Stephen Worgu turned 22 on Friday, and whilst the player isn’t a household name in Europe, he is a young player who has been through a lot, and has a long way to go. This is the story of his decisions, and the path he’s followed.
Brass can be found right at the base of Nigeria, right at the southern-most tip of the country, on the coast, not far from the enormous city sprawl of Lagos. It is a region with about the same population as Milton Keynes, but much more in the way of footballing history.
Ocean Boys F.C. are one of the local sides. Founded in 2002, their first triumph followed four years later, as they won the Nigerian Globacom Premier League in their first season in the top flight, a remarkable achievement for any nascent, newly promoted side. In 2008 they won their second major honour, the Nigerian FA Cup, but by the end of the decade the core of the title winning side had retired or moved to Europe.
Like many clubs across West Africa, Ocean Boys F.C. were formed with a specific identity, or a particular objective. Ghanaian sides such as Ashanti Gold and Asante Kotoko are examples of clubs created to serve a particular ethnic community, whilst Kwame Nkrumah’s historic Real Republicans side sought to represent a certain political party, as well as the president’s ideals. The chairman of the local Brass government council, the charismatic Sylva Nathaniel Ngo, decided to form a football club to engage and involve the youth of the Niger Delta in worthwhile activities. It is a tactic right from the text book of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president. Ngo, a former preacher, ensured that Ocean Boys had a strong spiritual and fiscal following.
For a club founded on such grounds, Ocean Boys have endured their fair share of tragedy; young defender Emmanuel Ogoli collapsed during a game last season, later dying in hospital. Mere days later two other players sustained injuries in a car crash in which two pedestrians were killed. As I explore below, another former star has found himself very publically on the wrong side of the law. The Ocean Boys soldier on, but it is worrying that only a decade after their inception, fans are already reminiscing about the ‘glory days’ of the club.
Players from that ‘golden’ period have dispersed across Nigeria and beyond. Ideye Brown is perhaps the most successful export; having scored consistently for Neuchatel in Switzerland, and Sochaux of France, he is currently enjoying his time at table topping Dynamo Kyiv, where at the time of writing he is the second highest scorer in the Ukrainian league. International recognition has followed, and the striker was part of Nigeria’s 2010 World Cup squad, a late replacement for the injured John Obi Mikel.
Stephen Worgu, a talented youngster in that team, took the road less travelled by.
Brown left for Switzerland in January 2008, by this time Worgu had already departed. He moved to national giants and six time Nigerian champions Enyimba, who offered him a solid platform to shine on a continental stage in the African Champions League, a competition that they had already won on two prior occasions. Worgu seized the opportunity with both hands, impressing as the Abia state side made the semi-final.
On the pitch, Worgu excelled, top scoring in the competition, and devastating opposition, particularly in the group stages, where he scored eight goals in four games. Worgu was the subject of a bidding battle between Al-Merreikh of Sudan, and Egyptian powerhouses Al-Ahly, not to mention Dutch and Belgian clubs. Surprisingly, Al-Merreikh won out, with the transfer being considered by club officials as ‘one of the biggest deals in the history of African football.’
This is where Worgu’s problems started.
Despite the presence in Sudan of two fellow Nigerian strikers, the former U23 internationals Endurance Idahor and Kelechi Osunwa, Worgu’s time in Sudan began to seem like a typical story of a young man lost in a foreign land.
On the pitch, things started slowly for the attacking player; the weight of expectation was evident, and it was only after six months of anonymous performances that he finally scored his first goal for the Sudanese giants, against Al-Ittihad in Omdurman. The relief was plain for all to see, and Worgu relished his goal; hurling off his shirt, and running to celebrate with the home fans. A momentous moment, but a second yellow card received in the excitement ensured the player’s dismissal. This game seems to capture Worgu’s time in Sudan in a snapshot: general disappointment, with the odd high, offset by desperate lows. It wasn’t long before he threatened to slip into obscurity.
The nadir came in August 2009 when Worgu was controversially convicted of drinking alcohol, banned in the then ‘Muslim North’ of what was the united Sudan. Worgu was punished with 40 lashes, and ordered to pay 250 Sudanese pounds, with the club also reportedly being told to pay a fine.
It wasn’t simply the lifestyle that was a problem. The Nigerian also failed to acclimatise to the culture and language of Sudan.
Commenting in a BBC interview some months before his run-in with the law, Worgu spoke of difficulties in adapting to life in Omdurman, and specifically, how he had failed to truly relate and respond to the Al-Merreikh supporters: ‘Going onto the pitch the fans are singing your name, but I don’t know what they’re saying, I have to ask a friend.’
This is in contrast to Endurance Idahor, who embraced life in Sudan – taking on citizenship, and involving himself, very publically, with charities across the country. Thus, the prolific Idahor was regarded as a model professional, a symbol of respect and courtesy, of a dedicated individual with esteem for a foreign culture.
The opposing fortunes of the players in Omdurman suggests that Worgu’s failings weren’t merely a general problem of a West African struggling to adapt to Sudan’s Islamic regime and another culture, but rather, a young man beset by immaturity and bad luck failing to find his feet away from the security of home. Indeed, there are estimated to be over seven million Nigerians in what was Sudan, and many more with Nigerian ancestry. The Sharia Law that Worgu lamented is also in effect in various states in the north of Nigeria.
Eventually, Worgu’s footballing qualities began slowly to overcome his personal issues. His technical ability, physical strength, and natural fitness have been demonstrated time and again. His playing hero is Diego Maradona, with whom he doesn’t just share a low centre of gravity, but also an impressive scoring rate; Worgu’s 13 goals in the 2008 African Champions League is a record that still resonates in Africa.
Just prior to the Arab Spring, and the overhaul of Gaddafi, he was signed by Libyan side Al-Ahly Benghazi. The move came as a shock to many, due to Worgu’s progression in Sudan, and the comparative sizes of the Benghazi side and Al-Merreikh. The attacker closed his account in Omdurman with a hat-trick against Hay Al-Arab, before embarking on his stint in Libya.
Due to the ongoing tumult that enveloped the country from early 2011, the Libyan Premier League was effectively shut down, and Worgu’s time north of the Sahara was cut short. He returns to Al-Merreikh a more mature player than the one who first arrived there in 2008; compatriot Kelechi Osunwa remains at the club, but Idahor died tragically in March 2010, after suffering a heart attack during a match. The controversy and upheaval that have surrounded Worgu over the last few years have doubtless taken their toll on the diminutive attacker.
Despite winning the Sudanese League last season, and being brought into the Nigerian youth set up for a recent U23 squad meeting, it remains to be seen how far the Nigerian number 10 can go in the game. He is still only young, but by the same age, Ideye Brown was already gracing Europe’s leagues and eyeing continental competitions north of the Atlantic.
Youngsters liked Ahmed Musa and Joel Obi, both of whom moved away from Africa at a young age have taken their place in the national side, whilst Worgu, despite being heralded as such a talent, is yet to hook up with the Super Eagles. Speaking to Supersport in 2011, it is evident that Europe is still the dream for the playmaker. Whilst signing for his favourite club Chelsea may well require a supernatural change in fortunes, it is not beyond to realms of possibility to see him with a European side in the near future. Until then, he remains in Omdurman. The road less travelled has made all the difference.
Ed Dove, London