“My heart goes out to the ones who can’t work, who can’t go out all around the world,” says Chioma Ubogagu. The 27-year-old England international is, of course, discussing the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; all too real for someone currently in lockdown in Madrid, one of the worst-hit cities anywhere in the world.
Ubogagu has only been in Madrid since August last season after spells in the USA and England, playing for newly promoted CD Tacón. While they may be an unfamiliar name to casual followers, they won’t be in the summer when they are renamed and rebranded to a more Real Madrid.
But Ubogagu’s journey to get here has been far from simple. She’s had to rely on her faith, family and friends, and her acceptance that at times she made wrong decisions, particularly when it came to her international career.
Her backstory is like many others. She grew up copying her older brothers who played football, wanting to be involved whenever they were. For Ubogagu, football was always an obsession. “My mum always told me I always tried to copy what they were doing,” she recalls. “I was always told I’d try and play with them in my backyard rather than playing with my toys.”
Ubogagu was born in London to Nigerian parents, but when they divorced while Ubogagu was still a child, she and her two older brothers, Oggy and Okwus, who were 12 and 10 at the time, moved to the USA, residing in Texas where Ubogagu’s career would gradually take off, while her dad and his family remained in London.
She continued to visit London every year to see her dad but it was across the pond where her love of football continued to flourish, almost instantly in fact. “I joined a recreational team when I was four and never really looked back,” she says. “I’ve always had a huge passion for football. If my family ask me now what I wanted to do when I was younger, I always wanted to be a professional footballer. I didn’t even have the context of whether that was even possible, being young I didn’t think about that.
“We had to walk 3km to training and my brother always took me along. I was just a nuisance, complaining ‘are we there yet?’ You’d come up this hill and see the fields and I always got so excited. I’d suddenly not be tired anymore once I saw my team.”
Like her brothers, Ubogagu grew up an Arenal fan. A typical child, they did the opposite of what their dad wanted them to when watching the north London derby on TV. Her dad was a Tottenham fan and encouraged his children to follow in his lead – so predictably they decided they preferred the team in the red.
There remains a myth that Ubogagu’s grandfather actually played for Tottenham, but it’s untrue. He did represent Nigeria in the 1960s, but an injury when he came to London meant he never actually played for Spurs.
By the age of ten, Ubogagu was in a position to move from recreational to club football, putting her on the pathway that would lead to the US youth teams and a place at Stanford University, one of the best in the country for women’s soccer development. But to a young girl living with two brothers and a single mother, it felt a long way away – so much so Ubogagu was unaware there was even such a pathway that existed.
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One man, David Hansen, was influential in her next choice and she still credits him to this day with putting her on the path to where she is now. “David had a daughter who I found out later shares a birthday with me, which is pretty funny when I look back now,” she says. “My mum being a single mum, with three of us, we had no idea about college soccer. I just played with my local team in my local town and that was that. I had no idea it could get so big.”
From four to ten, Ubogagu represented a team called the Starfires while David’s daughter played for the Mighty Tigers and would soon be joining a club team when she also turned ten, but not before the two went head-to-head in a match. “I guess I had a good game and scored a few goals. David called my mum non-stop wanting me to play club soccer on the team his daughter was going to.
“It wasn’t feasible with her being a single mum but he was so adamant in helping out. Without his resilience, I don’t know if Stanford would have happened because I don’t know if I’d have gone into club soccer and eventually getting me into that USA pool.”
David offered Ubogagu the chance to carpool with him and his daughter for away games where her mother couldn’t get time off from her full-time job.
Her progress would lead her to a scholarship at Stanford University, following in the footsteps of legends such as Julie Foudy and the chance to work with influential head coach Paul Ratcliffe, one of the most successful in women’s college history. “When I visited, Ali Riley, Christen Press and Kelley O’Hara were there and it was an opportunity to see some of the players who are now some of the best in the world.
“Stanford as a whole has a balance of academics and athletics. If you don’t have a certain test score then you can’t enrol in that school, it’s just not possible. The first thing Paul does is look at grades and how a student is balancing the two.”
