Uchenna Kanu — Competing on the World Stage

Some moments come once in a lifetime. Uchenna “Uche” Kanu’s, ’19, moment was in front of thousands of fans as she debuted for Nigeria in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup — the most prestigious stage for any soccer player.

As she stepped up to the sideline to be subbed onto the field, commentators boasted of her scoring record from her season at Southeastern to over 1 million viewers on live television. Uche would go on to play for Nigeria in every game, proudly representing her country.

“I was honored to get the invite to play on the team. At first, I wasn’t expecting it. But, when I got the call, it was like a huge moment for me. It was pretty amazing,” said Uche.

The World Cup was held in France during June and July, with 24 countries from around the world competing for the gold trophy. The Nigerian women’s team made history, advancing to the round of 16 for the first time in 20 years.

“Being on the team that made history, I felt really proud of myself to have made it to that point. It was really good to see that my team really worked hard and made it. Not a lot of African teams make it to that stage,” she said.

During Nigeria’s final game of the competition against Germany, in the knockout stage and round of 16, Uche was selected for the starting lineup.

“Starting against the German team, that was huge for me. I didn’t expect that, but I was working hard to make sure that I kept my head up. I believed that I could play at that level, and I could do whatever others were doing. Although we lost against Germany, it was a cool experience for me to get to play with the players from Germany,” she said.

During her time training and competing with the national team, Uche was able to play alongside some seasoned players, including Asisat Oshoala, who plays for one of the premier clubs in Europe, Barcelona FC (Futbol Club).

“I really learned a lot from the team, learning the way they played and getting involved in the activities at the camp. It was just me looking up to them and learning from them the whole time. I would apply what I have seen them do in my own game. It helped me get better and build my confidence,” said Uche.

A Successful Summer

Uche earned her spot on the women’s team after impressing Nigeria’s coaches at the West Africa Cup of Nations in May of 2019. During that tournament, Nigeria placed first, and she took home the Golden Boot for most goals scored.

Her successful summer didn’t stop there. When she returned to Florida, fresh from the World Cup, Uche went to play for Pensacola FC. The team won the Women’s Premier Soccer League national title, and Uche was named the championship’s most outstanding offensive player.

“It was a really good experience. It’s a high-level league; we were playing with athletes from Division I level schools. The team spirit was amazing. The coaching staff were all great people,” said Uche.

Playing and Breaking Records With Humility

In her final season playing for Southeastern’s women’s soccer team, Uche broke the national record for career goals at a single institution. The previous year, in 2018, she held the single season goals record in all divisions, male or female, at 57 goals. She ended her collegiate career in December, scoring 157 goals throughout her four years at Southeastern. At the end of the 2019 season, she was named the NAIA Player of the Year. “Uchenna Kanu Day” was proclaimed in the city of Lakeland on November 18, 2019, in honor of her national record. Uche was also nominated for the Confederation of African Football’s African Women’s  Player of the Year.

“I am really proud to have broken the record. Most importantly, I feel blessed. Without the gifts that God has given me, without the strength He has given me every day, I would not be able to perform. Of course, I give Him all the glory. I feel like my team played a huge part in my success because without them passing to me on the field or sharing advice off the field, maybe I wouldn’t be able to achieve all of that. God is the source of it,” she said.

More than her own personal achievements, Uche is also a team player. For the 42 goals she has scored this past season, she also provided 20 assists.

“I like assisting my teammates too and not just scoring by myself. Because sometimes I am not in a position to score. It would be selfish to just shoot the ball. I like to give it to someone else that is in a better position to finish it,” Uche added.

Uche’s Biggest Fan

For as long as she can remember, Uche has been playing soccer in Abia, Nigeria. She aspired to be like the professional soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo.

“I remember playing with no shoes, with boys on the street. I would sneak out of the house to go play soccer with my friends,” she added.

Uche laughed as she recalls how her mom would get onto her about playing on the streets without any shoes. She recognizes that her success is also due to the support she received from her mom.

“My mom would come to my games and watch me play. She would even come to practice and watch me train. She bought me cleats. She supported me financially. She tried as much as she could to equip me to be successful,” she said.

Although it has been difficult to have her mom in Nigeria, Uche makes sure to celebrate her achievements with her mom, and called her after every World Cup game she played.

“She watches every game. She expects me to score every time. She always tells me, ‘Just so you know, it’s your job to score.’ She has been supportive the whole time,” said Uche.

God As the Source of It All

Reflecting on her time at Southeastern, Uche is grateful for her team and the support she has received. Since playing for Southeastern, the women’s soccer team received their highest national ranking at first in the NAIA. The team even advanced the furthest in history, reaching the national semifinals in 2018 and 2019.

“The team bonding is great. Everybody is there for each other, even off the field. Everybody is working for each other and supporting each other spiritually. It’s amazing to have that team spirit of a group of girls coming together, chasing one goal and helping each other,” Uche added.

She noted how Southeastern provided the opportunity to get more exposure as an athlete, and how the coaches have helped her improve her technical abilities. Uche adds that her time at Southeastern has helped her realize that her gift is not her own.

“Giving God the glory is the most important thing to me. Soccer is just a platform for me to glorify God,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Uche is one of the most talented student-athletes to ever wear a Southeastern uniform,” said the director of athletics Drew Watson, ’18, (MBA). “But what truly sets Uche apart is her perspective on the game. She realizes her abilities are gifts from God and works very hard to make sure she is using those gifts to the fullest.”

Going Pro

“When I transition from here, I am looking to play professionally. I don’t want my career to end with my last college game,” said Uche. She has since signed a professional contract in Spain and is playing for Sevilla FC Femenino. 

Realizing that most professional soccer careers end when athletes are in their mid-thirties, Uche hopes to use her degree in sport management to work in game operations at a professional soccer club and become a coach.

“I want to say thank you to my teammates, the SEU women’s soccer team, for the opportunity to be a part of the program. They have offered me support. I am also thankful for everybody else who has been supportive of me,” said Uche.

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Cover Photo: Gary Prior
FIFA/Contributor via Getty Images