The Curious Story Behind Henry Onyekuru’s Rise To Football Stardom

The 19-year-old Nigerian has been linked with Arsenal – but all may not be as it appears…

Eupen in action against Bayern Munich.
Eupen playing Bayern Munich In a friendly in Qatar Image Getty

Henry Onyekuru stands on the brink of achieving his dream.

A 19-year-old striker by trade, the Nigeria-born forward could never have imagined that his hopes of playing professional football in one of Europe’s elite leagues would one day be realised.

But after a blistering season in the Belgian First Division A, it could be about to happen.

Once linked to clubs like RB Leipzig and Celtic, the teenager is now reportedly attracting interest from Arsenal with talk of a £6.8 million move in the offing.

It would cap a remarkable rise for a player from the river port city of Onitsha in Nigeria and one ultimately only made possible by the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Currently on the books at Belgian outfit Eupen, where he has scored 31 goals in 60 games, Onyekuru’s transfer to Arsenal would be the culmination of arguably one of the most controversial setups in European football today.

To understand, you have to go back to June 2012 and the day the Qatar-owned ASPIRE Zone Foundation purchased the Belgian club.

On the brink of financial collapse at the time, those at Euppen saw the Qatari intervention as a blessing from on high with the potential to transform the club in a way already seen at Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain – the latter of which is owned by Aspire already.

Except Aspire had other ideas.

From 2007 onwards, the Aspire Football Dreams program has been put in place by the Qatari group to scout and recruit young African talent to be further developed in state-of-the-art academies in Doha and Senegal.

These players would then be moved on to smaller, European teams where, under Aspire’s supervision, they would eventually gain EU passports and the ability to move for more substantial sums to other big clubs.

 

Aspire would collect some of the transfer fee, as well as image rights, while simultaneously trumpeting themselves as an organisation at the forefront of developing exciting new talent.

There were limitations to the plan though, with rules concerning the number of non-European players any one team could have on their roster preventing Aspire from working with clubs in England, Spain, Italy and France.

It came down to a choice between Belgium and Portugal with the former winning through for the fact that most African players spoke French.

There were other, less moralistic considerations too: players could apply for a passport and dual citizenship after just three years of living there, thus streamlining turnover and potential profit.

Onyekuru represents the first fruit of that particular project, but it’s one steeped in concerns.

For starters, there’s the worry over the sheer number of young African players seemingly being put through the Eupen “machine” as it were. A high number of players have come over to Belgium, signing complex contracts related to earnings and image rights, in the hope of chasing a dream that’s tough enough for even the best of players already from Europe to achieve.

Millions of miles from home and in a foreign country earning decent wages, some have struggled to adapt, others have got homesick while most seem focused on sending money back to their family and pushing forwards towards their impossible dream whatever the cost.

The pressure to succeed is immense, in an environment where most traditional Eupen fans have seen their team transformed into a more multicultural, and not necessarily welcome, mix of players from across the world.

At last count, the first-team squad of 28 players contained players of 12 different nationalities, with 15 African players and six Belgians.

Question marks also remain over the end goal for Aspire. In the past, there have been some allegations that the plan may eventually see youngsters assimilated into the Qatar squad for the 2022 World Cup, something previously explored by the burgeoning football nation.

 

Though unconfirmed, the country’s relaxed approach to naturalisation could certainly pave the way for such a move. It may even have been part of the deal offered to these young players when they first signed up with the academy.

There have even been allegations that Aspire set scouts to far-flung regions like Guatemala and Thailand in an effort to secure votes for their successful World Cup bid, with little in the way of talent from either nation discovered.

All allegations remain, at this point, unfounded, but Onyekuru’s potential move to Arsenal or somewhere else in one of Europe’s major leagues could see the academy and goings on at Eupen come under the microscope.

Perhaps there is nothing untoward about using a small Belgian club to feed young African footballing talent into Europe and Onyekuru will be the first of many players who may otherwise not have got a chance to progress. Either way, it’s worth a closer look.

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Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.