Quick Reads

Samuel Chukwueze: Villarreal’s Nigerian Jewel

When Barcelona came back from two goals down in injury time to secure an unlikely point against Villarreal in a surreal 4-4 draw at the beginning of April, the next day’s headlines were fixated on the goal scorers of the injury-time goals. While the names of Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi are household ones, the man who opened Villarreal’s account, a certain Samuel Chukwueze, does not yet enjoy such recognition.

However, progress has been such in the young man’s embryonic career to date that such an eventuality may not be realized one day in the not too distant future.

Born in Umuahia, Nigeria, to a preacher father and a mother who is a nurse, there is little chance of Chukwueze losing the run of himself and doing anything other than keeping both feet firmly on the ground.

Currently playing his football mainly as a winger, Chukwueze started at the Diamond Academy in his native Nigeria. Inspired by the success of fellow Nigerian Jay-Jay Okocha, took up serious football at the age of eight and developed within the club’s youth system while attracting the attention of scouts from overseas.

As early as 2016, Chukwueze appeared on the radar of Arsenal and for a while, he looked all set for a move to the Emirates Stadium. However, much to the disappointment of all parties, the move broke down and Chukwueze continued with his development at the Diamond Academy.

Chukwueze took the disappointment in his stride and a year later, in 2017, he got his chance to move to one of Europe’s major leagues when the Yellow Submarine, Villarreal, took a €500,000 gamble on him.

By the time Chukwueze arrived in Spain, he had already received international recognition in the form of Under-17 appearances for Nigeria, and his move to Villarreal pushed him into the full international limelight for the first time. Although naturally left-footed, Chukwueze worked on his right to such a degree that he was able to be employed on either wing or through the middle as a main striker.

Upon joining Villarreal, it was expected that Chukwueze would spend some time amongst the youth ranks, but in fact, he was fast-tracked through the club’s reserve team which play in the third tier of Spanish football. After just 13 league appearances and two goals for Villarreal B, he made his debut for the first team in a Europa League fixture against Steven Gerrard’s Glasgow Rangers in October 2018.

As well as basing his game on Jay-Jay Okocha, whom Chukwueze describes as his ‘role model’, his play shows shades of the style of Arjen Robben, another player Chukwueze is said to greatly admire. Chukwueze’s play displays traces of Robben’s movement and dribbling skills, while also containing more than a trace of Okocha’s close ball control and pace.

Playing with a squad number of 30, Chukwueze has been a regular in the Villarreal team since his debut and has played a large part in the side’s run to the last eight of the Europa League. Although Villarreal are currently involved in a relegation dogfight, the four goals that Chukwueze has currently weighed in with have helped to alleviate the pressure. His most recent goal being the only one of the game in Villarreal’s victory over Girona on April 14.

In November 2018, Chukwueze made his bow at full international level when he started in the 0-0 friendly draw against Uganda. It was a promising debut in a makeshift and experimental side and was the first of many expected caps.

The promise shown in the short time since Chukwueze’s breakthrough has once again attracted scouts from other clubs, with Arsenal once again said to be in the running should Villarreal decide to make an early financial killing. A lot probably depends on which season Villarreal find themselves playing in next season, as it is hard to imagine that they would be able to keep hold of Chukwueze should they suffer the ignominy of relegation. Indeed, Chukwueze is already being tipped in some quarters to ultimately become Nigeria’s most expensive player ever, surpassing Kelechi Iheanacho and his £25 million move to Leicester City in 2017.

Although there is undoubtedly a long way to go in the young man’s career, the early signs are that he has the potential to go a very long way, if not quite to the very heights of his illustrious co-scorers in Villarreal’s 4-4 draw with Barcelona. Notwithstanding the pressures and expectations that go with being a modern-day footballer, Chukwueze seems to be coping just fine and it will be fascinating to see how the next few years pan out for this talented youngster.