Uche Prince Justine. After the teenager's fantastic start to life in Cambodia last year, it was only a matter of time before 'The Prince' took his talents to a more prominent club, and they don't come more prominent or dominant than Crown. His first game for his new club next Saturday will be against his old club, now called Wat Phnom. Below, I've reprinted my interview with The Prince from the beginning of last September, just to bring you up to speed with the CPL's hotshot striker.
Talking with The Prince
Without doubt, the most exciting discovery of the current Cambodian Premier League season has been the prolific goalscorer and the CPL's leading marksman with 21 goals in 18 games, Uche Prince Justine of Spark FC. With his muscular physique, blistering pace over 20 yards and an ability to hit the ball hard, 'The Prince' has left many of his opponents trailing in his wake as he's taken the CPL by storm and all at the tender age of 18. He'll be 19 at the end of next month. His goals tally and his performances look even more impressive when you realise how young he still is. Justine arrived in Cambodia last November on a mission. "To play football in Nigeria you have to be very good and very strong. I was just a little boy and I needed to improve myself abroad before I return to play in my homeland. Many of my fellow countrymen do the same because its hard to get a contract with a professional Nigerian team. There are just so many players competing for a few places. Coming to Cambodia, signing my first professional contract, playing with Spark and scoring so many goals in my first season has been very good for me. I have learnt a lot and this will help me improve my game," he told me during our chat in the Olympic grandstand after he'd wrapped up his season with a hat-trick against Phnom Penh Crown.
"When I arrived last year, I joined the Samnang Development Academy team here in Phnom Penh, who help and guide young men like me who want to play their football abroad, especially here in Cambodia. A friend of mine, who played here, told me that I could succeed in Cambodia and that's why I came. Samnang shared the same training pitch as Spark and after a couple of trial games, I signed on for Spark." It was a marriage between two newcomers to the CPL, as Spark had just been promoted. "I joined Spark as they were new to the league and so was I, so I wanted us to grow and learn together. And that's what has happened. We've all learned so much, we are no longer boys in the league and our experience will make us better next year. My aim was to make sure we were not relegated and my goals have helped us do that, so I am happy for the team and my teammates. It's not just me, the whole team have improved so much and helped me score so many goals." With his 21 league goals out of Spark's tally of 30, it's clear to see how much of an impact he's had, as Spark finished their season one place above the relegation zone. There was talk mid-term of him joining Phnom Penh Crown during the transfer window, but that didn't materialize and instead, he simply got on with doing what he does best, scoring goals. With their final game against Crown just completed, I asked Justine about a couple of opportunities that he'd had in the game when he elected to pass and not shoot. "Football is a team game and I truly believe that. We play as a team at Spark and if I think I have a 40% chance to score but someone else has a 60% chance, then I will pass. As I did in today's game. Of course I love to score goals but I also want my team to succeed, and that's very important to me, because they are my friends as well as my teammates." I am absolutely convinced that with a more selfish streak in him then Justine would've scored many more goals this season, and I'm sure that will come as he gets older and more experienced.
So where did he learn to play his football? "I was born in Imo State in southeast Nigeria. Like every boy in my country their dream is to play football. I played for the Arugo FC Academy, which is a nursery club for youngsters, up until I was fifteen. I was lucky to then join the Orashi Academy and did well. I scored two goals that helped them win the play-off to get into the National Amateur league when I was seventeen and just before I came here. But I was just a little boy in Nigeria and I wanted to succeed, so decided to try and do that in a different country and environment. I have been happy to do that in Cambodia." He's certainly proved himself in the CPL this season and he puts that down to confidence in his own ability and as a devout Christian, he gives thanks to God as well. As an Imolite abroad, he'll hope to follow the lead taken by the most famous Imo State son, Kanu Nwankwo, who starred for Ajax and Arsenal, as well as won the Olympic football gold medal with Nigeria. For now, Justine is happy with his progress and with the season coming to a close, thoughts will now turn to the next stage of his development and career. With such a fantastic first season in Cambodia, I'm sure his exploits will have alerted clubs around the region and Spark will face an almighty challenge in holding onto their rising teenage star.