Anthony Ujah is closing in on both 100 Bundesliga games and 100 career goals. The Mainz forward is at a point in his career and his life where taking on responsibility and harnessing mental strength have become pivotal.
Anthony Ujah is a happy man. His smile is wide, his aura as welcoming as the warm weather outside on this October day.
Talking to the soon-to-be 28-year-old in the media center container behind Mainz’s old Bruchwegstadium before afternoon training reminds one of interviews from an era before mobile phones and television cameras. Ujah’s journey has been a modern one though, full of adventure and courage.
“The last few years have been a lot, you know? From one city to another, from one country to another, so it feels good to take that deep breath and start to feel more at home,” Ujah says, smiling at the reality he is describing.
A worldwide whirlwind
From Cologne to Bremen to Shenyang to Mainz – it’s been a whirlwind three years for the Nigerian international, enhanced by the fact that he recently became a father for the second time, this time to a son. The arrival of a new family member has left him calmer, more responsible – even if he sometimes has to sleep in the living room when he has training the following morning.
“It’s not been easy with the late nights!” he says, releasing that broad smile once more. “You try to be more careful with everything and think about how you can transfer positive energy and everything to him in a positive way, to grow up.”
Ujah’s caring nature has spilled over into his work. He wants to use his life experiences to help however he can, so he has started to take players in the third youngest squad in the Bundesliga (average age 24.5) under his wing.
Granted, Ujah’s move to China will have had its financial benefits, but such a drastic change also tends to result in a personal transformation. Despite the language barrier and the drop in quality, Ujah is glad he made the move.
“I felt like I had to do more than just play. I also wanted to help a lot because the level of the football is not so high. When they buy a player from Europe they don’t just expect your qualities on the pitch, they expect you to help the Chinese players as well.
“When I came back from China, I had lost a lot of the sharpness needed in high level football,” he admitted. “I needed to get back into the rhythm. I would watch my past goals and think, ‘Wow, that was me?’ Just because I could do it before was no guarantee that I could do it again. They say practice makes perfect and that’s what has helped me so far.”
The ugly face of racism
However, not everything has been positive since Ujah returned to Germany. In January of this year, he and former teammate Leon Balogun suffered racist abuse while warming up at a game in Hanover. And yet even when speaking about this ugly incident, Ujah’s positivity shines though.
“When it happened in Hanover, the only thing I was very concerned about was a little boy in the middle who looked like he was having fun and enjoying himself … because he’s going to pass that on to his friends.
“The Bundesliga is getting more and more players of color, making the league more exciting so we don’t need things like that. I’ve been in Germany a very long time and I know there are a lot of good and positive fans. Even when it happened in Hanover, I got a lot of messages and support from those who distanced themselves from such people.
“It’s always a small number of people who try to bring something negative but this doesn’t really change my perspective of how I see Germany, the Bundesliga and the fans.”
‘Now it’s time for work’
It’s been six and a half years since Ujah joined Mainz the first time, and he says that despite the fact that they’ve installed new showers since then, it’s all still very familiar.
“The system, the style, the mentality are still the same. When you come to Mainz as a young player who is a little bit stupid in terms of not taking care of himself or his life, that all changes. We have a lot of things going on here that help you to become not just a better player but also a better person.
“When you come to training you have to sign in. You have to drop your phone off. You’ve got so many hours to play with your phone, but now it’s time for work. I’ve played at other places where you can have your phone with you until 10 minutes before training and you could get a bad message before training and that can turn your focus off before an important game.”
Ujah admits he too is a victim of the mobile phone addiction, although he adds with another full-bodied chuckle that he will make sure his children don’t use their phones too much.
Confidence comes from the coach
However, Ujah also say things have changed at the club compared to last season, when they flirted with the drop, and for this he credits the coach, Sandro Schwarz. “He’s bringing out the best in some players because they have a lot more in them,” Ujah says.
When Mainz went 1-0 down with eight minutes to go against Augsburg earlier this season, few expected them to come back and win. But they did. “Even when we conceded that goal it didn’t make us weaker, it made us even stronger,” says Ujah, who scored the equalizer in that game.
Ujah’s confidence is seemingly endless. “If we qualify now for the Europa League no-one is going to be surprised because in the last 10 years they’ve done that a few times. I believe we could be up there.”
Perhaps this season could be another fairy tale for Mainz, but it could also simply be Ujah being his positive self. Either way, Mainz won’t be complaining.
By Jonathan Harding. This article first appeared in DW, the German public service broadcaster.