‘We were so hungry we used to steal food from weddings,’ says Isaac Success
This interview with Isaac Success was originally scheduled to take place over the phone but we politely asked if we could do it face to face so we could help paint a better picture of what this battleship of a Nigerian is like.
The request was approved and the decision vindicated as, in the unlikely setting of the old groundsman’s house at UCL training ground in London Colney, Success told rich tales of how he and the artist now signed to his music label used to go to weddings to steal food just so they could eat, how he turned up unannounced at the Nigeria youth team trials after an eight-hour round bus trip, how he views Gino Pozzo as a father figure and how he has carried the Real Madrid shirt of a Brazil legend with him wherever he goes. Oh, and he reckons he would have been a dancer had he not made the grade as a footballer. Quite the character, eh. He’s your classic rough diamond.
Talking of diamonds, Success has all the hallmarks of being Premier League footballer – he swaggers into the interview with two diamond encrusted earrings, a gleaming gold watch and a tattoo on the inside of his right forearm – but he retains a lovely degree of humility and does not need reminding of his humble roots.
“In Africa there are a lot of struggles,” he says. “You have to struggle before you get the opportunity to do what you want to do, which for me is football. There are so many players in Africa and you have to to be lucky to be chosen. We used to play in just our pants. We had nothing, not even slippers. Just barefoot. It was really tough.”
So tough, in fact, that starvation was a very real prospect in Benin, a city in the south east of Nigeria home to more than one million people.
“In Africa, some most families are poor that they do not have food at home,” says Success. “We would go to marriages and ceremonies to steal food. We did struggle all the time to get food. Thankfully there were three boys (Success and his two brothers) so we would just go out to look for something and get food. It was not easy.”
Success’ partner in crime was Trazyx, his childhood friend. He is signed to Success’s record label, I.S Music, and Success features in the video for the label’s debut single, Young Alhaji.
“I would be a dancer,” says Success when asked what he would be if he wasn’t a footballer. If I get bored in the dressing room or mentally I get down, I listen to music, dance and have fun. It makes me mentally strong.”
Valon Behrami, who is 11 years his senior, is not convinced by the dancing.
“Pfffff,” he said. “It’s very bad. I saw him in one video touching his body and I was like, ‘Whoa’.”
The careers of Behrami and Success have parallels as both left their troubled homeland as teenagers in pursuit of a better life. Behrami’s big break came when his athletics club petitioned Swiss Law to allow him and his family to stay in Switzerland. Success’ came when his club coach paid the bus fare (around £6.20) for a four-hour trip to Lagos to attend the Nigeria Under-17 team trials.
“I just heard there is a trial going on and I was like, ‘I can do that’. I just left the next morning and that was it. It was 2,500 naira. It was too big for me so my coach gave me the money.”
The under-17 team proved the making of him. “He came in with so much confidence but we just thought ‘this is another one’,” said Nduka Ugbade who was holding the trials. “But the moment he stepped on the pitch, we just knew he was going to help us win the World Cup.”
And he did, scoring in the opening games against Sweden and Mexico before a hamstring injury ruled out him for the rest of the tournament. Kelechi Iheanacho ended up being the star, scoring six times as Nigeria won the tournament in the UAE. Iheanacho alerted the scouts of Manchester City while Success had the eagle-eyed Pozzo network of scouts scrambling to get him into their network.
“I was supposed to go to Udinese but I couldn’t get a visa so I went straight to Spain,” said Success. “I had a tough time with the language. I was like a deaf and dumb player, I was just sat in the dressing room and couldn’t say anything. I then got better at speaking the language and the football got better.”
You suspect the dream move, like it is for most players, would have been to Barcelona or Real Madrid. Samuel Eto’o is his idol while Success has a shirt once worn by Ronaldo (the Brazilian one). “I have only kept one jersey since I started football seven years ago,” explained Success.. “I wash and wear it everywhere. I take it to the Church, I take it to the market.”
There was no chance of Success being on the open market this summer. He was always going to end up at Watford, treading the same path from Granada to Vicarage Road as Odion Ighalo, Allan Nyom, Juan Carlos Paredes and Miguel Layin.
“I have been with Pozzo since I started playing in Europe so it was easy for him to get me to play for him [at Watford],” Success said. “Watford was the best option for me and I know Pozzo always wants the best for me. He’s been like a father to me, always advising me outside of football and always trying to make me better. I really appreciate that a lot.”
With the proceeds of his five-year contract at Vicarage Road, Success, like Odion Ighalo, sends money to his family. “Even if it is my last money, I will send it,” he says.
What about purchasing plane tickets so his parents can watch their son in Premier League action?
“My parents are traditional – they don’t want to leave Africa,” he says. “I always invite them but my mum says, ‘I can’t stop teaching’ or my dad says ‘I can’t stop preaching gospel’. It’s a bit boring living alone but I have to do what I do to take care of them. I talk to my mum before going to the stadium. She gives me courage and made me what I am today.”
They will be proud as punch.