Abuchi Obinwa is a Nigerian-American currently playing professional football in the United States. He was provisionally part of the Nigeria squad that won the title at the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. A controversial MRI test prevented him from lining up alongside stars like Kelechi Iheanacho, Success Isaac and Musa Yahaha as the Golden Eaglets conquered all comers in the Gulf.
Obinwa has also represented the United States at U15, U16, U17, U18, and U20 level and he also played with the PSG academy and spent time with the youth academy of Spanish club, Real Madrid. The 23-year-old then signed his first professional contract with German club Hannover 96 on January 29, 2015, six months after he had signed an amateur contract with the club.
He sat down with SPNAfrica’s Sammy Wejinya to discuss the highs and lows of his career and talk about plans for the future.
SPNAfrica: You were born approximately 23 years ago but when did you begin your football education?
I began my football education when I was about three years old in a Town called Westerville, Ohio at a little club called Sesa.
That is where I started playing soccer regularly and practicing soccer with other kids my age.
What does Chicago Magic represent to you?
Chigaco Magic represents to me, a place that really helped me develop. It helped me accelerate my development as a footballer. It was the first step and stepping stone to my career.
It helped in me getting me seen nationally and worldwide. It also helped me perfect my craft and put me against talent, week in, week out.
That helped me in challenging myself every day, whether it was in training or games to accelerate to how well I could become or how good a player I could be.
What was the biggest attribute noticed in your game by your trainers at the Magic during those early years of your development?
That’s a good question. I would say the biggest attribute that all my coaches noticed at Chicago Magic was probably my ability to learn and how quickly I adapted to new things.
Every time I stepped onto the field, irrespective of whether our tactics may have changed depending on the opponent, or whether in training and I had to improve on something that I hadn’t had the skill on before, I was very quick to learn and adapt to those new things. That, in turn, helped me as a young player, because the quicker I could learn, the faster I could become a better player.
In 2014, you went to Germany to join the Hannover club. What informed that bold decision to move to Europe at such a young age?
What informed me to make that decision was my parents. They pushed to take that next jump which they said was going to be for the better as far as my career was concerned.
They knew that playing in Europe was going to help me develop quicker and that I would learn a different kind of game which they believed was the right way to play. So they (my parents) told me to move to Germany.
They knew I could handle travelling on my own as I had been doing the same thing with the (United States) national team (at youth level).
They gave me the confidence that I could do it on my own and that spurred me to take that next step in my career.
You never managed to play for the seniors at Hannover despite playing severally for the U19s. Why do you think it was difficult for you to smash the glass ceiling in this context, and break into the first team?
It was very difficult to break into Hannover’s first team and what made it so tough was that I was injured and for a cumulative period of about six months.
I suffered a shoulder injury and then an ankle injury and it made it difficult for me to continue to train and get into a rhythm. It was difficult to improve and get into the first team because of those injuries.
What were the biggest lessons you learned from your time in Germany?
The biggest lesson I learned during my time in Germany was the amount of time you needed to stay focused for the entire 90 minutes of a game, how aggressively you needed to play and that bad things may happen to you during a game. When those bad things happen, you have to forget about it and focus on doing something positive as quickly as possible.
Those three things I learn are probably the three biggest things that have helped me the most as a footballer.
You returned to the States soon after to join the Columbus Crew in the MLS. With the benefit of hindsight, was that move (to the Crew) a step too steep and did you feel even fleetingly, that your time in Germany was an expedition in futility?
If Columbus Crew didn’t have an affiliate to loan me to, like the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the PSL Championship, I think it would have been a step too steep because I would have gotten no minutes and I wouldn’t have improved in any way, shape or form.
Luckily enough, I got loaned out and was able to get game time that way. I don’t think I fulfilled my potential during the time I spent in Germany.
I learned a lot in Germany but I feel I could have done a lot more than I did in terms of getting game time and pushing myself to the next level.
I also think I could have done more in terms of pushing myself on the national level and on the world stage as well. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way but things happen for a reason so I am not too bothered about it.
How important was Pittsburgh Riverhounds in your professional education?
The Pittsburgh Riverhounds, more than people may know, was actually a very important step for me in my professional career because I learned a lot of things like how to fight for a spot (in the team), how to keep a spot, how to influence a team, the importance of getting three points, losing my spot in the team though injury and trying to get it back again.
Training week in week out, even if I might not get in the next week. I just kept pushing and pushing until I got my opportunity again.
So in terms of growing as a player, the Riverhounds were very influential in my career and I thank them for all that they did for me.
