When Taiwo Awoniyi’s son, Emmanuel, is old enough, he will hear the story of his father’s journey to Union Berlin. While Emmanuel will grow up wanting for nothing, Taiwo wants to tell him the tales of his childhood: of how he used to go without food to play football, and how he used to go in search of discarded shoes to patch up his beloved football boots.
That journey has led to the Bundesliga, where Awoniyi has become a star. Having gone from signing for Liverpool to a six-year nomadic journey on loan, and now to his home in Berlin, where he has scored seven goals in 11 league games this season, there’s one central, grounding theme: the importance of belonging.
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“I think that feeling appreciated is the most important thing: You feel good, you don’t feel far from home and you feel welcomed,” Awoniyi tells ESPN. “That’s the key. That’s what’s helping me keep going.”
Aged 24, he has finally found that place both as a Nigeria international, and with a club punching above their weight.
There is all manner of construction work and preparations going on behind Awoniyi’s head at Union Berlin’s Stadion An der Alten Forsterei home as we talk. Awoniyi is explaining what it’s like to be playing in front of Union Berlin’s fervent support. He loves it, but when he joined the club on loan last season, football was silent. He remembers those lockdown days in front of the empty stands but hearing the support outside.
“They were watching the game on their phones, or apps, and you’d hear these cheers going up as we scored,” Awoniyi says. “It was brilliant.” Union Berlin is a club built on its connection with family and fans, quite literally — the stadium was renovated by their own supporters. They’re now back in those red stands. “They’re so happy, back where they belong, and I appreciate that so much,” he says.
Awoniyi loves it here and feeling settled, with his wife Taiye and 1-year-old Emmanuel, has translated into a remarkable run of form. He’s fifth top-scorer in the Bundesliga, behind Robert Lewandowski, Erling Haaland, Anthony Modeste and Patrik Schick. Despite Awoniyi’s heroics, he’s reluctant to accept any praise. “We fight for each other,” he says. “It’s a team sport. Every striker loves to score, you want to score to help your team. When we work together as a team, fighting together — that’s success. That’s where I get my power and strength from, and at the end of the day, then the goals come.”
Awoniyi is one of six siblings: two older brothers (Adebisi and Victor), two older sisters (Adeola and Oluwafunke) and a twin sister, Kehinde. He grew up playing football on the streets of Illorin, Kwara — a city 300 kilometres from Nigeria’s capital, Lagos. His father wanted Awoniyi to become a doctor and follow in the footsteps of his two older sisters: Adeola is a midwife, and Oluwafunke a pharmacist. But as Awoniyi balanced studies with football — he was allowed to travel only to away games or to attend camps during the school holidays — his father, Solomon, needed convincing of his son’s ability.
As Taiwo snuck out to play football, his siblings covered for him. Awoniyi remembers those evenings where his father would find him, and would stand on the street watching him play. Awoniyi remembers the neighbours telling his father to give him space to grow his rare talent. It was at about 9 or 10 years old, Awoniyi says, that his father began to accept that his son had the potential to make it.
Taiwo Awoniyi reveals the positive influence Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah had on him while at Liverpool.
Awoniyi remembers the first pair of football boots his parents saved up to buy; his father is a retired police officer, while his mother is a trader. He wore them until they were ruined, but rather than ask for another pair, he taught himself how to sew. He used to go and look for old, discarded shoes, cutting them up to piece his old, battered boots back together.
“It’s something I’m really good at. My parents hardly had the money to buy new shoes,” he says. “Sometimes my dad or mum would try to buy me some, but I knew once they got spoiled, it would be difficult to get another one immediately. So, I just had to patch, patch, patch everything together.
“It’s something everyone [in my club and community] knew about. Sometimes, players gave me shoes to fix for them. Then I gathered the money to buy some new ones. At some point my dad would get his salary, or my mum would have made some money in the market, and I’d join it with what I had so I could buy some boots.”
Awoniyi used to sneak into the back of bars near his home to watch Thierry Henry and Didier Drogba, soaking up everything they did and then emulating them. He started playing more competitively for his region, Kwara, and then Unicorn Football Academy in Lagos — an academy Awoniyi has invested in to help nurture the next generation of Super Eagles. He learned the nuances of the game there under coach Abdulrasak Olojo, a man Awoniyi sees as his second father.
After impressing at regional tournaments and getting noticed by the Imperial Soccer Academy (now Imperial Football Club, or IFC), guided by ex-Wolves midfielder Seyi Olofinjana. Awoniyi’s father allowed him to travel as long as his grades didn’t drop.
“That’s why I see my dad as one of my greatest heroes, because he gave me the chance and opportunity to do what I wanted, even though he was paying my school fees,” Awoniyi says. “At some point as he saw me improving and playing, it was not too difficult for him to accept this as a career.”
