RIYADH: It has been a challenging AFC Champions League debut for Al-Fayha. The 2022 King’s Cup winners, who beat Al-Hilal on penalties to lift their first ever major trophy 18 months ago, have lost three of their first four games and face a must-win clash with Turkmenistan’s Ahal in Riyadh on Tuesday.
Realistically, Al-Fayha need to beat both Ahal and reigning Uzbekistan champions Pakhtakor to stand a chance of qualifying for the knockout stage.
Aiming to help them advance is Nigeria forward Henry Onyekuru, who has impressed for Vuk Rasovic’s side since arriving from Turkish club Adana Demirspor in August.
Onyekuru told Arab News: “It’s a little tight for us, we know, but we know we need to just win on Tuesday, that is the most important thing. Then we will have to wait for the other results to see, and yes, we might have a lesser chance, but it can happen. This is football and of course we hope we can play in the next round.”
The 26-year-old has plenty of experience of elite-level continental competition to call upon, having played every game of Anderlecht’s 2017 to 2018 UEFA Champions League campaign in a tough group that included PSG, Bayern Munich, and Celtic. The fleet-footed player also featured in several games for Galatasaray in the competition.
He is not alone at Al-Fayha, with teammates Fashion Sakala and Anthony Nwakaeme having represented Rangers in the Champions League and Trabzonspor in the Europa League, respectively. The three African players have forged a valuable friendship at Al-Fayha and Onyekuru has been happy to have them alongside him.
He said: “It is always a little bit difficult at the beginning when you move to a new country, but they helped me adapt very fast.
“We have really bonded and apart from football, they are such great guys. They are there for me on the pitch and outside it,” he added.
Al-Fayha go into their crunch AFC Champions League encounter after a morale-boosting 1-0 Saudi Pro League victory over Al-Fateh but it has been a frustrating season for Onyekuru and his teammates, who have a league-high seven draws so far. While there were positive ties with Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad, there have also been many opportunities missed.
Onyekuru said: “We threw a lot of points away, games we should have won, but we ended up drawing 0-0 or 1-1. We feel good as a team so it hasn’t been easy but there is a lot of the season left so I think we can definitely climb higher.
“Our coach is the kind of guy who really understands his players — he knows when you’re tired, he knows when you’re worried, and he’s open with everybody, which is very important. He is always very clear — if you work, you play; if you don’t work, you don’t play.
“I think we’re on a good track at this moment; we just have to keep working and the results will start coming.
“This is a very tough league now and it has surprised me how good it has been. There has been a big increase in quality, and you see that every team has better players who can make a difference. It will only get better, and it is great to be a part of Saudi football right now,” he added.
Onyekuru’s move to Al-Fayha has been a return to the Gulf of sorts. As a teenager, he was selected for the Aspire Academy’s Football Dreams initiative, an African talent identification process that saw him make it through a series of trials to be one of just three Nigerians selected.
“I feel lucky to have been among these players. It was a five-year scholarship of football and school. We travelled to play the Barcelona and Real Madrid youth teams and many others in tournaments — it was a great experience,” he said.
Onyekuru travelled regularly to the Aspire Academy in Qatar and represented the institution in competitions around the world before signing for their pathway club Eupen in the Belgian Second Division.
“When I got there, it was really difficult for me because I arrived in winter, and it was very cold in Belgium. We were down the bottom of the league and we only just avoided relegation.
“But the next season was great. The coach Jordi Condom was the first to move me from a No. 9 to the wing – the team played well, and we were promoted.”
Onyekuru’s performances led to interest from Arsenal, the club at which his childhood hero Nwankwo Kanu made his name, though the young winger eventually signed for Everton. Hampered by visa issues, he failed to make a Premier League appearance for the Toffees, though impressed on loan at Anderlecht and Galatasaray before moving on to Monaco.
“I remember very well I spoke to Arsene Wenger, and my dream was to play Premier League. I always wanted to be there. Eupen were also talking to PSG because of the Qatar connection but then they wanted to focus on (Kylian) Mbappe.
“I spoke to some people like (ex-Inter Milan and Nigeria striker) Obafemi Martins and decided in the end on Everton. It was a shame that things didn’t work out because I hadn’t played enough games for Nigeria,” he added.
While Onyekuru’s move to Saudi Arabia has generally been a positive experience, it has been tempered by him falling out of favor with the Nigeria national team.
Onyekuru, whose mother named him after 1980 Africa Cup of Nations-winning player Henry Nwosu, noted that the SPL deserved to be more respected by those selecting the squad. He hoped that he may still be able to represent the Super Eagles at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast.
He said: “I was there at the last AFCON in Cameroon, and I am really pushing to be there again. In Nigerian football there is still this negative mentality about the Saudi league – they don’t think it is as intense.
“But I think they should be able to see that now, the players who play here make it competitive. I am not giving up and anything can happen.”