Anthony Ujah is enjoying life at 1. FC Union Berlin following his arrival from Mainz this summer. The 28-year-old from Nigeria made an important contribution to the 3-1 win over Borussia Dortmund and is fighting for a spot in the team against Eintracht Frankfurt. Union’s club speaker Christian Arbeit chats with the striker on life in Nigeria, his first club, his first transfer and his move to the promotion winners from Köpenick.
CA: We’d like you to tell us a bit about yourself, where you come from and how your path to us came about. Let’s start very early: you were born in Ugbokolo in Nigeria. What’s it like there?
AJ: My life started there, it’s a small village. I’m the youngest of five kids. I have three older sisters and a big brother. It was always hard for me because I was the youngest one. It wasn’t easy to manage school and football at the same time. The system is also very different in Nigeria. I wasn’t bad in school, but my focus was football. It’s still like that today. I follow all the European leagues and read a lot of newspapers. At some point it became clear to me that I wanted to be a professional.
How old were you then?
About 15. I had finished my secondary school and wanted to see where the path took me. I started with a team from a neighbouring town and was on the road a lot with them. I was young, but I also played quite well. Within half a year or so, I worked my way up to a team in the first division. I got a deal there after a few trial sessions.
How did football come about for you? Was it a huge topic in your village?
Yes, I played a lot with the guys on the street. The pitches in our area weren’t the best quality. We played everywhere where there was a pitch, no matter what the conditions were. When I was 16 I got my first pair of football boots, then the other guys didn't want to play with me anymore because they were afraid that I would hurt them. We all played barefoot before. Not everyone gets the chance to play football in good conditions - we are just happy if we can do it at all.
Let’s go through your teams: FC Abuja — what kind of group was that?
This was the promoted team with whom I had my real contract. It was insane for me as I had never played in a stadium before. There were loads of people there, 5,000, 10,000. In the beginning, it was hard for me but I was excited. After five or six games, I found my rhythm.
You scored 18 goals in 35 games and moved to Warri Wolves.
Correct. It’s a club from my region. I come from a poorer part of Nigeria, so this club fell on hard times. A lot of players left the club at the end of the season to establish themselves internationally. We qualified for the African Cup back then and that was a great experience. Then the offer came from Norway.
You ended up playing at Lillestrom. The other day when you were asked about whether you prefer winter or summer, you answered immediately with summer. How did you cope in Norway?
At the start, it was hard. When I arrived in Norway, it was -15 degrees. Fortunately we trained indoors but of course played outside. During this time I barely left the house to go for a walk. Just to get food or play.
You went back to where you started in Germany: Mainz. And at some point in summer or spring, someone called you or your agent — we’ll tip Oliver Ruhnert — so what did you think when you heard Union was interested in signing you?
The interest came very early, already in winter around January time. I didn’t want to leave Mainz directly after one year. I was involved in a lot of goals the season before and wanted to play more there. I had the feeling there that I once had when I actually first came to Germany. When I also played for Cologne, I had a similar feeling. With Cologne, I first thought: ‘ok, the league is difficult’ then I went into the second and thought I could do it. I was a bit surprised when the interest came from Union in the summer and that gave me extra confidence because it showed how much they wanted me. I played one time here for Cologne in the 2.Bundesliga and I can remember this very well. I read a lot about football in Germany and whenever I hear someone talking about it, or asking them, the impression is life is good in Berlin. Nobody is negative and that made it an easy decision for me, even if I had offers from other clubs. Everything fits.