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EHF Champions League

Yusuf’s otherworldly 7000-kilometer trip to Kielce

EHF / Adrian Costeiu

A Nigerian playing handball in Poland? A few decades ago, it would have been deemed as an impossible scenario. But as the sport grew, both in Europe and on other continents, impossible is not a term one would flash easily.

African players are not a novelty anymore, with Egyptians, Tunisians or Angolans plying their trade in the EHF Champions League Men in the previous seasons. But the 17-year-old right back Faruk Yusuf is the first Nigerian to ever take the court in Europe’s premier competition.

The story of Lomza Vive Kielce’s player is an inspiration and will hopefully serve as a building block for many aspiring players who otherwise might have dismissed their chance to play in Europe as farfetched.

Yet his amazing journey, that saw Yusuf score his first goal in the European premium competition for Lomza Vive Kielce last week in the win against SG Flensburg Handewitt, was far from easy. From the humble beginnings up until the penalty converted against the German powerhouse, Yusuf had plenty of shortcomings, difficult moments and a bulletproof ambition: to become one of the best.

“I lost my father quite early in my life and that has been a very difficult moment. There is nothing to do in Nigeria except playing a sport and I focused on that. I tried to make my family and the people who put their trust in me happy,” said Yusuf.

He is still shy of being a household name in the EHF Champions League but all the work put in, the raw talent and sheer ambition might propel the Nigerian right back to the highest echelons in the European handball.

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A transfer saga and a lot to learn

Nigeria is far from a powerhouse in handball, nor a team that is usually creating young players. But when Yusuf fell in love with the sport, everything changed, both for him and the African country.

“I used to dream about playing handball every time I slept. I did not have anything else to do, except for going to school. I come from a family without many possibilities, therefore I was just attracted to take on any challenge, play handball and make my dreams come true,” said the Nigerian right back.

When he was only eight years old, Kielce’s right back was already playing handball in his local town, Sokoto, and traveled to Sweden, for an international tournament. Six years later, he was already training with the Nigerian senior national team, but could only make his debut when he turned 16.

A French speaker, Yusuf was eyeing a move to France, after having already played for a Moroccan side Mountada Derb Sultan HC. But Kielce saw the potential in the Nigerian right back, who scored 40 goals at the IHF Men’s Youth World Championship in 2019, being the third best scorer by goal average in the competition.

Being a clear star of the competition, despite not making the All-Star team, teams came knocking at his door. The need for development was clear, a professional environment, a must if the raw diamond was going to be polished.

A long saga and a deadlock regarding Yusuf’s future was ended this January, when the Nigerian right back finally joined Lomza Vive Kielce, signing a five-year contract. He did not know much about the Polish side, only that they are a perennial contender for the EHF Champions League trophy and had one of the best all-time players in Talant Dujshebaev as their coach.

“Playing at Kielce, with some of the best players in the world, is wonderful and a great thing in my life. I will never forget these moments and they will surely help me become even better,” added the Nigerian right back.

Indeed, training every day and taking the court even for a few minutes with players like Andreas Wolff, Arkadiusz Moryto or Igor Karacic is a huge thing for a youngster like Yusuf. Learning on a day-by-day basis from a clutch player like Alex Dusjhebaev, who plays on the same position as the Nigerian player, will surely make Yusuf learn a thing or two about handball.

“I can be one of the best players in the world”

It was the last minute of the EHF Champions League Men game between Kielce and SG Flensburg Handewitt, a clash of two powerhouses that have won the competition in the past decade, and the Polish side was already sure of their win.

With 50 seconds to go, coach Talant Dujshebaev entrusted Yusuf to take a penalty facing experienced Bosnian goalkeeper Benjamin Buric. A short feint and a quick shot saw the Nigerian right back score his first-ever goal in the European premium competition.

“Playing a game and scoring a goal in the EHF Champions League Men proved to me that dreams can come true. The goal made my day, I will never forget this night and I will cherish it every time I take the court,” added Yusuf.

What about the future? Because dreaming will never get old and setting hard goals to achieve is a must to progress.

This should be an easy one, right?

“In the next ten years, I want to prove myself to be one of the best players in the world.”

“One day, I believe I will,” concluded Yusuf.

Not an easy goal. But what has been easy to date in this otherworldly 7000-kilometer long journey?

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