The stars were beginning to align for Ubogagu. She was at a top college, and won the 2012 Under-20 Women’s World Cup in Japan, playing in every game alongside future internationals such as Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis and Julie Ertz. Ubogagu graduated with both a film and media degree, as well as her pre-medicine requirements. “I always tell people my favourite TV show is Grey’s Anatomy, so figured I might as well get a degree that’s similar to both, right?!”
Like any college student looking to start a professional career, Ubogagu entered the NWSL Draft at the end of 2014, with many expecting someone with her pedigree and a World Cup already under her belt to go high up the order, probably in the first round. But Ubogagu had a dream offer from abroad to join her childhood club Arsenal. News of the move leaked and, while she was still selected in the third round by Sky Blue, Ubogagu’s heart was set on a return home.
She believes the news of her move affected her draft position. “I heard about interest from Arsenal and I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “The team I’d supported all my childhood. I wanted to see where I might end up in the NWSL but in my heart, I think I always knew I would go to Arsenal. The chance to go back to London, it was just too perfect.
“I did a visit before signing just to look around and see where I’d be living and I remember one of the first people I saw was Héctor Bellerín. He said hello and I was just like wow, I’m at Arsenal now. I couldn’t even put it into words, the first professional game I would play in was for my team.”
Not only was her first professional game in a red and white Arsenal shirt, so was her first professional goal. Arsenal were trailing 1-0 to Notts County in their opening FA WSL game of 2015 when Ubogagu came off the bench with 26 minutes to go; 20 minutes later she would hook home a fine effort to seal a point and top off the perfect debut.
In the minds of FA WSL fans, her debut may be more fondly remembered for the clever free-kick scored by future England teammate Ellen White, but she doesn’t mind too much. “I mean, fair play, it was a great free-kick,” she laughs. “If that’s what people still pay attention to you can’t fault that!”
Arsenal wouldn’t get close to the league under Pedro Losa in 2015 but would win the Continental Cup at the end of the season against the same opposition, with Ubogagu once again scoring, but it would be her final game for the club before a premature end to her time in England.
Eight goals later and a season under her belt for her dream club, Ubogagu has only fond memories of her time at Arsenal. “It was huge. Stanford was a high standard but I was in the same changing room as Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey. Yanks helped me so much, particularly because we were both left wingers, she would always give me such great pointers. I remember one time I was struggling a bit. I can’t remember why but I messaged Kelly. I still have the response she sent to this day, she gave me unbelievable advice, they were so good and I’ll always appreciate that.”
Ubogagu returned to America and her home state of Texas for the 2016 NWSL season with the Houston Dash. It seemed odd at the time Ubogagu would leave behind her childhood team, but as she explains it was linked into her decision to choose between the USA and England at international level, a story she hasn’t told publicly before.
“Not long after I joined Arsenal I got a chance to go into the England camp with Mark Sampson before the 2015 World Cup and the Nordic Tournament with the inder-23s,” she says. “At the time I was extremely grateful, but I’d gone through a cycle with the USA that was unbelievable. I became so close with Crystal, Julie, Kealia Ohai etc, we became extremely good friends and still are now. At the time I was conflicted and I was curious I guess to see what it was like at senior level.”
After winning the Under-20 World Cup three years earlier, Ubogagu’s interest peaked further when the USA brought back the senior World Cup from neighbouring Canada that summer, but it’s a decision she admits she now regrets after choosing to represent England under Phil Neville in 2018.
“I was so back and forth and now when I joke about it I say I’m a dumb ass because I should have taken that opportunity [with Sampson]. When I did come back, I got called up under Jill [Ellis] in my second year back and I don’t want to criticise because I wasn’t there long, but I had this feeling in camp it wasn’t for me, it wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I don’t know how to fully explain it.”