You didn’t get so many minutes at the Riverhounds though….Just seven appearances made during your time there. Was it down to the injuries or a lack of top flight experience at the time?
Unfortunately, I picked up another injury and this time it was a groin injury. After that, I was sent back to Columbus for rehab and I was there for a little bit. And once I was back from rehab, the coach felt that……I don’t really know what it was (shrugs).
I just found out that I wasn’t playing as regularly as I was in the past before I got injured. Before my injury, I was playing week in, week out, playing 90 minutes….75 minutes, winning games, tying a few games but once I got back, things changed.
I guess that’s what happens when you get injured for about three weeks and I was in Columbus the whole time. So I guess these factors affected me getting back into the team as quickly as I would have loved to.
Soon after, you made a return to Europe in the third tier of Portuguese football… A fascinating project on the surface. Can you shed more light on that particular expedition?
That was very much unexpected. My trainer at the time had connections in Portugal and this team, Lusitano FCV, was very close to getting promoted to the second division.
When I joined them, they were six points away from the promotion places and the idea was for me to help them get promoted and move up with them to the second division.
The thinking was that playing in the second division would aid my development as there were a lot of scouts that came to watch those games (in the second-tier). It would look good on my resume too if I could pull it off with Lusitano FCV.
So I took the risk and went to Portugal.
I’d never trained nor trialed there before but luckily, I got to sign a contract with the club and had a great time there. I played a lot while I was there and they helped impact me in my career.
Did the team get promoted?
No, we didn’t, unfortunately. We missed it by just four points but pushed and pressured our rivals right to the very end.
It was important for my career that I was part of a team that was fighting for something so important.
What lessons learned in Germany aided you in Portugal?
Being focused and aggressive. Lusitano FCV needed someone of that ilk and I did fit the bill. I played the defensive midfield position pretty well and that worked in my favour.
Other aspects of Germany that helped me in Portugal was living on my own and being alone.
I was in a country (Portugal) where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t have any friends or family.
It was important to keep my spirits up and keep busy and also stay happy. If I wasn’t happy off the field, I wouldn’t be happy on the field and that would have definitely affected my performances on the pitch.
How did you keep your spirits up, not knowing how to speak the language or being ingrained in the culture of the people?
My friends and family back home in the States. I spoke to them a lot, we did a lot of video chats and had sessions on the Play Station.
Speaking to my parents day in, day out, helped too.
Do you speak any German or Portuguese presently?
I do speak German but only conversationally. I don’t speak Portuguese but I do know the football terms in Portuguese.
Do you think having your family around in Germany and/or Portugal could have seen you record more successes in both countries?
I don’t think having them around would have helped me succeed more. I was already away from them for long periods when I was living in Chicago so I was already used to not having them around me.
It didn’t really affect how I performed on the pitch. I will say not having them around all the time was actually a good thing in the sense that it helped me in growing up and maturing a lot faster than I would have ordinarily done if they were always around me.
Let’s digress now and discuss your time with the Nigeria U17 side. You were 16 years old at the time….what was the experience like playing football in Africa for the very first time?
The experience was very eye-opening. It was my first time there and I was playing with guys that I never imagined I would ever be playing with in the Nigeria U-17 team.
It was a great experience because I could see the different level of fight that they had compared to the other places that I had played previously.
They were fighting to secure their futures because they knew that if they made it to the World Cup with the team, it would probably propel their careers to the next level. That really was what the biggest difference was.
Who were the best players you played with in that Nigeria team?
(Pauses and thinks for a little while). I will say Success Isaac and Musa Yahaya.
What marked them out and stood them apart from the rest?
Success was a physical specimen and he was scoring free-kicks in training for fun and scoring goals at will.
He could run past anybody he wanted to. He was pretty much unstoppable.
Musa was very very fast and skillful. He was a very tricky dribbler and I could tell that he had a very high tactical ability and it very difficult to get the ball off him.
He could affect the offense whenever he got the ball and it was very difficult to stop him one versus one. Many times, trying to stop him, two versus one was even a task.
You didn’t mention Kelechi Iheanacho….
(Cuts in) Kelechi was a great player but I just feel that Success and Musa were the standout players for me. They were just head and shoulders above everyone there.
Are you surprised that Kelechi seemed to have succeeded more, professionally, compared to the other lads in that team?
I always believed that someone in that Nigeria U-17 attack would do extremely well at the world stage, professionally. At that time, I couldn’t really say who because there were so many top talents there at the time.
