The Blues loan star has taken in a remarkable journey which has led him away from poverty in Nigeria and into one of Europe’s top five divisions
To some, Kenneth Omeruo may appear to be just another member of Chelsea’s 40-strong loan army, but his story is one of discipline and sacrifice and he appreciates just how lucky he is.
Growing up in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, Omeruo was like many others – he did not have a lot but he had a passion for football that saw him play on a dry and overused pitch just outside of the city.
It was not until he signed for Chelsea that he really started to feel comfortable in his career, having battled to earn his spot in senior sides. It would be easy to forget the remarkable journey of Omeruo, as he makes his impact on loan at Leganes, having started their last 11 games.
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However, his journey hinged on a single moment, a trial to make the U17 World Cup with Nigeria which would give him a platform like no other. Omeruo has now spoken about an opportunity which gave him a shot at being signed by the club his family loved and a life-changing career in football.
“U17 World Cup was the bigger moment than anything else. It was like winning the lottery being called up,” Omeruo told Goal. “It was God. I wasn’t so good. I thought there were other players who were better than me at the time and now I am in the national team. It was God and hard work as well that got me here.
“The life-changing moment was playing in the Under 17 World Cup. I went to open trials where anyone under 17 could come and show what you can do. I went from that to being selected among the 24 players to be selected to represent the country. It was massive.
“We played against the likes of Isco, who plays for Real Madrid, and we beat Spain. We lost to Switzerland in the final but I was already a winner for going. I had an offer to go to Anderlecht. I had other offers but my agent wanted me to go to Anderlecht because they contacted me during the World Cup.
“I went to Belgium and I had only left the country once to play in Dubai in a tournament. I went to Belgium wearing just a suit and I think I froze to death. I was shaking all day. I never experienced a country as cold as that.
“I felt like I was dying. I went to Anderlecht. I got adopted by a woman so I could play in the youth teams at Anderlecht, because I was only 16. From there I could sign on professional and stay with the mum as my guardian.
“I was playing in the Under 21 league straight away and we did well. Then I was supposed to sign pro at the end of the season but nothing happened. I went to them and the agent hadn’t agreed with the club. He wanted me to get a house and a car but the club said they wanted me to stay in the club flats.
“I wanted to stay, because I was playing well in the U21s. My old agent then went to Standard Liege and he proposed me to them. That’s why I went to Standard, I was playing but I never had the opportunity to step up and play with the first team which was what I wanted.
“I was playing in the second league and I went to the U20 World Cup. We did well, I had that in my contract, when I turn 18 that I would earn €5,000-a-month. I was so looking forward to it because I never had any serious money still.
“I was scouted though by Andre Villas-Boas because we played a game against Portugal before the U20 World Cup. We were down to 10 men and drew. We defended brilliantly. I think that’s where I was scouted for Chelsea.
“During the tournament, some agents from Nigeria spoke to me about Chelsea but I was like that isn’t possible. I didn’t believe it, for me, it was a joke. They tried to speak to me and I would just switch off the phone and leave it somewhere. I was just hoping for this €5,000-a-month salary.
“I finished the tournament, we lost to France. I went back to Nigeria, the agents found me and I never even agreed to meet them. I was like Chelsea can’t be watching me, my eldest brother is a die hard blue. For me, it was something unbelievable. I didn’t speak to them, not believing it.
“I went back to Belgium, I was unhappy because I wasn’t even training with the first team even though I played in the U20 World Cup. They changed the manager who had agreed to pay me €5,000 and it went down to €1,500-a-month. I wasn’t having that they went back on their word.
“My uncle who lived in Holland drove all the way to pick me up, at the point where I would sign pro terms, and took me from Belgium to Holland. That’s how I left Standard Liege. My contract finished as soon as I was 18. I went to Holland and then I took the Chelsea people seriously because they kept coming and speaking.
“I met a French agent who came from France to meet me and he proved that this deal is legit. I had to wait until January from October. I was training alone in Holland. It was then January and Michael Emenalo came to Holland and we signed the contract. It was a big moment. I went straight on loan to ADO Den Haag.
“That was the first time I was able to earn money as a pro, but in Nigeria, my friends had all thought I had made it because I was on TV. Once you are on TV then your life there changes but they didn’t know the struggles.
“My family did though, they understood everything and didn’t pressure me and they were always patient. I finally got my family a car after my first pay cheque. A Hyundai Sienta, it looks like a space box.”
Now 24 years old, Omeruo’s season did not start until October as work permit issues delayed his debut at Leganes, after moving on loan from Chelsea.
He has since gone on to prove his worth in La Liga to manager Mauricio Pellegrino, who has started him in the club’s last 11 league games. His most recent display was a man of the match display as Leganes drew 1-1 with Sevilla to break the club record of seven games unbeaten in La Liga.
Omeruo is happy with how life in Madrid is going and hopes people will take him more seriously now that he is in a league ranked among the top five in the world.
He added: “The first weeks weren’t good because I wasn’t playing because I was trying to get my work permit. I was in-between going to Nigeria and coming back so I wasn’t playing. Since I came back and got my work permit, it has been good. I have been playing regularly.
“I am excited about the La Liga challenge. I had a lot of options to go back to Turkey but no matter how well I played last season, it didn’t seem to matter and people would always say, it is just the Turkish league. There’s not much respect for the league.
“I also had to test myself and go out and see what it is like to play in the best league, and see how I perform. I love playing, I could be at Chelsea and just be on the bench or wait for an injury but it is not what I want. I want to always play so I always want to leave on loan so I can play.
“To prove yourself, you need to forget about Chelsea when you go on loan and think about your new team. To do things for the good of the team and finish in the position you are aiming for. For that to happen, you need to win the manager’s trust, which is not easy.
“Most of the time I am joining clubs after pre-season. I do pre-season at Chelsea and then go. They loan team already has a team of players and you don’t have much time to prove yourself and you need to take that opportunity when it comes.”
Leganes are hitting their targets with Omeruo in their side this season, having established a four-point buffer between themselves and the relegation zone going into the winter break.
Their standout performance so far was the 2-1 win over Barcelona in September and Omeruo admits he was disappointed to have not been able to line up against Lionel Messi again, having suffered at the hands of the Argentinian in the past.
“I was disappointed to miss out on our win versus Barcelona, but I was very happy with the win,” he concluded. “I wanted to be in the team that won but I was sorting my work permit. Also the two times that I have played against Messi, he has scored and we lost so it would have been a good one for me, to play in Leganes’ win.
“You have to always switch on when he is playing. Even when he is not in the game. In some games, he might be walking and not looking interested then you switch off and leave him, then he makes that decisive decision to run in behind you.
“He has excellent quality control and finish so as long as the pass is good, then you are in trouble. You have to be switched on all the time, even when he is just walking around the pitch. He has that fast mind, he can switch himself on at any time.”