There’s hardly a higher honor available to be bestowed upon a foreign-born player for 1. FC Köln than to rise to the status of “true Cologne kind of guy.” It’s a special term of endearment reserved for those who find their way into the collective heart of the Effzeh faithful. Not even Patrick Helmes, who was actually born in Köln, is referred to as a “Kölsche Jung.”
But Anthony Ujah . . . Tony . . . Tone . . . Tönn?
Ujah ist ein Kölsche Jung!
You’ll see that sentence posted in comments on many of his social media posts. The fans of the 1. FC Köln have taken Ujah as one of their own. Of course, it helps that he’s the most-productive offensive player in the team in the 2.5 seasons since initially joining Köln on loan from 1. FSV Mainz 05; everyone loves a goal-scorer. But Ujah’s appeal goes beyond his contribution to the simple mathematics of football that require a team to score more goals than it allows in order to be successful.
Our Nigerian striker is a charismatic presence in an important position in the offensive part of the game, but also comes off as humble when it comes to his personal achievements and deferential to the needs of “team” when it comes to his own play. Such team-first orientation has been clearly exhibited this season through his efforts on the defensive end of the pitch, especially as Peter Stöger’s defensive tactics helped the Billy Goats remain a mid-table presence throughout the Hinrunde, even as a promoted side.
Ujah has not been toiling in obscurity, despite Köln’s offensive struggles. His name was often mentioned among candidates for mid-season “Best XI” teams, though often as a guy team curator’s wanted to mention more than include as tops. Yet, if Stöger implements a more-offensive system, Ujah is in place to become a primary weapon in an improved attack, which would have the potential to take him from “a nice player” to “a star in the making.”
So, no wonder the American-based media assembled at 1. FC Köln training camp last week were awaiting an audience with the Kölsche Jung himself.
Of course, the fact that he’s fluent in English probably helped, at least for those who don’t speak German. For me, the father of a soon-to-be-five-years-old boy whose favorite athlete in the world is “UJAH!”, there may have been added motivation to seek him out specifically, beyond my own lack of confidence in my fumbling German skills.
Speaking with J.R. of JR Sport Brief:
Ujah: I’m enjoying the training and the nice weather. Just one training session was cancelled by the rain, but so far, everything is perfect. It’s been a hard training session so far, but with the nice weather, you cannot complain.
JR: I’ve seen that you’ve had some fun. You had an alligator?!
Ujah: Yeah. It’s been fun. I’ve been able to see some things. The experience with the alligator was a nice one. At first, I was pretty scared, but the owner helped give me some confidence, and I was able to touch it. So, now I hope it will give me some strength for the defenders in the Bundesliga in the second round.
JR: What are you looking forward to with the (opening Florida Cup) game tomorrow (against Corinthians)?
Ujah: For us, it’s more important that we have stability within the league. We’ve been working really hard the last week. I don’t know what game plan the trainers are going to come up with, but it’s good preparation for the second round of the league. It’s probably going to be a good test for us, as we’re playing against a very good team. No doubt, we are underdogs, but we can spring some upsets, I am sure.
JR: You’re actually going to shoot a basketball later on today at the Orlando Magic game. Now, is your shot-form alright?
Ujah: (laughing) That’s something I’ve really been thinking about the last couple of days, because basketball is completely different from football. You know, basketball, after using your legs your whole life., but . . . uh . . . I think I have a little skill. (Exhibits by rolling his show off his fingertips). We have a lot of basketball fans on the team; I am not one of them.
Speaking with Jack Grimse:
Jack: Hey Anthony, good season so far, six goals. What’s it really been like with your expectations? You’ve been with Köln for a couple years now.
Ujah: Yeah. It’s my third season here. I came from playing in the second league. So far, I see my progress as step-by-step. Six goals so far, I’m very excited about that, but I can give a lot more for my team, you know? That’s why I put in a lot of hard work here, so I can be physically ready for the challenge. It’s going to be very difficult, because many teams are trying to play in Champions League, many teams are trying to qualify for the UEFA cup, and the most dangerous are the teams trying to stay in the league, and we are one of them! So, it’s going to be very difficult.
Jack: Yeah, you guys have been doing well in the first round. Eleventh in the table may be above a lot of people’s expectations.
Ujah: Yes, we’ve done really well, but there are so many areas we still have to improve on, like our home games. You know, we’ve not been doing very well at home. Of course, we have some upsets against big teams, but we want to take points against teams that are fighting to stay in the league, like we are, because the second round is going to be very difficult. The most important thing for us right now is to stay confident, the way we are, and to grab more points at home.
