There I was, standing on the turf of EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida nearing the end of a week-plus of alternating between sports journalist and devoted fan of the 1. FC Köln, which had just been awarded the trophy for emerging as champion of the inaugural Florida Cup. While I felt I’d been fairly successful straddling that line all week, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend I wasn’t enjoying being so close to the club during their post-tournament celebration more as a fan than as someone looking to be taken seriously as a football writer.
Nobody on the field, though, seemed to be enjoying the moment anywhere near as much as was Anthony Ujah. While it helps that he’s a goal-scoring striker, there had always been a sense of joyfulness from him that helped make him a fan favorite. Not every non-Kölner is embraced warmly with the honorary title of “Kölsche Jung,” but you could hardly have a discussion about Ujah without someone inserting something about how the guy was a proper “Cologne Boy.”
If you know me as a football fan, you at least know I am a fan of German football and maybe have a favorite team that wears red. Maybe you remember the billy goat from my baseball cap and/or from my mobile phone notification sound. If you’ve been around a while, you know that Ujah plays a pretty big role in my home.
I still vividly remember the day his loan from Mainz was announced, as it happened to be on my birthday, meaning I was sitting down in front of my computer at home with a mug of coffee about to pull for my relatively recently found football love against Energie Cottbus, as the commentator mentioned the acquisition of Ujah and Sascha Bigalke. I didn’t know then how big a fan I would become of the club, to be honest, but I was invested enough to think it was a good sign for those players to land on my birthday.
But I’m and old guy and don’t get THAT romantic about such things for myself. For my kids, though . . .
My elder son, now five-years-old, became a fan of “OOOOH-jah!” early through watching highlights with me. I imagined that seeing a goal scored and then hearing a commentator yell, “UJAH!” was enough to get a child’s attention. Repeat it a few times and you’re on your way to legendary status.
As Owen grew older and started to play football both in the back yard and in youth organizations, the exclamation “I’m Ujah!” got prominent enough that eventually his younger brother became the one shouting it. One fellow EffZeh fan took note of Owen’s Ujah fandom and endeavored on a project to get a photo of Ujah holding a photo of Owen in his EffZeh jersey, which she then got Ujah to autograph. That autographed photo hangs in my sons’ bedroom, where, one day not too long ago, two-year-old Henry pointed and said, “OOO-ZHAH!” Until then, I had no idea he’d paid enough attention to recognize even the red-and-white, much less the player. The Ujah-mania even has expanded into the all-American realm of baseball, as Owen’s jersey number for this season is, of course, the same as his hero’s.
Before I departed for Florida, I had no idea what my access to the club was going to look like, but I knew that part of my mission needed to be speaking to Ujah, even if just to say ‘hey’ so I could tell Owen I did. Thanks to the efforts of several people, I actually got the chance to briefly interview him. Being able to tell my son about it was a standout result of my Florida trip.
But as soon as the German media cleared away from Tünn in that post-tournament scenario, I wanted to talk to him on a more-casual basis, even if I had my voice recorder rolling. I still wanted to be able to use whatever was said in something I might later write, but I wanted to approach him more from an “American Geissbock” place than anything else.
Were I the sort to have properly backed-up those audio files, this would be where I’d insert our brief discussion. As I’m clearly a failure in that department, I will sadly be unable to do so.
I don’t know whether Ujah knew who I was when I approached him. I’d been around and, as I said, even interviewed him, but I don’t know how aware he is of this blog or whether he would have made the connection. I can say that he answered my initial questions with a glee he did not show when talking to the German reporters. It seemed as if he had opted to just let himself be free with me for a moment. He didn’t try to suppress his smile when telling me how great it felt to win the Florida Cup, but my favorite moment was when I asked whether he hoped he would be back next year for the event.
“Of course!” he nearly shouted with glee. “We are the champions, and the champions get to defend their title in every competition.”
It was an angle I hadn’t considered, to be honest. With it being the first year of the competition, there had been no precedent set in such matters, but it would seem logical that, if no other inaugural participant, the 1. FC Köln should be invited back for the 2016 tournament. It was such a great point, in fact, that I made a stop on my way to the post-match press conference to ask tournament organizer Ricardo Villar whether he expected to invite the EffZeh back to defend their championship. It was clear from my subject’s expression that I was not the only one who’d not considered that before that moment, so Villar offered a smile and a response that let me know it was a worthy consideration.
But, back to Ujah . . .
After those first few questions, I must have shifted my phone in my hand in a way that caught Ujah’s attention. The shift in his tone was immediate and palpable, but not in a negative way. It was nearly a mid-sentence shift from an unfiltered explosion of joy to a more-measured response befitting a professional athlete potentially speaking to a wider audience than the single body standing before him.
