Unusual words to read on a football site, but Nigeria's Taiwo Awoniyi is a special young player. Stereotypically, footballers are not considered to be particularly academically inclined, focusing on the pursuit of a sporting dream rather than scholarly achievements. Awoniyi is trying to juggle both, and it seems probable that his studies will have to be placed on the back burner as his footballing career is likely to take off.
Although still a few months short of his 18th birthday, Awoniyi is already a world champion - having played in all seven games as Nigeria won the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2013 - and this year he helped the Nigerians to a continental title at the CAF U-20 Championship. Later this month, he will be in New Zealand as a member of the Flying Eagles squad that is hoping to win a first-ever global title at this age group for the west African country.
Awoniyi started playing at school before joining the United Academy in Kwara State. He later moved to Imperial Soccer Academy and thereafter joined the Nigeria U-15, then U-17 and now the U-20 team, with whom he will be playing at the World Cup. “With the preparations we have put in, we want to be world champions in New Zealand. Every game will be a cup final for us,” he says.
The Flying Eagles have been drawn into a tough group with five-time champions Brazil, Hungary and Korea DPR. Awoniyi said the players did not know much about the teams they would be facing. “We are yet to watch any videos of our opponents, but our coaches have concentrated fully on preparing us for whatever challenges we will come across. We are ready.”
Surprisingly, the striker, who is considered a predator with an eye for goal, says that their greatest strength is not what they are capable of on the field. “Our biggest strength is outside the pitch of play. It is the unity among the players. We are a big, happy family. On a personal level, scoring goals comes naturally to me. I also hold the ball up-front and try and bring my team-mates into the attack. I play for the team as well.”
Nigeria has won the FIFA U-17 World Cup more often than any other country (four times), but has fallen short at the U-20 level, twice losing the final and once finishing third. “I think that is because we need continuity in the various national teams," said Awoniyi. "I believe if there is continuity, as is the case with us now, from U-17s to U-20s, we can change all that. We are very hopeful that we will be able to change it this year.”
Winning the U-17 World Cup has been the highlight of Awoniyi's career thus far. “It changed the lives of most of us, many got clubs abroad and changed the lives of our families. I was able to build a house for myself, like most of the other players in the team.”
Awoniyi is, of course, hoping for another life-changing experience in New Zealand, but failing there is not something which worries him greatly. “Football is unpredictable. We are African champions and we want to prove ourselves again at the World Cup. I don’t want to think of failure in New Zealand because I believe in this team.”