IKECHUKWU Tongololiki Mawakavamba Jawarapawara Uche is a name unlikely to fit on the back of a shirt. Fortunately, however, the Nigerian striker is better known simply as Uche – or Ike to his team-mates – and he is now the finest African footballer in La Liga.
The 30-year-old forward has spent his entire playing career in Spain, having moved at the age of 14 and worked his way up from regional football to the Primera Division with Villarreal via Racing Ferrol, Recreativo Huelva, Getafe, Zaragoza and a loan spell at Granada.
Brother of former Almeria and Espanyol striker Kalu Uche, the Nigerian first came to prominence in the Primera Division due to his knack of scoring against Real Madrid. The striker netted the third goal in Recreativo’s famous 3-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2006; he bagged the winner for Getafe at the same stadium as half of Madrid’s side celebrated a disallowed goal in the corner and play was allowed to continue; he added another as the Azulones beat Los Blancos 3-1 later that year.
At Zaragoza he was less fortunate, spending a total of nine months on the sidelines after suffering two serious knee injuries. Then transferred to Villarreal in 2011, he was immediately loaned to Granada and scored the goal which gave the Andalusian side their first Primera Division win for 35 years. That came, ironically, against Villarreal and by the time the striker returned to El Madrigal at the end of the 2011-12 season, his parent club had been relegated to Spain’s second tier.
But Uche hit 14 goals in the Segunda Division as Villarreal bounced back immediately, and added a further 14 to finish as top African scorer in La Liga last season. The Nigerian has contribued a further four for the Yellow Submarine this term and is now considered a key player for Marcelino Garcia Toral’s team, currently lying sixth in the top flight.
Villarreal have opened talks with the player about signing a new contract and team-mate Gerard Moreno believes the club should keep the striker, who recently lost out to Granada’s Yacine Brahimi (now at Porto) for the award handed to the best African player in La Liga.
“If the club want to extend his contract then that’s good news,” Moreno said. “It’s really important that Uche stays with us. Not just because of his goals, but for all the hard work he brings to the team.”
Still a long way from the 232 games played by Samuel Eto’o (as well as his 135 goals) in La Liga and unlikely to catch Malaga goalkeeper Carlos Kameni (239 games and counting), Uche is nevertheless writing his own story in Spain and can now be considered the finest African footballer in the Primera Division.