It was not planned. Nothing ever seemed like happening till they actually happen. Nothing tests a youth’s resolve than the silent whispers of a shy breakthrough. It can be so close yet far away and leaves an imprint of one’s greatest fears walking majestically beside one in every journey.
But the moment Taiwo Awoniyi went on his knees, his fears hit an iceberg. He was on a walk with God.
Ilorin to Germany is a long journey, and with Awoniyi, it had many stops. Stops that were important steps in his walk with God. Times that seemed to the ordinary eye like a loss. An injured leg for a footballer means a bitter soul, a heart of pain and a brain riddled to just one thing – getting fit again. But this is faith we are talking about. You can’t crucify a man for his own faith, especially when he stays true to it even in the face of adversity.
Awoniyi’s journey has been a reflection of chance. The key element of time in every man’s journey. After representing the Nigerian U-13 team, it could have been saying the only way is up. That’s not wrong. It was never wrong, but there were times it didn’t look right too. He graduated to the U-15s and was just enjoying his journey.
It had promise serenading it, and every bump pushed the vehicle further forward. Out of the blues, out of the nights of a long, arduous quiescence from the mouths of those that matter, his phone finally rang. “Where have you been, Taiwo?” It seemed like grace had long sought after him. Or luck, or blessing. Has to be luck or grace. Or a stroke of both. He was asked to get on a bus and make the long trip down to where everything would change. They’d been waiting for him.
There has always been one man in this picture – his father. He trained him to always choose a walk with God, and that night, when he had to send a young teenager on a bus, unsure of what’s ahead, he knew it was time. That journey made all the difference.
Some players had been dropped from the U-17 as a result of failing the MRI scan. It was ahead of the 2013 U-17 African Championship. Awoniyi was never in the picture but when they needed the numbers, he was called upon and he didn’t have to prove himself. The people that mattered had seen him at his best, and he was thrust in the squad. Off to a flying start. He made it to Morocco.
In that tournament, he hardly kicked a ball. Not even in anger. Isaac Success was the success of the tournament, alongside Kelechi Iheanacho. They stole the headlines and were very excellent. Awoniyi sat on the bench and revelled in his presence at that tournament. He was filled.
Those guys (Success and Iheanacho) are ‘senior men’. Iheanacho has always known he is. You understand? He’s now the senior man. They are people he respects a lot. Watching them play proved enough for him in Morocco. He understood his journey. That the road gets smoother when his vehicle is ready.
Off to the World Cup. The United Arab Emirates. Ilorin, Morocco and now the UAE. There’s something striking for Awoniyi. Something he probably never thought about. He made the team to the Mundial and he was ready to understudy the senior men again. Then that stroke of luck. It happens in incredible ways. It’s a walk with God. Success, unfortunately, got injured. He had painted the world green and was about watering his grass from that moment on, but he got injured.
Success earned the first European move from that 2013 squad. He was scouted and acquired by Udinese since they saw him in Morocco. He’s back to Udinese now, on loan, on a torrid and testing football journey. Such a career he’s had. But that’s not the story, right? Awoniyi is!
Awoniyi replaced Success in the team. It was the stroke of luck he needed; that streak of good fate. He shone. He hassled and harried defenders, with his gangly and imposing stature. The world was watching, but it didn’t seem like anyone saw what he did. Nigeria emerged victorious, Iheanacho shone and earned the plaudits he deserved. But there was the guy wearing everyone else down for the senior man to do the damage. That was Awoniyi.
It was time to move on and up, and nothing seemed forthcoming. Didn’t the world see how he starred? Nobody was watching how hard he worked? Questions you would be asking as an onlooker but it was a walk with God. He had rejected some of his admirers like he thought that wasn’t the road. He was patient and the phone rang again. This time, it was from Merseyside. Mercy had found him again. Liverpool wanted Awoniyi. From Ilorin to Liverpool; you know what that means? All the seas and oceans?
He found himself at Liverpool, two years after impressing in the United Arab Emirates. The world had seen him, but it wasn’t time, at the time. Without a work permit, he couldn’t play in the first team. Jurgen Klopp would call, send text messages wishing him well on every loan move. Those loan moves were quite enormous. The world was worried for him. You can’t hate Awoniyi. If you do, you have a problem. From Liverpool, he began the long walk again in Germany, with FSV Frankfurt. Learnt the trades of the European game, and its razor-sharp level of expectation. From there, he moved to the Netherlands with NEC Nijmegen.
Not much of an impact. Then Belgium, for his first stint at Mouscron. There it seemed it was getting close. The boxes were being ticked. He played a lot and well. And was in a better place. Then Gent, back to Mouscron where he had found a second home on a journey of faith and fate. There were the bitter times injuries prevailed but he kept his eyes on the ball. Then Mainz. Pooof! Bust! The coach didn’t find him good enough, until the pandemic. When the world thought the world was crumbling, Awoniyi’s world was shaping up. The journey through the nights of the past years was beginning to see the light.
“I’ve never been the best in what I do, but I’ve always trusted God. I find it difficult to get sad. My belief in God keeps me going. I always tell myself that “when you can’t stand high, fall on your knees.”
That has been the journey. And news filtered in, that he had suffered a collision. Heads-on collision. What would happen to that vehicle? His steady vehicle. His young family. But it would not be an issue. It is a walk with God. Accidents don’t happen. Incidents shape the journey. The referee was the angel on the day. He paved the way and saved the day. The slightest opportunity Awoniyi had at Mainz was enough for him to prove enough and he was headed to the capital. Union Berlin.
Another Nigerian, Anthony Ujah had suffered a long-term injury. You see it! That stroke of luck, and a streak of fate that puts him in place to mount great positions. He did enough to convince Union Berlin that he could be the answer to their questions. They popped the cash. And it was bye to Liverpool. Probably, someday, it would be “see you again”.
In 10 Bundesliga games this season, he has scored 7 goals, more than he scored in 21 games while he was on loan last season. His walk with God is having his paths cleared, and he’s carrying the grace and fate with such humble candour. He’s proving to be the difference and his patience proving to be a masterstroke.
He has made his senior national team debut, his work permit is not an issue again. He can play anywhere in the world. He can live his dream. Back home in Ilorin, an entire city is proud of what he has achieved, even when his walk with God has just begun. You can’t hate this man.
No, you cannot!
Written by Rilwan Adetayo Balogun with contributions from Oma Akatugba