And it is this instant that came to mind when considering how Ujah’s transfer to Werder Bremen has played out this week. I apologize if that was a lot of reading to get to the point, but I clearly have a lot to say on the matter. Even with the distance, both physically between Seattle, WA and Köln, as well as the psychic distance of a grown man who long ago learned that these athletes have considerations beyond my own preferences when it comes to their careers, there is a lot of personal feeling wrapped into this saga for me.
The details of Ujah’s transfer and the fumbled execution of it becoming public has been as over-discussed in EffZeh circles as almost anything has been since I’ve been around. The reaction toward Ujah has been overwhelmingly negative, especially considering the esteem in which he had been, up until a few days ago, largely held by Planet EffZeh. Saying he was a “fan favorite” is almost too gross an understatement, to be honest. He was adored and seemed to return the adulation at every opportunity.
Which informs the fact “faux pas” is far too light a phrase for describing the way Ujah has exited the hearts of his once-devout fan base.
Before anyone had the chance to even consider the possibility that Ujah might move to another club, everyone was forced to process the image of Ujah standing beneath a green-and-white sign proclaiming not-coincidentally “100% Werder.” With absolutely no public discussion of contract-extension negotiations, flirtations with bigger clubs, desire for immediate European play, or strife between player and coaching staff or teammates, the news that Ujah had already made the decision to leave hit hard enough, but to have the first notice of it accompanied with such imagery was taken as a giant smack in the face. “Betrayal” and “Judas” have been some of the nicer words used in place of “unser Tünn” the last few days.
Both Werder Bremen and Ujah have since issued apologies for how the matter was handled. Truthfully, Werder’s apology will likely mean nothing to EffZeh fans. Ujah’s apology may gain some traction with those who are inclined to be more pragmatic about player transfers, while those who would have been angry regardless of how it all was presented will continue to vent their anger as loudly and as publicly as they are able.
In my opinion, both parties should have known better. A club like Werder Bremen, which only a month ago saw one of their young stars publicly depart for RB Leipzig, certainly knew full well the public-relations consequences of what they were doing. Were I a player agent, I would certainly be very wary of entering into business with the SVW, knowing that they are willing to sacrifice a player’s interests in order to gain leverage elsewhere. Werder certainly gained plenty of points with their own fan base, which had been growing increasingly concerned over the Davie Selke departure, as well as the inability to extend Franco Di Santo’s contract beyond next season. As the club attempts a late-season surge into a European spot, it certainly helps for the fans to be boosted by the news that there has been progress in the striker issue. So what if Ujah’s image in Köln is destroyed in an instant? He’ll be in Bremen next season anyhow, right?
And, probably yes . . . none of it will matter three match days from now.
I would also content that Ujah, or at least his own advisors, should also have known better. I don’t know who works for Ujah, as far as his PR team goes, so I can do nothing more than openly scold them and encourage them to learn from this grievous error. We can say that Ujah is always ultimately responsible for his own public image, someone in his employ is getting a percentage to help him steer clear of this sort of thing.
I say this especially because I saw first-hand how Ujah wants to just be Ujah. He didn’t stop to think about his public image before talking to me, at least not initially, any more than he thought about PETA when he ran to Hennes for his infamous horn-pull dance-a-bration. In my head, when Ujah was asked to have a few pictures taken at the Weser Stadion, he said “of course” because he’s the kind of guy who wants to do the nice thing, especially for his future employer. I don’t think there was even a moment’s hesitation to consider, “Wait, how will this play in Köln?” This doesn’t excuse Ujah, of course, but it it should be considered when trying to comprehend the situation.
And if you are holding onto some idea that Ujah did this as some intentional knife-in-the-back message to all involved . . . ugh . . . the Boyz are calling for you.
Unfortunately, there is no amount of anger that will change the situation, nor will any amount of compassion or understanding get us back to where we were on Monday, with a Ujah-ful future helping build a permanent residence in the first league, en route to European glory. Whether Ujah figures into the final three matches to help the club achieve the mission of staying up, he’ll be nothing more than another former EffZeh player gone elsewhere. It’ll be up to the individual how they wish to remember the three seasons in which there were scarcely more-significant contributors to the club: either for a public-relations flub or for emerging as a beloved goal-scoring figure who helped drive the club from the second division into the first.
And while I’ll be here, encouraging an increase of the “I’m Timo Horn” segment of our outdoor play from my sons, there’s no chance I’m taking down that Ujah photo, nor shall I correct either boy if/when they again declare “I’m Ujah!” The last three seasons are going nowhere in our collective memory. I may not forget how the scene happened, but I’m not going to let that tarnish something that clearly brought all of us a lot of joy. We will obviously not be following the player to the banks of the Weser, because we are still, and always shall remain, and EffZeh family.
So, with that, we all wish you well in the future, Mr. Anthony Ujah (Must it be said that this will exclude any actions, goals, etc. that would do harm to our club? I didn’t think so.) We thank you for your service in the Rut-un-Wiess. I see no reason that anything more need be said.
Except, as I said to Owen in the video above, “We’ll see you later . . . Ujah.”