Anthony Ujah © Backpagepix
On the final day of the 2015/16 Bundesliga season Werder Bremen secured their top flight status with a home win over relegation rivals Eintracht Frankfurt.
The celebrations at the goal and at the final whistle were huge. Nigerian striker Anthony Ujah joined the likes Papi Djiloboji, Claudio Pizzaro and others in celebrating the great escape.
A few weeks later I read that Ujah was moving to China. I was properly stunned. So, Tony, how did this happen? Cue breathless laughter over the phone from the 26 year old striker. "In truth, in January of that season a club in China had come in for me. They made a good offer but I was not ready to abandon Bremen in a relegation battle." Oh? "Yes. Even with more money than I got now with this club I am at".
A goal celebration that went viral. Ujah takes Colonge mascot Hennes VIII for a ride
Ujah is one of those players who rarely gives interviews except when contracted to do at his clubs. When he speaks, it is clearly and honestly. "Truth was, I had gotten attached to the Bremen fans who were always good to me so I was never going to leave in the middle of a relegation battle".
At Weder Ujah soon became a fan favourite
This is a player it seems, who gets attached to his club's fans. How's that happening after one season in the Chinese super league with Liaoning Whowin? Another round of laughter. "I was so surprised to know that when I arrived there that the fans even knew me. I arrived on a Wednesday, made my debut that Friday in which I scored the winning goal - Vs Shijiazhuang Ever Brite. From then on they seemed to have taken to me".
Having played in Norway and Germany how or what is the standard of football in China really? "The passion is there I have to say. The fans are very knowledgeable about the game. They follow the major European leagues which was why I was surprised they knew so much about me even" says the former Mainz and Cologne striker.
Ujah greeted by ecstatic Liaoning Whowin fans on arrival
"Tactically they are a long way off on the pitch compared to Europe but they will get there. I am absolutely certain of that - maybe in the next 5 or 10 years". Ujah spoke exclusively from Whowin's pre season training camp in Australia. "In Europe as a striker, you will expect the ball to be in the box within 5 or 6 touches. You do a lot of work on combination plays also. Here, the build up is a lot slower. Sometimes I drop deep to join in the play but it is still not as fast. I am adjusting as I am sure the Chinese players too are adjusting".
"The infrastructure at the clubs are at par with many in Europe. They strongly believe they will get there. That's a reason they invest a lot in their youth and academies." They do bring in many foreign players though. "Yes" Ujah says. "However, they have made new rules now allowing clubs a maximum of 3 foreign players. The top clubs with more money get the Oscars and the Hulks; but they also are able to buy the best local talent who happen to be quite expensive too. There are 5 or 6 of these clubs in the 15 team league".
Speaking of investments and money. Anytime we read about players going to China we think dollar signs. Players leaving the Premier League even. So, go on Tony, how good is this money? "The biggest difference between here and Europe is that what they say your salary is is what you will get. The club pays your taxes and so you are left with a huge lump". Yeah? More laughter. "See, as an African coming into Europe to play the game professionally, my earning is very important as I have many commitments back home. So, yes, money was a factor in moving to China". Like a retirement plan? "Yes, sort of. We don't want to finish playing football and can't maintain the lifestyle we already are used to. Don't want to end up struggling to get an assistant coach's job with the National Team". Deep.
Ujah won his last cap for Nigeria during the brief tenure of Sunday Oliseh. Has he given up on that front? "not really. I have not spoken to the current manager so I am not expecting him to use the same yardstick for me as he will for (Odion) Ighalo and Mikel (Obi)". The Nigerian manager had gone on record to say Mikel's status will not be affected by the move to China. "I don't expect that the number of goals I score in China will affect positively my recall. However, I have not retired from the national team and will be ready to play if and when I get called again".
On his debut in China, Ujah promptly opened his goal account against Shijiazhuang Ever Bright
At only 26 is Ujah going to end his career in China? A return to Europe perhaps? "I can tell you categorically that I will be returning to Europe at the end of my contract here. I have enjoyed the experience thus far but I will be back to Europe".
Ujah has a foundation that is doing great things in his home town in Benue state. There are many beneficiaries there who will be praying that he stays fit and be as successful as he has been thus far. He shuns the limelight and keeps his private life really private.
Not your average Nigerian footballer, Anthony Ujah.