Taiwo Awoniyi has certainly made his mark on the Bundesliga this season. After seven years on the move throughout Europe, he now feels at home in Berlin. In this week’s interview, he reflects on his unusual journey, his roots in Nigeria, and the influence that head coach Urs Fischer has had on his development.
Why do you and Union Berlin fit so well?
I am the type of guy that loves to be in an atmosphere where we all have the same goal, we all have the same target of succeeding. Yes, there are some periods where people want personal glory for themselves, periods where it is all about the team but for me, Berlin is a family club, a place where everyone is united, everybody feels welcome. For me, that is the key in football. If you find yourself in an atmosphere where you are appreciated, a lot will happen to you as an individual, not only in football but in the world as a whole and I think that is the difference for me.
Why did you find your feet here in Berlin so quickly?
I must give kudos to the coaches because they make you realise what you need for yourself. Every day in training, they help you to develop, and I also have my big brother here, Anthony Ujah, who came from Nigeria as well. He has been at the club for years and in Germany for years and he really helped me a lot. I talked with him every day like a big brother. These are the things that really helped me stand on my feet and keep going.
What do you think of the Union fans?
For me, I think it is part of the success of the club because if you look at the way they stand, every day, every game, they are there behind you. Even when it is not going so well, they are there. This is it for me because you know the real people help you out in your bad moments and they are always really supportive. The best we can do for them is to make them happy and I think that is what you see as well. In as much as you want to succeed as an individual, when we look at the way they chant your name, the way they support the whole team, you always want to do more, more, more for them and give them the best result possible.
What comes to your mind when you think about becoming the top scorer in the Bundesliga?
Honestly, it would be a really great honour and something that every striker would be really proud of. Because if you win it ahead of one of the best in the world, if not the best, Lewandowski, it is a massive achievement and it’s something you would keep in your heart until the end of your career.
You are Union’s best Bundesliga goal scorer. What does that record mean to you?
For me, it shows that I can achieve more as an individual. Those records also show what we are as a team, it is not just what I got by myself, it comes from the help of every individual player in the team, even the players that are not in the squad. If they are not training well, we are not getting better. I must give kudos to them as well. For me personally, it is a case of telling myself now you have done this, there is more to come, if you keep going.
How did Urs Fischer help you take the next step?
Honestly, I must say he and the coaching team played the biggest part in my development as a player. I can remember the first day I came here on loan, before I came, we spoke on the phone, and he told me ‘I like you as a player, but we are going to have to work hard. If you work, I believe you can get better’. And when I arrived, in the first training session, it was only three of us or something on the pitch, practicing shooting – it was totally different to what I knew before. He showed me that you have to keep doing it this way, and it will get better every time. Another key part for me is he made me realise my strength, he showed me what my strengths are in the field of play, and I think that was the key to my game and will stick with me on the pitch. Ultimately, I would say that he and the rest of the coaches have helped to shape the player I am today, and I will forever be grateful for that.
What do you think of your strike partner Sheraldo Becker?
I think Sheraldo is a special guy. I always call him a special guy because when you look at him, he is an unbelievable player, with the assists he makes. He can play as a striker and all of a sudden switch to a winger and really change the game. He is the type of player you love to play with, you know that if you are there for him, he will always be behind you. Sometimes in the game, he tells me ‘Taiwo, I run for you this time, don’t worry’ and I go, wow what a guy. He is just a special guy, on and off the pitch, in the dressing room, he is a cool guy, doing his things. What I appreciate most about him is his assists because when you look at it, he is scoring goals for the team, making assists for the team, he is a special guy and not everyone does this. His speed is also unbelievable as a player.
Which opponent in the Bundesliga was the toughest to date and why?
I think I would choose Augsburg. I would say they are the toughest opponent for me anyway! Every time I play against them, even when I was in Mainz, I find their two defenders who are very, very clever, really difficult to play against. They defend more tactically than other teams in the Bundesliga, which is why I choose them. It’s not because we have difficulty playing against them necessarily, it’s just that they defend better than the rest of the teams we play against.
How did it feel to play for the national team?
This moment, the first game against Egypt, I was really running a lot get a goal, but unfortunately, I didn’t score. The most important thing for me in every game is winning, winning, winning, because I believe when a team is successful as a whole, everyone is successful. Against Sudan, I was just trying to run into position, the ball just hit me and went into the net. For me, it was just a striker trying to get his position right and the ball hit me and goes into the net. It made me happy because I always want to score, and I was the contact that led to the goal. The only sad thing is we wanted to go through to the final. I sometimes remember how sad we were not to go through, how disappointed Nigeria as a country was. I felt really bad as well, but I always tell people, no one can want it as much as you as a player. We want it more than most people, but there are things you can’t control. But I think it’s a good privilege and opportunity for every player who was part of the team and unfortunately, we didn’t go through to the final this time.
What do you want to achieve with Union?
I think one thing about us is the coach makes us realise that we should dream big. You are hopeful about each and every stage and all the games you are playing. What you did in the last game has to be set aside, the next game is the most important because that is the next step towards achieving your dream. And for us, when we’re talking about this season, we still have three more games to go. For me, I say to myself, “we have three more finals to go.
Will you make it to Europe?
Yes. I think it is something the team really deserves. I also mean the fans of course because we saw how happy they were last year. Unfortunately, we crashed out in a difficult way, but going to play European football again would be something really special. Especially when you remember the way we celebrated when we got to Europe last year, it is something you want to feel again for the people in the club.”