Jack: Getting points against some of the teams around you, more than upsets against over Dortmund, like you had earlier?
Ujah: Yes. Beating big teams gives us a lot of confidence, but it’s not like we are taking the other teams for granted. It’s football, and these things happen. It’s very important for us that we win our home games. We have the best support in Germany, and they deserve to be happy during home games, you know? Getting more points at home, that’s one area we have to work on, but we also must continue our good form away from home.
Finally, I get to ask the questions:
AG: When you hear people refer to you as “Tony! Tönn!” as a “Kölsche Jung,” how does that make you feel?
Ujah: (Smiling broadly) The feeling, playing for Cologne, is completely different from everywhere I’ve been in my whole career. Since I’ve been in Cologne, I can’t imagine myself being somewhere else. I feel so much at home. The fans make me feel at home. I never thought twice before making my loan move to Cologne permanent; it was a one-minute decision. The moment I had the chance, I just took it, because everyone showed me how much they wanted me to stay. And since I made this decision, it’s been very great. I’ve been putting in a lot of work and trying to show that wearing this shirt is something to be really proud of. With the amount of support we’re getting, you just can’t relax, you know, you just have to keep giving the fans everything, because they are behind us everywhere, whether things are going good or going bad. The experience so far, words cannot express how I feel, but the one word I can use to describe how I feel about Cologne is, simply, “Home.”
AG: Obviously we have had pretty good form on the road, but at home, it’s been a struggle. What is the difference? And what is going to make the difference in the second half, so we can start collecting points at Müngersdorf?
Ujah: Actually, it’s something we are really working on, not just on the pitch, but mentally as well. We’ve had some mental training the last few days here in Orlando, and, I’m sure it will do us a lot of good, because it’s actually the first time we’ve been able to sit down for not just one or two days, but three straight days to talk about this very issue. It’s not just about tactics or whatever, because we know we can do it. We just have to work on some things. Being able to see everyone face-to-face and talk about it, I could feel it that we’re ready to turn things around. Of course, it’s very good to take points away from home. It shows how strong a character our team has, but we have to make the fans happy and also we have to get points from the games against the teams around us and turn the tables on them. That’s something we’re trying to work on now, and hopefully things can turn around in the second round.
AG: Can you describe the feeling you get when you score a goal in Müngersdorf and “Wenn et Trömmelche jeht” get’s going? Does it give you an emotional lift to hear that song and have the fans start singing?
Ujah: (laughs and is anxious to answer the question) It’s. . . It’s something I cannot explain right now! It’s a feeling inside . . . you just cannot . . . cannot. . . you have to be there! You have to be in my shoes and know how it feels, because when the ball goes in the goal, the loudness of the voices . . . you cannot hear any thing else. It’s just . . . it’s incredible. It’s awesome. I just want to keep having this experience as long as I can, Really! It’s huge! I’m hearing this song. Then you’re hearing the voice of the man who calls out your name when you score. It’s really, really, really, really awesome, when he calls your first name and the fans have to call your second name. The experience is awesome!
AG: That’s great. I’d love to experience that, but I’m terrible at football. How is your experience in America so far?
Ujah: It’s my third time.The first time was with the national team, in Houston, and the second time was with my team here as well, celebrating (promotion). On this trip, so far I’ve been able to see a little bit of America, but I hope to be on a private trip some time and then I can see it very well.
AG: Well, if you come to Seattle, say ‘hello.’ My son would freak out if he thought you were in his time zone.
Ujah: (laughing) Okay.
AG: What do you think the prospects are for a smaller club like Cologne, rather than a Bayern or BVB, growing a fan base in the United States and in other English-speaking countries?
Ujah: Cologne is a traditional club with a large fan base around the world. Anywhere you go, you’re going to see some fans. No matter how small an area you go to, they’re going to be there. As you can see, a few are here. Anywhere you go, they arrive with us, in any part of the world, but I find it very interesting to see that the management of the club is trying to push us a little to try to open up even more of a fan base around the world. I think it’s something very good for the club. I hope the next few years will bring some positive results in that way for the club. Actually, I’m sure it will, because anybody who gets a even little bit close to the club ends up getting in fully. So I am very sure we are going to get more of a fan base here, and I also hope it’s going to help the club commercially in every way.
AG: Right on. Thank you for your time. My son is going to freak out.
Ujah: You’re welcome.