31 years and yet a fulfilled professional carreer. From his debut in the US to Croatia, through Serbia, Aeerbaidjan, Denmark, Morocco, Finland, and now Georgia, Will John jumps from countries to countries and is as comfortable playing around with the ball than with new languages, new cultures, simply new ways to play football.
To introduce that interview maybe a simple question. What are your first memories related to football ?
That’s a very easy question to answer for a guy like me. My dad played for Nigeria national team, and i don’t remember a time when i wasn’t playing football. What i can remember is looking at video of me, at one year, one and half maybe, playing in the basement of our house. My dad speaks proudly of that all the time.
You are born in 1985, what do you remember of the World Cup in 1994 ?
Come on, that was Nigeria’s first World Cup. We went with my dad in Dallas, we met before the game Stephen Keshi for example and a couple of guys. I was young i just remembered shaking hands but i was there for Nigeria’s first world cup goal. That’s a great memory, even if didn’t really understand. Just as the same with one of our good friend Uche Okafor, who passed away since unfortunately, he played for national team and Sporting Kansa City, my hometown. I was there also for his first game when the first MLS game started, in 1996. That’s a lot of great memories, that’s why i play football.
You are from Kansas, you are born in Kansas City and played with the local team at first. How was your way to the professional team, did you enterred the classic University system ?
Yes, i was part of the US national U14, 16, U18, U20 team. But the youth system that is set up now didn’t exist in that form when i was there. Then i started to train with the profesional team of Kansas City since 16,17, when i could, in the summer for example. Then i wen’t to the Saint Louis University (Missouri) for a year and a half.
I was in college and i had a very vast interest in a lot of things, very intellectual. But the fact is also that if something don’t interest me…Then it doesn’t interest me at all. I really wanted to be a pro as fast as possible, but my mom really wanted me to have my degree, and i had to work so hard. So where the real story goes, after a year and a half i remember sitting in a biology class, i was a biology major, In class that day we were studying the cross-pollinisation of flowers. It was not what I signed up for…It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to leave. So a few weeks after i was ready, preparing myself for the draft. I got drafted by Chicago Fire, played there for a year and got traded back to Sporting Kansas City
I landed in Vinogradar, Croatia. Now i consider that town and that country like my hometown, it’s no different to me than Kansas, i speak the language, i went to all the places.
At that time you were international U20, what was your ambition, how did you imagine your career ?
I knew i wanted to be a pro, i knew also i wanted to go to Europe, i wanted also to learn russian, because i had a fascination with languages. I went first to Denmark (Randers), then Serbia. Well, you cover eastern european football and you may now the ridiculousness of certain situations. And i have been in riduclous situation with my serbian club (Cukaricki) that owed me money. I had a very good friend in Croatia who helped me to get out of this mess and i landed in Vinogradar, Croatia. Now i consider that town and that country like my hometown, it’s no different to me than Kansas, i speak the language, i went to all the places.
And you started like a little bit of a world tour, with Azerbaidjan (AZAL Baku), Finland (RoPS Rovaniemi), Morocco (MAS Fès) and now Georgia ?
Yes, because it’s me. If you knew me before that you will never say you wouldn’t expect that from me. Because i have zero fear, i think this is the third place i’ve been as the first american to play. Jumping in, diving in something new, everytime.
So you, voluntarily, are looking for these new experiences all the time ?
I was never afraid of going to new places, the longest was in Croatia, for three years, Finland and Azerbaijan for two seasons. As well as Azerbaijan I knew i wasn’t going to stay in the US, i had only been waiting to go to Europe, and i still wonder maybe one day i will go back to the US or even go to Asia for example, and try something new. That’s how i proceed, it’s me.
For example you are now in Georgia, you signed with Locomotive Tbilissi, how did you get in contact with the club ?
For the last three moves I’ve represented myself without an agent, and there was a mutual friend of my director who put me in contact who said hey! « This guy is available ». I made a quick test, everybody was very cool, and i really love the style there. It’s very technical, it’s less physical, more on the attacking play. Very different from other places like in Finland where it was very tactical, physical style. So i really enjoy that, the staff is cool, the city is cool, I’ve been here (Tbilisi) just one time before i signed.
What did convince you to come here and how long are you planning to stay in Tbilisi ?
For sure i’m here for some time. They want to build something, they want to create something, they want to play in Europe, training facilities are very nice. I’m currently the only foreign here and i really like the mentality from Giorgi [Kipiani] the director. The first thing we talked was « What do you want to do ? » « Why are you not sitting on a beach, in Thailand or Indonesia, or…? » And the fact is that i wanted to play competitively, so it looks like we will work together.
