Rookie seasons are an adjustment for any young athlete, but the first half of 2020 has thrown enough at Toronto FC freshman Ifunanyachi Achara that even the most hardened veteran would be struggling to keep their head above water.
A global pandemic, the negotiation of a new collective agreement, and the worldwide protests that have followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of four former Minneapolis police officers have almost made soccer an afterthought.
While he continues to train in the hopes of resuming what had been a perfect season for him (one game, one goal), the 22-year-old has been an interested observer of everything unfolding right now. Having left his home of Enugu, Nigeria, at the age of 17 to continue his soccer career in North America, first at high school in Massachusetts before attending Georgetown University in Washington, Achara, who is Black, says the past few weeks have left him reflecting on everything.
“I didn’t know I was actually Black until I came here [to North America],” he says. “Because everyone at home is the same colour so the issues that we have are maybe just religious issues or ethical issues.
“But coming to the U.S., I have to understand why people look at me the way they look at me or how they talk to me or how they treat me and it just boils down to your skin colour and it’s just sad that for most people in society today that's still an issue.”
While he has a younger brother, Ugo Achara Jr., going to school on a soccer scholarship at Northwestern University in Chicago, his other siblings and parents are back in Enugu. Although he admits he used to talk to his family in Nigeria about what’s been going on in the wake of Floyd’s death, he said he stopped because his family just doesn’t understand.
“They’re like, ‘What do you meant they don’t like Black people?’” Achara says, adding that while his mother and his little brother have lighter skin, he has darker skin like his father.
Not that he ever had to think twice about it until he entered the U.S. education system.
“Here it’s a big issue,” he says. “Even kids talk about it, even when you go to school you listen to them talk and they talk about their preferences, about how they like someone and it’s based on colour and it’s weird.”
Despite being a young player just finding his feet in the game, Achara remains hopeful that soccer, and sports as a whole, can play an important role in the conversation and continuing education over race and prejudice. He points to the leadership role that older teammates, such as fellow forward Jozy Altidore, have taken in this direction, particularly when the U.S. national team stalwart took to social media earlier this year in the wake of UEFA handing Manchester City a two-year Champions League ban and a US$30-million fine for violating financial regulations.
“Where is this energy from UEFA and FIFA when it comes to dealing with racism?” Altidore tweeted.
Achara also pointed to the displays of support given by Bundesliga soccer players such as Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund, who revealed a T-shirt in support of Floyd after scoring a goal.
“I think the sports world has responded in exactly the way they should because anyone who saw that video [of Floyd’s death] should be angry,” he said.
However, whether it is soccer players such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, or other global sporting icons such as basketball’s LeBron James, taking to social media to show their support for the movement, Achara says it’s up to those sports’ governing bodies now to enact meaningful change.
“This is an opportunity for [MLS], the NBA, the NFL – all these leagues need to come together and all the people in power need to talk about it because if they’re not talking about change then what’s the point?” he says.
Although Achara didn’t necessarily know about former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the sacrifices he made before he came to North America, the TFC forward is full of hope that this occasion won’t prove to be yet another false dawn.
Soccer is an important sport to carry the message forward, he says, because of its global reach. But he insists it is equally important for other sports, particularly those such as hockey, the NFL and other U.S. leagues that don’t really speak up about racial injustices to take a lead this time around.
“I think that’s what's terrifying about it because it's not like Black people haven't been fighting or protesting for years about the injustices, it's just that other people have not,” he says.
“So that’s what’s different about this movement is that everyone else is pushing for it and that’s what feels different.”