To understand the improbability of Samu Chukwueze’s rise, it’s easiest to start at the point where his career almost went up in flames. It wasn’t the lack of clean water in Umuahia, an area of dereliction, poverty and little hope: “not a ghetto in the Nigerian context, but a rough neighbourhood”. Nor was it his understated character, brimming with talent but unmistakably introverted, leading to him living in the Villarreal academy’s shared flats long after becoming an established member of the first team. The tipping point came somewhere in between, when Chukwueze’s mother and uncle piled up his football boots and training kit and set them ablaze, insisting he avoid needless distractions and focus on his education. For a while, one of the most exciting wingers in world football simply stopped playing at all.
Sometimes, a chance meeting is the only difference between idolisation and invisibility, the thin line between the pursuit of success and a fight for survival. One afternoon, one of Chukwueze’s cousins took him to meet Victor Apugo and swore on the shy teenager’s talent. “When he brought Samu to me, I took him for a trial at the Diamond Football Academy,” Apugo tells The Independent. “But when I took him to the club, the coach didn’t allow him to play because he was too small. I adopted Samu like my son and he lived in my house instead of the team camp. I convinced the coach of his talent and soon everyone recognised Samu’s potential. He won awards at every tournament.”
From the star of Nigeria’s U17 World Cup win to rejecting Arsenal and a rapid breakthrough at Villarreal, Chukwueze’s star is now all that burns bright. Unashamedly left-footed, with a sharp burst of pace and expressive repertoire of skills, he was until recently one of the most sought-after players on the continent, previously shortlisted by both Chelsea and Liverpool, with fees quoted anywhere between £35-65m.
“Samu was a world champion, it’s not like we took him from under a stone,” a director at Villarreal tells The Independent. “He’s a fantastic player and we are very happy for him to develop here. He started with the U19s, was there for only two weeks, the same thing happened with the U21s and he finished the season in the U23s. Then, in the summer, he came on the first-team tour.”
A mercurial talent, at times irrepressible, in others peripheral, Chukwueze is still only 21 years old. He has featured in all but one of Villarreal’s La Liga matches this season, with the club on the brink of securing a place in next season’s Europa League. But the shine that illuminated the nascent stages of his career has flickered on occasion. Three goals and five assists are comparable to other coveted wingers, such as Bayer Leverkusen’s Leon Bailey, but still feels a meagre output when tallied against his ability. Meanwhile, the club-record signing of Paco Alcacer in January has provided more competition in the starting XI.
Apugo, who is now part of Chukwueze’s management team, stresses that that playing time was the fundamental reason behind his move to the quiet coastal city. His representatives had fielded interest from Arsenal, RB Salzburg and Porto after the U17 World Cup, but decided Villarreal shared the “right vision for his career”. “Arsenal made a huge offer to us,” says Apugo. “But we were looking for a place where his development will be guaranteed at, at that time, we didn’t think Arsenal was the best place for him. That decision has been vindicated.”
For that reason, while this summer could still be a critical juncture for Chukwueze, there is no rush to seek a new challenge, despite constant outside interest. He is still learning and developing, steadily coming out of his shell off the pitch, a reticence still very much at odds with his brand of football. “Football is the career Samu chose and he understands what’s involved [such as being far away from home and family],” Apugo says. “I don’t think he will be finding anything difficult because he’s mentally strong. It can’t be worse than what he’s been through growing up.”
It’s a shared backbone that unites one of Nigeria’s most exciting generation of players, with impoverished and in some cases tragic childhoods underscoring a determination that thrives far from home. Victor Osimhen, one of Chukwueze’s closest friends, will join Napoli from Lille for a fee in excess of £45m in the coming days. Wilfried Ndidi has established himself as one of the best defensive midfielders in the world at Leicester, while Club Brugge’s Emmanuel Dennis is another irresistibly skilful forward.
“Samu is a fantastic player, of course, whatever happens happens,” says the Villarreal director. “For young players, we have competitive salaries. Maybe not at the top level.”
A move to England, at some stage, feels inevitable, with Chukwueze admitting last year that his “ambition is to play in the Premier League”. However, those same promises of playing time that persuaded him to sign for Villarreal in 2017 remain pivotal, and it’s not a decision that will be taken in haste. Chukweuze has three years remaining on his contract, and the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on suitors and price tags.
“They ask me about [Pau Torres and Chukwueze] and [clubs in England] think that they can make the step to the Premier League soon,” said former Arsenal midfielder Santi Cazorla. “It’s good that big clubs are interested in the young players at Villarreal but, for the moment, I’m asking them to stay here.”