After her first call-up in October 2017, Ubogagu was again involved in January but didn’t make an appearance for the team before being left out of the SheBelieves Cup squad at the start of 2018. England, though, were now under the guidance of the former Manchester United man and Ubogagu sought out the opportunity to make it known she wanted the opportunity to revert on her original decision and represent the Lionesses.
Ubogagu was now at Orlando Pride under former US head coach Tom Sermanni, and it just so happened England would be facing the USA there in the final SheBelieves Cup match.
Ellis told Ubogagu she wanted to meet her in Orlando, but Ubogagu told Sermanni she wanted to speak to Neville. It was just a day later she finally got to have a conversation with the new Lionesses head coach. “When I met him, his energy, his passion, it was everything I thought and more. I’ve just met this guy and it just confirmed my mindset that I wanted to play for England. I know a lot of people thought my first call-up came out of nowhere, but it didn’t, I just had a different journey to get there.”
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Ubogagu concentrated on playing well for the Pride throughout 2018, waiting for her opportunity to come. It arrived on the day of her 26th birthday in September, when Neville picked up the phone to tell her he wanted her for an upcoming camp. Ubogagu made her debut in a friendly against Austria, scored a goal, and made a further two appearances as Neville took her to the SheBelieves Cup in 2019, one year on from their first meeting.
With a World Cup beckoning in France, Ubogagu was suddenly in with a chance of a seat on the plane, but the opportunity never came. “It was so easy in my first camp. I knew like Leah [Williamson] and Jordan [Nobbs] but I never felt uncomfortable or out of place, it was like new friends immediately made kind of situation.
“My last camp was May before the World Cup, that was the biggest disappointment of my career so far. I got that close and it didn’t happen, but the conversation Phil had with me I respect so much. He was honest and open, I watched every game, cheered them on and I wished him all the best at the time.”
Neville would make new players on camp stand up and speak in front of the squad to talk about their journey to where they are now. After the interview, Ubogagu kindly grants These Football Times a look at the full script she wrote to say in front of the squad on her first camp, all three pages of it.
It’s titled ‘What Playing for England Means to Me’ and much of it echoes what has been recited in our phone call. Her childhood in Texas, the influence of David Hansen, even down to the ‘dumb ass’ comment when it came to rejecting England five years ago.
But there is one glaring addition that doesn’t come up when we speak, something Ubogagu later admits is due to the fact she still struggles to talk about but grants permission to mention given it is an important party of her journey: the sudden death of her father just before her 13th birthday.
In her recital to her new teammates, she takes up the story. ‘My Dad always called and asked me the old, what did I want to be when I grow up question? He asked me that cheesy question every single phone call. Without fail. My answer was always the same. Up until he was unable to call anymore.
‘My dad passed away from MS two months before my 13th birthday. I never got a chance to say goodbye because I never knew he was sick. His family handled his health in secrecy and in ways I think I’ll never really understand, but that’s a story for another day.
‘The passing of my father really wrecked me. I think subconsciously it made me more determined to accomplish my goals because it was something I always told him I wanted. I wanted to see it through more than ever. That’s why when the opportunity came to play for Arsenal when I finished my last year of university, it seemed God had written to me. I was raised a Christian, and faith is very important to me. It was an unexplainable feeling that I knew that was what I was supposed to do next.’
With or without knowledge of her father’s death, Ubogagu’s religion and faith do come up before we part ways, and it’s clearer than ever after reading her script that it has played a crucial part in getting her to where she is today. “Life isn’t a steady course,” she says. “You’re going to have your ups and downs. My faith has always been my stable point, my tranquillity and it’s always kept me grounded. When it’s a contract year or a transfer year, like I didn’t know if my move to Madrid would go through, I didn’t know if I’d go to the World Cup.
“There’s always uncertainty and doubt and you need to have your faith. Clearly the World Cup wasn’t for me and for reasons maybe I can’t understand, but my mum always told me, ‘if it’s for you, it won’t miss you’. I’ve really tried to embrace my journey, enjoy it as much as I can and my faith is a big part of that. Jobs will fail you, people will fail you, but I believe God won’t.”
By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty