At Home with Isaac Success
Photography: Olly Burn / Styling: Jay Hines / Interview & Words: by Tom Kershaw
Sheltered in a small gangway inside U. J. Esuene Stadium, Isaac Success hugged a makeshift blanket and slept. After a cloying 400km bus ride from Benin City, made possible by a £6 donation from his childhood coach, the money for accommodation had run out. Stranded and alone in an unrecognisable city, he had no choice but to climb up into the stands, find a small cranny beneath the insects and layer of oppressive heat and wait for the sun to rise again. “That was very emotional for me,” Success says. “But it is still one of the best memories in my life. I was mentally strong. It was a very hard time, but I had the feeling that this was my next step.”
That night, with his back against the concrete, Success’ career began. When morning finally came, he beat dozens of the country’s brightest prospects to a place in Nigeria’s U17 national team, turning the heads of European scouts, and unlocking a pathway – and an escape – from poverty. Eight years later, happily settled at Watford, the contrast in his life could not be starker, except for one fact. “When I was young, football was the only thing that made me happy,” he says. “And it still makes me happy now.”
Success’ motivation to play is no longer driven by his own fight for survival. During the past year, he’s returned to Benin City, retracing those steps he took as a child: the living room he slept in with his three siblings, the dusty street where he’d play barefooted, the shops where he’d wash dishes in exchange for food to bring home. The memories that fuelled him to start his foundation last year, linking him to the family members and friends he misses dearly.
“I want to see good players, who live in the streets like I did, have the chance to make a living for themselves and achieve their dreams,” he says. “That’s massive for me. That’s my target. To create a platform where they can be free to do whatever they want. I put them in a training camp and provide everything for them to make sure they don’t have to worry about anything. Helping them makes me feel strong. That’s what keeps me going.
“When I go back to Nigeria, I don’t feel like a celebrity. I go back to the hood, see my old friends and play football every day. I miss Africa. I remember playing in the street, without even a shirt or trousers, just running around. They were my best memories. If I could relive them for one week, that would be so fun. Ever since then, my target was always to start the foundation once I become a professional. It makes me really happy.”
Still recovering from an Achilles injury, Success admits the trajectory of his own career has somewhat stalled since making a then-club record £12.5m move from Granada – his first club outside of Nigeria – to Watford in 2016. “There’s been some ups and downs in football recently,” he says, in reference to a difficult season where he struggled with injuries and a lack of game time. “I just want to play every game.”
But the sheer light and joy football has shined on his life has always maintained his positive outlook. The sport vibrates within his soul, the trials that define him as great a part as the victories. Suffering is always relative, and he recounts his struggles on and off the pitch with pride and a booming laugh, drowning out the pain in his words.
“Of course, it’s been a challenge,” he says. “But I love challenges, and I’m still very proud of myself to be on this stage. My biggest objective was always to play top-flight football. I always wanted to play in the Premier League, and when I got the offer from Watford, I was so excited, and I want to continue doing that,” he says, suddenly breaking into a shout of [Didier] “Drogba!”, echoing the cries of he and his friends when watching the Chelsea striker on TV as children.
At that age, he was attending weddings in the hope of taking home scraps of free food for his family. Upon arriving at Granada after the U17 World Cup, he’d have to write his every thought into Google Translate and show it to his teammates in the dressing room just to be understood. “The pain in my hands,” he says, slapping them together.
He views those memories through a lens of triumph, a future built out of hope and perseverance rather than opportunity. Football gave him that avenue, a life to treasure and share, no matter where it leads next or what obstacles it continues to throw up. All that matters now, he says, is making it easier in any way possible for those seeking to follow in his footsteps.
“I didn’t have the accommodation, the shoes,” he says. “I can’t stop playing now, because I don’t want the kids in Benin City to stop either.”