Saturday 03 June 2017, 02:01

The pride of Atlanta, Lagos Kunga

  • Hailing from suburban Atlanta, Lagos Kunga has made his mark on the world stage

  • His family migrated to Russia from Angola before settling in the United States as refugees

  • Lagos’ American dream has officially begun

It was the Round of 16 match between USA and New Zealand at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017. USA held a commanding 5-0 lead when the game went into stoppage time. Suddenly, the Stars and Stripes No13, Lagos Kunga, picked up a pass outside the box, before weaving along the 18-yard line. Some neat footwork bought him space to play a one-two, which he then finished with a clinical left-foot strike from 12 yards. Though academic in terms of the result, it was nonetheless very special for the player himself.

“It felt so surreal. When I came off the bench, we were so far ahead that everyone had taken their foot off the pedal,” said Kunga when speaking to after the game. “I called my mother before the match. She told me not to worry and that she had faith I’d score a goal. When my mother’s words came true, I didn’t know how to react and just kept running. I was very happy.”

This goal not only represents Kunga’s first at Korea Republic 2017, but also marks the first international goal scored by a graduate of MLS outfit Atlanta United's youth academy.

However, Kunga and his mother were not the only ones who were eagerly awaiting this historic moment. “I’m aware that my friends in Atlanta wake up early to watch me play. The hand gestures I made after scoring were intended for them to see,” Kunga enthused. He went on further, saying “I thought my phone was going to explode after the game. All of my friends kept sending me congratulatory messages.”

From his humble beginnings at Decatur-DeKalb YMCA Soccer Club (DDY) to signing for Atlanta United just last year, Kunga’s career is progressing at a rapid pace. “Looking back, I think everything happened for me at the right time,” he said. He did not participate in USA’s CONCACAF U-20 qualifying campaign, only to get a phone call out of the blue from coach Tab Ramos.

“I was in the middle of class when I got the call. I walked outside and chatted with him, and the whole time, I was shaking with excitement. I couldn’t believe what had just happened,” Kunga exclaimed. “Everybody but me had been training together for a year. I never imagined I’d be called up among them. I never even had the chance to impress the coach.”

The pride of Atlanta Born in Angola, Kunga followed his parents to Russia and began playing amateur football before obtaining refugee status in the United States. After moving with his family to the Atlanta suburbs, Kunga began to realise his American dream. Perhaps it all began during his stint with DDY, where his team-mates bestowed upon him the nickname 'Franchise'.

“It’s surprising that someone like me, who grew up in a small town and played for a club like DDY, could make an appearance at the U-20 World Cup,” said the 18-year-old. “What I want to tell my juniors at Atlanta United and DDY is that anything is possible. You must focus intently on your goal. You cannot succeed with ability alone. I want to advise them that you have to use that ability properly to achieve greater success.”

Kunga’s immediate mission is to increase his playing time. “Representing Atlanta on the USA national team makes me feel unbelievably proud. Now, I just have to prove my worth. However, my priority is ensuring that the team wins. Even if I can’t get playing time, I will train as hard as I can and help out my team-mates.”

This positive mindset seems to be shared among the rest of the USA squad. “We believe we’ve got a good chance of winning the tournament. So far, we have performed very well. The coach motivates us by sharing inspirational quotes. Thanks to him, our resolve is at an all-time high."