Crushed, crocked yet crowned: Boniface is a victor against all adds

By Rilwan Balogun

Raptures. Roistering. Reverberations in North-Rhine Westphalia. The impossible happened. A decade-long dominance masterminded in Bavaria was dared, dimmed and damned.

Bayer Leverkusen, the club established by pharmaceutical workers more than a century ago became German champions in an even more special fashion…for the first time. What better thing can you inject in our veins?

The story of Victor Boniface, one of the brightest lights of this illuminating story of triumph.

Akure, Southwest Nigeria isn’t one of Nigeria’s flashiest points. However, what it lacks in colour and vigour, it has in serenity and style, typified by one of its biggest sporting stories.

The town cannot boast of having a production line of elite Nigerian footballers but it can revel in the story of one.

Boniface’s story, not bouncy nor shorn of life’s twists and turns, tells the tale of a young man whom life has dealt a blow but comes back fighting; all the time.

It was 2019 and former Enyimba, and Super Eagles assistant coach, Paul Aigbogun was preparing the Nigerian U-20, the Flying Eagles for the World Youth Championship in Poland.

Boniface, one of a dour team’s brighter lights had featured prominently during qualifiers and looked forward to a perfect opportunity to announce his arrival on the world stage.

That team, however, was so devoid of memorable appeals that many Nigerians have forgotten the country even featured at the championship. He could have been one to remember.

Injury robbed Boniface, fresh off a move to highflying Norwegian team, Bodo/Glimt of a place in a tournament which has now become a playground for future elite footballers.

His anterior cruciate ligament injury would become just one part of the great pain ahead.

The death of a loved one is never easy to take. Some elite football players have been shaken off their strong streaks as a result of the mental plunging they face from familial losses.

Former Inter Milan striker, Adriano is an example of what could become of a man after a big loss. Boniface reckoned he lost his mind and his way as he battled a difficult period of depression following the death of his mother.

“I gave up at that time, as I was no longer interested in playing football,” Boniface told OJB sports in 2023.

“There was a period when I lost my mum, I also had a bad injury that was going to keep me out for six to eight months, and I lost a good offer from Club Brugge.

“I lost interest in football, I forgot about my diets, I began to eat everything, I started living a normal life, I just wanted to be happy, I started partying and drinking.

“I don’t drink normally, but I started it because I was depressed.”

In another interview with John Obi Mikel and Chris McHardy on the ObiOne Podcast, Boniface revealed how a second ACL injury almost made him quit football.

He got a ray of light through coaches who still offered to sign him despite his recurrent injuries. That proved to be enough morale boost for him to resume working hard and get back on the journey to an elite football level.

Boniface’s talent has never been up for question. He’s a bundle of skill; a special hybrid between a powerful, pacy forward and a witty, strong midfielder. He showed these immense skills more consistently at Union St. Gilloise where he finished as joint top scorer in the Europa League. And he didn’t leave that tournament without making a statement for the next big important journey of his career.

In two games against Bayer Leverkusen, Boniface had shown Bayer Spanish manager, Xabi Alonso just enough to ignite an interest in the next transfer window. Nigerian journalist, Oma Akatugba posed a question to the former Real Madrid, Liverpool and Bayern Munich midfielder on what he thought of Boniface. It seemed enough for memory as the Nigerian forward joined Bayer in a €22m move some months later.

Alonso was clear in how he wanted to deploy Boniface. He was going to lead the line for him and put his hybrid skills to great use. Boniface hit the ground running in his first season in one of Europe’s top five leagues emerging as the club’s top scorer so far despite a lengthy spell on the sidelines.

Despite the disappointment of missing the African Cup of Nations where Nigeria finished second, Boniface’s social media was a constant source of entertainment for Nigerians. More mature; more driven; better placed; he went through another injury phase still reveling in what’s possible.

The former USG forward, who’s not a newbie to winning titles in his first season – winning it in his first and second season in Norway and only losing on the final day in Belgium, helped Leverkusen maintain a stranglehold on their pursuit of a treble.
One, probably the biggest, is in the bag.

They are in the finals of the DFB Pokal Cup and will face Kaiserslautern, and have another ninety minutes to book a place in the semifinals of the Europa League.

Bayer are on cloud nine. They are lofted in places previously deemed unreachable and Boniface helped that ambition when he scored a vital goal against West Ham in the Europa League. Next season, they will not start their campaign among Europe’s second cadre sides but among the very best, where their quality belongs.

On the most special day in Bayer Leverkusen’s history, he led the line and opened scoring to set up the North-Rhine Westphalia outfit for a dominant display that sealed their title triumph.

Footballers from Akure don’t go this far. Boniface is a big story from a small place and despite dips and pits he had to succumb, he can look back with pride, savour the moment and dare to dream even bigger because… this is just the beginning.