a proud day for the Ujah family

"I tried to do my best at school, but it just didn't work out. Eventually my father realised and he gave me his blessing to go and pursue a footballing career."

Not long afterwards Anthony headed to the Nigerian capital to join football club, Abuja FC. After moving clubs once inside Nigeria, he then moved to Europe, to the Norwegian league. His family, though, could never watch him on TV during his two seasons there.

"The first game my dad saw was my Bundesliga match against Stuttgart, this is when I scored two goals. He was so proud of me that day. That was all I could have hoped for."

Settling in

Coach Thomas Tuchel is impressed with Anthony's athletic prowess and his ability on the ball in front of goal - but he still speaks English with Anthony at practise because his German isn't very good yet.

Mainz Coach Thomas Tuchel embraces a Mainz player on the sidelines.

Mainz's Thomas Tuchel is known for his ability to relate to his players

"It's hard for him," says Coach Tuchel. "It's a major sporting step - and a cultural step too - to come to Germany. We know that requires time. Anthony is showing a lot of patience."

With all the time on the training pitch right now, maintaining the right attitude is the key says Anthony, if he wants to achieve his lifelong goal of getting to the Premier League.

"My first season here hasn't been a great one, but it doesn't change my dreams or my ambition, to go higher than the Bundesliga one day. But to achieve this goal, I have to work hard. First, I have to stamp my authority on the Bundesliga and make a name for myself - then I can think of the future."

Author: André Leslie
Editor: Mark Caldwell / rm

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