Samuel Chukwueze: Africa's next La Liga star
Photo: Insonet, CC BY-SA 4.0
There was a time England's Premier League didn't appeal to Africans. Except for a few wild tourists, the Spanish Primera Division was a fortress. Samuel Eto'o, Fredrick Kanoute and Seydou Keita, were the end of an era. Now Villarreal has Samuel Chukwueze, a star to reignite La Liga's affair with top African talent.
With Villarreal sinking deeper into the mud of a grim relegation battle, Chukwueze may turn out to be Javi Calleja's legacy as manager. The Yellow Submarine is sinking into the depths, unable to crest la Liga's waves to continue challenging for a European place. Calleja’s team were fifth best in the land behind usual suspects Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Valencia in 2017/18.
This term, they've picked up only two victories in a dozen matches. Five draws keep them a point above the drop in 16th, their goal difference also significantly better than Athletic Bilbao and Leganes. Calleja has plenty to ponder heading into the year's final international break.
Not Chukwueze, however. The 19-year-old is the silver lining behind Villarreal's dark cloud. Despite starting just three times in all competitions, the Nigerian has twisted heads in Castellon. He was noticed in West Africa, too. He received his first invitation to the Super Eagles ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifier against South Africa.
Chukwueze isn't new to international football. He was among the galaxy of raw Nigerian talents that clinched a record fifth U17 world title in 2016. With three goals and three assists, he returned home with the Bronze Ball. Teammates Kelechi Nwakali and Victor Osimhen beat him to the top honours. This is his first venture with the senior side, however.
Alongside those two, he was snapped up by football agency, Stellar Group. That partnership didn't go as planned. As the youngest member of the squad, Chukwuezee waited two years before fulfiling his dream abroad. Nwakali and Osimhen joined Arsenal and Wolfsburg respectively while he twisted in the wind.
Chukwueze gradually began to slip into oblivion, a situation made more challenging by Golden Eaglets teammates with lower profiles securing moves to Europe. Eventually, Villarreal came calling. in 2017, he began with the club's Juvenil A squad, before climbing to the reserves where he struck twice in 11 appearances.
Those few assured performances lobbed him into the first-team reckoning. Chukwueze bided his time on the bench. When a chance finally arrived against Rangers in the Europa League, the 19-year-old didn't look back. He started three of the team's next four matches, scoring once and assisting on another.
Fast, skilful, creative and physically strong, Chukwueze defines a modern-day winger. He is as quick as they come and has a wonderful touch that leaves defenders trailing in his wake. That said, it is his knack for hitting the target that sets him apart. Naturally left-footed, he prefers to play on the right side of a front three. He brings Arjen Robben to mind. The youngster, however, says he models his game after Emmanuel Amunike - a former Nigerian international.
Amunike tutored Chukwueze at the junior levels. Ironically, the 47-year-old made his mark in the Spanish league at Barcelona. Since his retirement from international play in 2001, Nigeria has yearned for a natural left-footed winger capable of wreaking havoc on opposing defences with direct running, effective crossing and superb technique. Rohr sums his qualities.
Chukwueze has a good left foot‚ is quick‚ has a low centre of gravity‚ which gives him a very good balance‚ and can deliver and score. Rohr said. We need a player like him to give us balance in attack and he can also play through the middle.
The recognition has finally come. All that's left is to prove he deserves it.