It is great that it is him (Iheanacho) that has made that push and I won’t really say that I am surprised at that.
Now let’s discuss something that surprised everyone, putting that team in perspective. The “failed” MRI test! Were you gobsmacked considering the fact you were born in the USA with accurate birth records?
At the time, I was pretty shocked. When my Mum informed me about it, she also said she had not seen the result.
I was pretty upset too because I said if I failed the test, I’d like to see the results and the proof but I was never shown them, so…
It is what it is but I was really shocked but I was really thankful for the experience. I am pretty upset that nothing came out of it and I never got to see what really happened.
Why didn’t you see the result of the test?
My mum and I had no idea why we were not shown the results of the tests.
They (the Nigeria Football Federation) just refused to and we just let it be.
I do think I would have made the final squad to the World Cup. I don’t think I would have made the first team to start the opening game but I would have definitely made the final squad.
I don’t really have any regrets at the time I spent there (with the Nigeria squad).
It was very good experience at the end of the day.
What did the coach say to you after the result was announced (in the news)?
I don’t remember what the coach said to me if he even said anything at all.
You’re presently with Saint Georgia Tormenta. How did the deal materialize and how have you settled in in these difficult times?
I am currently at Tormenta FC at South Georgia. It really just happened by my agent and trainer knowing someone at the coaching staff here. He got in contact with them and made them know that I was a free agent and was looking to play somewhere. They thankfully accepted me as part of the squad.
In these difficult times of the pandemic, we have been training by ourselves and trying to keep safe.
Can you give more insight about the Hannover story you told in your YouTube Channel. Were you surprised the deal that saw you join the German club came about so soon after your disappointment with the Nigeria U17 team?
In terms of Hannover, I was really very surprised that the deal came through.
I wasn’t expecting anything like that to happen especially after what had just transpired with the Nigeria U17 set up so I really did not see that one coming.
I was really just focused on playing my football and playing well in the Academy
I was really grateful that it happened.
Ok. So let’s do the quick-fire question and answer session. Ready?
Messi or Ronaldo?
Messi. The sheer amount of titles he has won, the way he plays, maneuvers the ball.
He is like a magician on the ball and it always looks impressive no matter how many times I see it.
Rihanna or Beyonce?
Beyonce. The reason is that when I was a lot younger, my mum used to play a lot of Beyonce songs in the car.
I kinda got used to her, so, it has to be Beyonce for me because of that reason.
Rap or R&B
Rap. I am naturally an upbeat person so rap for me.
Favourite movie star?
It has to be one of Will Smith, Leonardo Di Caprio and Johnny Depp.
Just because of how much range they have as characters and actors.
Also, the movies I have watched with them in it are always entertaining, so yeah, one of those three.
Best movie you ever saw?
That has to be either the Wolf of Wall Street or Avatar.
I love both movies. I think the acting in the Wolf of Wall Street was pretty much perfect and it is also a funny movie.
And Avatar…just the scenes, the animation, the story, all of it just intrigues me and it was just a great movie.
I don’t think anyone can say anything bad about those movies.
Sushi is my number one favourite food but a close second will have to be Egusi soup because that soup has slowly climbed the ranks of all soups!
When I was a kid, it was Okro soup but as I got older, I guess my taste palate changed and Egusi soup slowly made the climb to number one.
My best drink is orange juice.
Best/worst memories in football?
My best memory in football will have to be signing for Hannover 96. The feeling will stick with me forever. It was sensational for me.
Worst memory in football would be breaking my ankle. The pain didn’t represent the worst feeling but the realization of how much time I would be sidelined from playing really hurt.
Looking back and now making videos and telling your story, will you change anything about your past?
I will say, in terms of what happened in the past, the only thing I would change is trying not to get injured. I am not really upset with anything that happened to me previously in my career apart from the injuries.
Injuries kept hold me back especially when I was in Germany and without those injuries, things could have gone a whole lot differently for me.
If you get another opportunity to play for Nigeria, will he consider it?
I would never close the doors to playing for Nigeria. Irrespective of what happened with the Nigeria U17s, I am still very keen on playing for Nigeria if I ever get a call up.
Finally, what legacy would you want to leave behind?
A legacy of hard work and determination because I feel like I’ve had to do things differently and work extra hard to make it this far. I did a lot of things and a lot of training and was told ‘No’ plenty of times to the point where I could have given up.
I kept persevering despite what was going on around me and how may career has gone has shown that I haven’t given up. That’s the kind of legacy I would want to leave behind.
Thank you very much, Abuchi, for your time.
You are welcome.