“We are going to kill people,” Samuel Chukwueze said with a devilish grin, one that would make the baddest villain envious and should make the rest of Africa scared, as he cast his eyes on what the future holds for Nigeria. The average age of the Super Eagles squad in Egypt for the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) is under 25, the third-youngest team in the tournament.
It was more Spring Chickens than Super Eagles, yet they soared high enough to reach the semifinals before the Desert Foxes of Algeria devoured them at Cairo International Stadium. A brilliant free kick by Riyad Mahrez in the last minute of optional time took Algeria to the final against Senegal on Friday 19 July, while Nigeria will battle it out for third place against Tunisia on Wednesday 17 July at Al Salam Stadium.
Ordinarily, a bronze medal would not be good enough for the proud West African nation that thumps its chest and proclaims its superiority ahead of any contest, especially in the football arena. But because the three-time African champions failed to qualify for Afcon in 2015 and 2017, and their squad is nowhere near the best generations that the Super Eagles have produced, this group has exceeded the expectations of Nigerians and met the minimum target set by the Nigerian Football Federation of at least reaching the semifinals. Of the 23 players coach Gernot Rohr called up, 15 are 25 years old or younger.
Chukwueze, at 20, is the youngest member of the squad. He holds the record for the youngest player ever to score at an Afcon tournament after his goal in the 2-1 win over Bafana Bafana in the quarterfinals.
“We have a strong team with young and talented players,” Chukwueze said at Nigeria’s new base in Cairo after relocating from Alexandria, where they played their group stage matches. “We are going to do well in the future. I think that in the next two years we are going to be the favourites to win the Nations Cup. There are so many talented players in this team.”
Chukwueze, Victor Osimhen, 20, Wilfred Ndidi, 22, Peter Etebo, 23, Alex Iwobi, 23, and Kenneth Omeruo, 25, are destined for big things with the Super Eagles. Egypt was just a starter after the 2018 Fifa World Cup in Russia served as a palate cleanser, washing away the disappointment of not being in Equatorial Guinea in 2015 and Gabon in 2017. Cameroon in 2021 – home to one of their biggest rivals on the continent, whom they eliminated in the last 16 – is the main course on which this Nigerian team will hope to feast.
“You learn a lot of things when you lose,” Chukwueze said. “This is a very good team and we have been working very hard. Nothing is really bad with this team. Everybody is playing for top clubs. The only thing we need is not to drop our heads, forget about losing because it happens, work hard and then bounce back stronger.”
The 20-year-old knows how to bounce back stronger. He used rejection and disappointment to fire him to the superstardom he now enjoys as a bright prospect for Nigeria and Spanish club side Villarreal. In just over a year he went from Nigeria’s Diamond Football Academy to Villarreal’s reserves and the first team. His football career started to take shape after winning the Under-17 World Cup in Chile in 2015 with Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets.
“Nobody can stop you when it comes to something that you love. I just love playing football. I didn’t care if anything was going to happen to me, if someone says, ‘Samuel, we are going to burn your boots and seize your ball.’ You can seize my ball but I will still go out and play football. I just love this game. It runs in my blood,” he said animatedly.
“Everybody loves football in Nigeria. That’s what makes them happy. When you step into the field, you remember that your friends, family and everyone in the country wants you to do well. You need to win to make them happy. You also love football, so you need to also make yourself happy which is the most important thing. When you come into a competition, you know that you have to make everyone happy.”
Proving his worth when doubted
The academy that shipped him to Spain didn’t believe in his talent at first. His cousin-brother and mother pushed him to attend the trial, but he was rejected when he eventually did.
“They didn’t even choose me, can you believe that? They said I should just stay outside because they were done with their trials,” he remembered. “I said, ‘Okay, no problem.’ I stood outside and was waiting for my cousin-brother to finish. One of my cousin-brothers said they should just let me train. I entered, did my thing and the coach just loved me. From there, I kept going. He liked me and I ended up as his best player. Later I would remind him, ‘Hey coach, you’re the one who said you don’t want me. Why did you choose me afterwards? What are you seeing now?’ It was just a mistake, he said, and we laugh about it.”
Chukwueze has been impressing ever since with his devastating pace and eye for goal. The forward speaks with the exuberance of youth and the confidence that comes as naturally to his countrymen as breathing. Those that don’t know any better mistake it for arrogance, but confidence is one of Nigeria’s biggest weapons on the football field.
Regardless of how meek the side is, once they step on to the field in their iconic white and green jerseys, they believe they are unstoppable. More often than not they are unstoppable, but in some instances they bluff their way to success. Algeria called their bluff in this Afcon.
“We don’t talk about if we win, we say when we win,” Chukwueze said, explaining his countrymen’s mindset when it comes to football. “Even if you don’t start well, you’re expected to do well when you play for Nigeria. When you enter the knockout stage, that winning mentality kicks in. When I was talking about this competition, I told everybody that I am coming back home on the 20th. The 19th is the final, and the 20th is the day we go back with the trophy. I didn’t say that I would come back early because I didn’t see that happening. I just told them that I am going to come back on the 20th because I knew that I would reach the final, that was our objective. When you believe in yourself and also believe in your team, you can speak with that confidence.”
Afcon or the Under-20 World Cup?
Chukwueze’s estimate of when he will be back in Nigeria wasn’t that far off as the Super Eagles reached the semifinals for the 14th time. If he gets bored of football, he could have a career as a seer. Only a man who can see into the future can make the decision he made when faced with the dilemma of choosing between going to the Under-20 World Cup in Poland or Egypt, where his ticket wasn’t even guaranteed.
“I wanted to go to the Under-20 World Cup,” he said. “But after a long season with Villarreal, who were struggling to avoid relegation, it wasn’t going to be possible. I wanted to play the World Cup and the Nations Cup. My club said no, I can’t play the World Cup, Nations Cup and then join them in pre-season. They said I should choose one. I chose the Nations Cup even though I didn’t know if the coach was going to pick me, but I was sure I was going to play with the Under-20s at the World Cup.”
Why, then, did he make such a decision?
“I need to learn more. I need to be at the top. I am at the top at Under-20 level but I am no one in the Super Eagles. I could have gone to the Under-20 World Cup and it wouldn’t have gone my way and that’s the ceiling. But here, in the Nations Cup, this is just the beginning. I chose this because I could learn so many things from it and grow.”
It’s easy for Chukwueze to get carried away and be blinded by the limelight currently shining in his direction. Two years ago he was playing amateur football in Umuahia, the capital city of Abia State in Nigeria. Fast forward to now and he has charmed the continent with his displays in Egypt, while his star is rising in Villarreal. He has the world at his feet.
“I haven’t even started,” he said. “I haven’t achieved anything. I haven’t won anything of substance. This is just the beginning. I need to work hard. I need to win the World Cup. I need to win the Nations Cup. I need to be Africa’s Footballer of the Year. I need to win major trophies, for my teams and myself. I haven’t done anything, I can’t get carried away because of this small attention. You need to learn from people.”
He continued without pause, as if conducting a sermon, like his father, who is a minister, “You look at players like [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Lionel] Messi, they have won so much but they still want more. I want to be like that.
“I need to put that in my head when I am sleeping, when I wake up and when I go to training: ‘Samuel you haven’t done anything!’ I haven’t done anything for my country. I am a young boy who is growing up. I need to forget what everyone is saying about me, saying that I am good. The people who are saying I am good will be the same ones saying that I am overhyped and I am not that good when I don’t win anything.
“I can’t let this go to my head. I need to focus on my goals because if I fail, the same people praising me will be the first to criticise. I need to forget about the praise and focus on winning, because there is so much I still need to do.”