Before Henry Onyekuru was born, the National Stadium, Lagos was a beauty to behold in terms of aesthetic, grandeur and splendour.
Apart from being the hub of Nigeria’s sporting activities, the stadium was a haven for plethora of legends, skills as well records that have been created and shattered across the multi purpose edifice.
Unfortunately, the stadium could now be described with the popular Nigeria’s tale introduction, ‘once upon a time’. The National Stadium has become more like a relic of our national identity.
Despite its depressive and dilapidated state, the arena which houses the Sandy field called Hockey pitch is still producing several talents amongst whom is 19-year old Henry Chukwuemeka Onyekuru. Our crew caught up with the K.A.S Eupen striker who lets us into how his journey to stardom started and his future prospects.
Can you tell us briefly about how it all started?
I will say it’s been God all the way. My journey began from an Academy in Lagos, (Weekend Soccer Football Academy) owned by Coach Paul Hamilton in the National Stadium. Then I was in the Under 14 set where we train every weekend and sometimes travel to play tournaments and participate in developmental programs. Then Aspire came to Nigeria in 2010 to select some young stars to form a team in Qatar made up of different young players from several African countries, about 17-18 players.
We signed a 5-year contract, and our parents were given the opportunity of traveling to Qatar yearly to see us. I was with the academy for five years training. We toured many countries, played different club academies including the likes of Real Madrid and several others. I graduated from the academy June 2015.
The priority of the academy is to get you to play in a professional club of its own which is K.A.S Eupen. The club then was in the Belgian second division. It was a big challenge for me because I met many good players from different part of the world, and I had to fight for my place with the encouragement of the coaches who told me my moment will come. I was used to come in from the bench, and I took my chances until we got promoted to the first division in 2016. Now we are 11th position in the pro league and in the semi-final of the Belgian cup. So it has been God all the way, I will say again.
What would you say is the recipe for your current form, having scored about 16 goals in 41 appearances?
I will say football is not magic. It’s all about hard work and putting God first. Every striker wants to score in each game but when you do not, all you do is just learn from the game and get better in the next. You can play two, three games without scoring but never lose focus. The goals will come.
How would you describe the Belgian league being your first season competing against top clubs who have seen it all?
Although we are new in the pro league but we have some experienced players who have helped us so far. The likes of Spain’s Luis Garcia, Jeffren Suarez of Barcelona and some others. When I arrived the club, it was a bit difficult. The academy and professional side are two different things. In the academy you can lose a game and nothing happens, but in the league you fight for every point you get and to stay in the league. Playing against teams like Genk, Oestende, Club Brugge has not been so easy, but here we are in the league and we have to play to survive. I will also say the Belgian league is a good place for every youngster to start and get exposure.
Before joining Eupen, did you get offers to play in other clubs or ASPIRE settled for the Belgian side from the onset?
The ASPIRE academy’s first option is for you to play in Eupen. The academy owns the club in Belgium. So for players in ASPIRE, the first plan is to get promoted to Eupen to play professional. Every youngster in the academy looks forward to this promotion to start a career.
The owners of Eupen also own Paris Saint German, is there a plan to have you moved to France anytime soon?
For me, I am not thinking about other clubs or having a place in PSG. My only focus right now is my performance in Eupen and how to help the club where I am right now. Everyone has a dream club they want to play in sometime.
You mentioned, dream, what is your dream club?
Yeah of course, my dream is to play for Arsenal football club. It is a club I love so much. While growing up, I followed the club, watched their matches and I hoped to play in the team some day. This has always been my dream, and I look forward to it.
Where do you see yourself in the next three to five years?
Hmm… I wish to be in a top club playing in one of the best leagues in the world. Playing in the UEFA Champions League has always been my dream, and I hope to get there soon. Right now, my focus is to just keep playing and believing and the future will tell.
How would you feel if you get a call-up to play for the Super Eagles?
I will be very happy if I get invited because it’s a good thing to play for the national team of your country and I also would like to have a feel. Every Nigerian I believe looks forward to this.
Was there ever a time, any country approached you to switch nationality?
Interesting, can you tell us the best moment thus far in your career?
I will say the best moment for me so far was when we gained promotion to play in the pro league. I only played my first season with the team in the second division and the next year, we are in the topflight.
Where do you see your team finishing this season and how will you feel if you qualify to play in Europe?
Our first objective is to stay in the league and that is what we are fighting for right now. We are not focused on winning the league but to remain in the top division. From next season we can start fighting for the cups and titles.
Anything is possible in football. I will be very glad if we can as well make it to Europe to compete with other teams from other parts of the world. Just as we are now in the semi final of the Belgian cup, we look forward to many possibilities.
There are abundance of talents where you started from in the national stadium training every day, what is your word to youngsters, and in Nigeria who look forward to getting to this level?
There is nothing much to say about that other than the keyword, hard work and prayer. You need to put God first, work hard and some day your moment will arrive. Back then when I was at home, I remember I also used to ask the question, when will I make it as a footballer but I have now realized that you will only keep depressing yourself with such questions and it will kill you inside. Just keep doing what you know how to do.
What is your best food?
I love plantain. So for me, whatever goes with plantain is it.