Do you miss the fact the stadium is not really crowded ?
The Stadium can be little bit empty at times, i’d like to help that. Of course it’s always more fun with fans, but right now i’m focused on what to do with the team to improve the results and get fans to come. I’ve been told also that it is improving, with the all games being covered, streamed. But Tbilissi it’s the kind of city where there is so much going on. And it’s a place where everything is so cool. But when the national team is playing everybody is here to stand by the country. I think that’s where fans find a connection to the nation, their identity, more than clubs.
I’m american and unfortunately we are not learning at all languages over than English and maybe some spanish. And it allows me to really connect with people. You will always make new friends because of the language. Even only mentioning you know one word, it connects people. It’s just changing the relationship you have with the country, with people.
How is your integration going with your teammates ? Can you communicate with them ?
Well most of them can speak english, even if my funniest conversations are with the guys who don’t speak english. So, high 5’s are useful. There is also one guy born in Saint Petersbourg so i speak in russian with him, it’s been a while since speaking..but we can communicate, because obviously my georgian is zero for now.
Do you plan to learn georgian as well ?
I’m a language guy so yes but it’s a matter of when i will be able to really start to learn, because when i begin i won’t stop before i will be able speaking. In Serbia or Croatia they told me i wasn’t going to learn and i said « umm ya, I bet I do ? »
I read you speak 8 languages, is it true ?
Yes, basically english, french, italian, spanish, russian, danish, serbo-croatian and german that i really love now. When i say speaking is at the point you can really have a conversation, express your thoughts. D’ailleurs on peut parler en français si tu veux hein ! I’m american and unfortunately we are not learning at all languages over than English and maybe some spanish, which is a shame to me. And it allows me to really connect with people you know, You will always make new friends because of the language. Even only mentioning you know one word, it connects people. It’s just changing the relationship you have with the country, with people. I remember being in Egypt and needing to ask someone where to be picked up. I don’t speak arabic so i tried maybe in danish, maybe in french, maybe in italian. And yes he spoke italian so we started communicating in italian.
I know perfectly what footballers can do with their time. You go to train and after that you’re free. You can play Fifa all day, or you can do something else
Let’s talk now about your other project. If we look back, in 2016 you created your Youtube channel, where you display videos about football, especially tutos. How came the idea to build upon that ?
At first i did not have a special idea of what form it may take. I just bought a camera. A good friend of mine is a youtuber and he asked me to make quick videos about what is like to be a pro. There was a couple of guys, one playing in Italy, Turkey. I just decided to make my video and it ended blowing up. I’m the kind of guy it doesn’t mind playing in front of the video unless i’m not an actor. I’m also used to teaching and coaching, my father is still coaching also. And it fits perfectly for me. I know perfectly what footballers can do with their time. You go to train and after that you’re free. You can play Fifa all day, or you can do something else. And for me it’s perfect, to train, to be in the field, teaching, communicating with people, and have a lot of fun. It allows me now also to have a business, operating simultaneously. When people ask me « What are you doing after you play ? Well i’m already doing something. » It was also very important to me i don’t come to the end of my career starting wondering what to do.
When you change club, new places, it’s also new source of inspiration for your channel ?
Definitely. Obviously i make people aware that i’m here but i don’t want to be to be seen as just a guy waving a camera, trying to play football in random places. It’s also important to me to talk about Tbilissi for example, highlighting the club, stuff like that, it’s completely different from playing in the US or Denmark, and i received great support from now.
Your father is a former nigerian international and is now coaching. What do your parents think about the way you are living your career as a pro ?
They like it. They will probably come to visit me here, they came when i was in Denmark, in Croatia. They know that it’s me. My father is chiropractor now, and he used to be the doctor for the Kansas City for 12 years, so he was the doctor when i started to play, that was cool. He knows, there is no secret that this is what i wanted to do. I could have stay in the MLS but for me it wasn’t the most exciting idea. I have good friends who did that but i knew it was not for me.
If you have some particular places or countries where you would like to play in the future, what they would be ?
I tend to answer this question the same way. I want to play in a place that i like, and where i feel able to grow. I’d said it’s cool if it would be in Asia. But if you asked me 3 years ago that i imagined playing in Tbilisi i probably won’t have said you yes. But right now i’m having a lot of fun. So i don’t know I prefer to leave that answer open for now.
Cover picture : Locomotive Tbilissi official facebook account