‘I visited Sokoto, the north western Nigerian state, three years ago and I decided to take a stroll down Sultan road when I saw some youngsters having a kick and instinctively decided to pause and watch for few minutes. They were all playing barefooted but there was this particular boy that caught my eye, he kept the ball longer than the rest and knew exactly what he was doing.’
Former Nigeria international Tijjani Babangida (Chairman of Nigeria Premier League club Taraba FC at the time) described his first encounter with future Nigerian international midfielder Usman Mohammed thus. Babangida, convinced he had unearthed a star, took it upon himself to find out all about the 17-year-old who had just impressed him. He was amazed to learn that Usman whose parents were very poor had sent him to Sokoto city from the village to gain skills in tailoring.
‘After getting all the necessary permissions I took him straight to Taraba FC and I made him train with the first team. After his first day, I became more convinced that he’s going to be a massive player in the next few years.’
It shows what hard work, confidence and dedication can do to anyone.
The former Ajax Amsterdam star was right, Usman not only become a household name among the Taraba faithful he also took the country’s top flight by storm, hitting double figures of goals and assists in his first full season.
The player’s exploit didn’t go unnoticed as he soon became a transfer target of more established clubs in the domestic league who had seen enough to know that he had what it takes to succeed in a tough league.
‘Well, my journey to the top hasn’t been easy but I thank Almighty God for bringing me this far, from being an unknown where feeding is a problem to my present stage,’ the player who transferred to a Portuguese club last season said modestly. ‘It shows what hard work, confidence and dedication can do to anyone.’
Usman said he modeled his game based on his idol, former France and Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira who he had always wanted to play like.
‘He [Vieira] was one of the most gifted midfielders of all time, his ability to read the game from behind while also supporting the attack is simply amazing. My game is based on his and my friends used to call me Vieira when I was very young.’
It was during his second season with Taraba that Usman got his first invite to the national team during the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers with his full debut coming a year later in a friendly against Niger when manager Sunday Oliseh decided to play him for 90 minutes. That was when Nigerians all over got to see what the player really could do in a match where he earned the man of the match award.
Jamilu Sani and Yusha’u Isyaku grew up with Usman in Sokoto and are not surprised by his meteoric rise to the top despite his poor and disadvantaged background.
‘He has always loved football and when we were younger he was the one that always initiated football games for us. He could go on playing for hours without getting tired,’ Sani said.
Dream Team manager Samson Siasia nicknamed him ‘the machine’ when he helped Nigeria clinch the 2015 African U23 Championship in Senegal.
Isyaku recalls an unforgettable moment with the Desportivo Nacional of Portugal star when he scored from 40 yards with seconds to go during an amateur match in their native Sokoto.
‘The match with Ba Wasa United was highly talked about before the encounter because the boys we were playing were from an area that is known for producing good players, at 1-1 and with a few minutes to go, we were happy to have gotten a draw against such a team but Usman had other ideas. We still talk about his goal to this day.’
Usman has played under three of Nigeria’s national team managers and they have all been impressed by his ability and work ethic; present Dream Team manager Samson Siasia nicknamed him ‘the machine’ when he helped Nigeria clinch the 2015 African U23 Championship in Senegal which earned the country a ticket to the Olympics.
I will never forget where I’m coming from because it’s what motivates me every day to keep going.
Usman’s story has been told a lot by many in the Nigerian media as a way to encourage others like him to put in their best in whatever they do.
‘I will never forget where I’m coming from because it’s what motivates me every day to keep going and my hope is to one day give back to the society in terms of philanthropic and mentoring activities.’
The player still visits his native Sokoto for his holidays, bringing balls and jerseys to some of the local children in order to inspire them to do great things like him.
The player says his participation in Rio Olympics is a dream come true and if Nigeria clinched another gold medal 20 years after it won in Atlanta would be an unforgettable experience for him.
What a difference three years makes. Mohammed who was struggling to feed himself, away from his poor parents, is now representing his country at the Rio Olympics in Brazil. Then he will be return to his Portugeuse Primeira Liga side.
‘I have settled down well in Portugal and can’t wait to return after the Olympics. Before the end of last season, I got my permits and a new house and I can’t wait for the start of a new season.’ Usman concluded.
We’ll be rooting for him but it looks like he can take care of himself.