Danger is an overused word in football: commentators routinely refer to the ‘danger’ of relegation, dangerous strikers and even dangerous tackles.
But Emmanuel Emenike knows more than most what real danger is, and he also knows about struggle, hardship and sacrifice.
As a youngster growing up in Nigeria, he was prepared to move around Africa and then to Turkey to pursue his dream of making it in Europe, at times sleeping on floors, eating other people’s leftovers, and struggling to get by. He has been in life-threatening car crashes and was once on a team bus that was shot at.
The most dangerous time for him came in 2010.
But by far the most dangerous time for him came in 2010, after he had established himself as a top-class striker in Turkey with Karabükspor.
Not only was he wrongly accused of faking injury to miss a crucial game against Fenerbahçe but Emenike also found himself caught up in a corruption scandal that led to him spending four days in a Turkish prison cell. He was beaten by guards who were trying to get him to confess. Emenike admits it was a nightmare.
‘A policeman hit me in the back because he wanted me to sign some papers. I said I wouldn’t sign it because it was in Turkish and I couldn’t understand it. He hit me twice. I said “If you want, you can kill me here but I won’t sign something I don’t understand”.’
‘After four days my head was gone.’
‘Eventually my agent came and they put me in detention for four days, went to court, but when the judge looked at the facts, he said I had no case to answer. There was medical evidence I was injured.
‘But after four days my head was gone. I wanted to stop playing football, because I felt football had got me into that situation.
‘I went back to the club and said I don’t want to play here any more but then Spartak Moscow came in for me and I moved there.’
Russia brought its own challenges with Emenike facing the racism experienced by many African players. He was fined for making gestures towards opposition supporters who had taunted him with ‘monkey chants’. But surprisingly he has fond memories of life in Russia and playing for Spartak Moscow.
‘Racism was an issue and playing against certain clubs was not easy for me. But overall I enjoyed my time in Russia because of my teammates and friends. I did not go out a lot, but had a great time training and playing with a lot of good guys.’
‘It was different to the way people had told me.’
And he advises other black players not to be put off by the threat of racism. ‘The way Russia is perceived from the outside is not the way it is,’ he says.
‘I found it was different to the way people had told me before I went there. You just have to take your mind off some of the away fans, play your game and go home.’
Emenike was an undoubted hit in Moscow and anticipated a move to England but instead had another spell in Turkey with Fenerbahçe. ‘I was doing well and thought I would get a move to England, but I didn’t hear anything and went back to Turkey.’
‘The fans are fantastic. They love the little things you do for them.’
Finally he achieved his dream in January with a loan move to West Ham, who are riding high in the Premier League and pushing for a place in the Champions League.
‘It was always my ambition to play in the Premier League and I love it here.
The atmosphere at West Ham is good and the fans are fantastic. They love the little things you do for them on the pitch, and when you are down, they get behind to motivate you. I have not had that at many other clubs except perhaps at Spartak.’
Emenike has also experienced success with his country, helping Nigeria win the African Cup of Nations in 2013.
‘It was a great tournament for me, but I had to prove people wrong.
‘I was getting goals for my club but not for Nigeria in the build-up, and people were saying: “How can you take this guy as your number-one striker?”
‘So I had to tell myself I had to go and do the business, and thank God in the first game I scored, then again in the second and fourth games, so I gained confidence and I was the tournament’s top scorer as we went on to win the trophy.’
But he missed the final with injury.
‘It was a strange feeling – I was delighted for my teammates but very sad and not really there mentally.’
He has since retired from international football and says: ‘I have given up and there is no way back’. He is excited about the prospects coming through the ranks, with Nigeria winning the youth World Cup with players such as Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City. ‘We’ve got a lot of good players coming up, but it is difficult to play for the national team in Nigeria.
‘There is a lot of politics and other things. They don’t always pick the best players, they chop and change, and you can never win things like that.’
Emenike remembers watching Nigeria’s success from 20 years ago, when players such as Daniel Amokachi and Jay-Jay Okocha were leading stars on the international stage. They helped motivate him as a young player, who was so determined to make it that he left home and travelled around Africa.
‘I had to walk for 90 minutes to go training.’
‘When I was at secondary school, I left my home town to live with my sister in another part of Nigeria, but it was not easy. I had to walk for 90 minutes to go training.
‘I went to Lagos, but that was not good either and then I got a call from my brother, who said; “Come to South Africa for a trial”.
‘It was really tough. It did not work out, so I had to stay with my brother and at one stage it was 50/50 whether I would carry on. I was training on my own, not playing, so I told my brother I would go to town and stay with friends.
‘But that was hard too. I was sleeping in a restaurant, only able to sleep from 1am until 4.30 in the morning when they started cleaning and cooking. I had no food so I had to gather up leftovers and live on that. But I made a friend in Johannesburg and stayed with him and started training with a team called Mpumalanga Black Aces. Again, I thought I would pack up and go home, and they thought I was a crazy guy, sleeping rough but they gave me a chance, just for the final ten minutes of a training session. The coach was impressed enough to give me a couple of games, and then they signed me.’
But even then it was not straightforward. ‘I needed international clearance from Nigeria, and no-one wanted to help me. For two months I could train but not play and eventually the club got fed up with the Nigerian FA not releasing my papers. I had a meeting in a coffee shop with the coach, who was going to let me go but his wife called by and said: “Why don’t you ask FIFA for clearance?” And that was it, I was able to sign and it all started from there. We got to the cup final with Black Aces, and then I went to FC Capetown the next season. The coach promised me if I could score eight goals he would take me to Europe and I scored 16 and was top scorer in the second division.
‘The club said go to Europe and see what happens.’
‘There were clubs in South Africa who wanted to sign me, but the club said go to Europe and see what happens. Eventually I went to Karabukspor, I had a couple of trials and then they signed me.’
And so began the long road to the top, although his future is still uncertain. His loan with West Ham expires in the summer, and he says: ‘Who knows what will happen next?’
One thing is for sure. Whatever challenges life throws up for Emmanuel Emenike, he will be ready for them – he has proved that many times already.