His form at IFC saw him earn international recognition with Nigeria’s age-grade sides, and he was one of the stars of the team that won the 2013 U-17 World Cup, alongside Kelechi Iheanacho. In 2015, he played in the U20 World Cup in New Zealand and was noticed by Liverpool, who paid in the region of £400,000 to sign him from IFC. He was loaned out to FSV Frankfurt and spent the next six seasons at various clubs as he played toward securing a work permit that would enable him to play in England.
Awoniyi went from Frankfurt to NEC in the Netherlands, to Belgium’s Mouscron and Gent, and then to Germany to Jurgen Klopp’s old side, Mainz 05. He had a mixed 2019-20 season at Mainz, but prospered for Union Berlin in 2020-21.
Taiwo Awoniyi reveals the “honour and privilege” he felt when pulling on a Super Eagles jersey for the first time.
Last summer was a crossroads for Awoniyi. With another loan move a possibility and unlikely to get much game time at Liverpool, he had offers on the table from Premier League clubs and abroad, but settled on a permanent switch to Union Berlin.
“I felt this was a place I’d been before — I know how much they love me, look after me, even when I wasn’t their player. I saw this as my best chance, at this point and age in my career.” He completed his £5.5M move on July 20, having never played a competitive match for Liverpool due to the work permit situation.
“It was still one of the greatest things in my life, signing for that club,” he says. Awoniyi talks fondly of the frequent contact he had with current assistant sporting director Julian Ward, and how head of fitness Andreas Kornmayer kept him up to date with tips and training programs. He was part of the setup during their preseason trip to Austria last summer, with Sadio Mane taking him under his wing.
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“Sadio was always telling me things about life. Previously, I always looked at him from afar, but as I got closer, everything they say about him is true,” Awoniyi says. “It’s the same with Mohamed Salah and Naby Keita. They are so down to earth, laughing and chilling with you. That tells you, regardless of their achievements, you just have to stay humble, stay grounded and on your feet.
“The same went for Jordan Henderson, James Milner and others. They have won so many trophies, but so down to earth. When it’s work time, it’s work time; when it’s play time, it’s play time.”
Awoniyi’s final conversation with Klopp happened on the eve of his switch to Union. The striker was sitting at one of the tables during their Austria training camp, and Klopp came over to him to say goodbye. “He told me, it’s a good step for me. The most important thing is once you realise that a club wants you as a player and as a man, it’s a good move,” Awoniyi said. “It was a statement I learned from. The most important thing is you are welcome where you are going.”
Awoniyi’s father hasn’t yet seen his son play professional football live. His wife and son are enjoying the Union Berlin match-day experience, while his parents try and watch from back in Nigeria. While they were doing the best to keep up to date on where he was in Europe, they always had one common question: When was he going to play for the national team?
“It’s difficult to explain it. Sometimes, not every Nigerian professional player can be in the squad,” Awoniyi says. “When I finally got the call in October, [my father] said everybody had been calling him. And then he asked if he could come to watch me in Lagos. I said maybe it’s best they stay at home with my twin sister … as if they came, then everybody in the family would want to join!”
On Oct. 7, Awoniyi achieved his dream of playing for the national team, coming on as a substitute for Leicester’s Iheanacho in their 1-0 defeat against Central African Republic. The green No. 13 shirt from his debut is back home in Berlin, waiting to be framed.
“To be honest … I cannot describe it,” Awoniyi says. “It’s been my target, and I was so grateful to God — when I wake up, my first motivation for the day is to thank God. Once I’ve done that, I look at how the journey started, and realise that I just have to keep on going. It’s not about money, or how far you’ve come, but there are steps that you get to in life, and the minute you take a step back down, there will be people that are affected. You just have to keep on climbing.”
On Saturday, Union welcome their rivals Hertha Berlin, no longer living in their shadows, but instead sitting higher up the league. They’ll go into the match as favourites, but they’ll be comfortable just setting their own expectations and staying true to the methods behind their steady progression.
“Nowadays people know football is about the business, but with Union, it’s a strange feeling — there’s something there I love,” Awoniyi says. “We should look at football from the point of view of the fans and the people; it’s a collective, how this club is structured. If a club is successful, then everybody should be proud of it and appreciate it. If they are having success in their own structure … maybe the big clubs can attach what Union Berlin are doing to their structure and life can be better for them … that’s my own feeling.”
It’s all part of the story he’ll one day tell Emmanuel, with many chapters still to write.
“I knew how difficult it was for my parents as I grew up, and I just have to keep on going for him, my wife and my family,” Awoniyi says. “At some point in life, when he grows up, he will want to know how it all started. I’ll tell him that sometimes you just don’t get everything easy, and even when you have it easy, you still must work. You still must work every day to be the best for yourself, and for your family. That’s how it is for me.”