His place in the sun has not come without a fight. Nwoha Onyekachi's initial goal drought did not endear him to Al Ain's faithful, but, in the heart of the Emirati desert, the Nigerian striker has got hot at just the right time. And, on Saturday, the hopes of the 2003 champions will rest largely on his broad shoulders. The 22-year-old spoke to FIFA.com ahead of the return leg of the AFC Champions League final against Al Ittihad.
Al Ain travel to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia with few experts giving them much of a chance of returning to the United Arab Emirates with the Asian Champions League trophy in one hand and a ticket to Japan for the FIFA Club World Championship in the other. They visit the holders, a team that has already defeated China's Shandong Luneng (8-3) and Korea Republic's Busan I'Park (7-0), and who go into the second leg of the final holding a slight advantage after a 1-1 draw in the UAE.
Enough statistical artillery to damage the morale of the most optimistic of thinkers perhaps, but Al Ain striker Onyekachi is firing back from the acutest of angles.
"It (first leg draw) might be a disappointing result for fans but I personally prefer a 1-1 to a 1-0 (win)," offers Onyekachi mysteriously. "In the quarter-finals against Iranian side Pas, we were also held 1-1 at home but pulled off a 3-3 in the return match to go through.
"So while Al Ittihad may think they go into the make-or-break second leg with a slight advantage, I believe the pressure will give us that fighting spirit and thirst for victory. We will give our all to win."
The Nigerian has fast become battle-hardened since his summer arrival from Dubai side Al Khaleej. Along with Panamanian forward Luis Tejada, he was brought in to replace popular Ivory Coast star Boubacar Sanogo and Brazilian Edilson, but the duo did not immediately hit it off with their new colleagues.
"All players have ups and downs and I'm no exception," he explains. "At the beginning I spent time fitting into the team's shape and getting to know my team-mates."
A hat-trick in the semi-final first leg against Chinese champions Shenzhen soon converted Onyekachi's critics though.
"It is the happiest feeling to be in prolific form for any striker, particularly after hard times," he reveals.
While some appeared unsure, Onyekachi applauds the trust placed in him by coach Milan Macala during his lean spell in front of goal. And repaying the compliment, he defended the Czech coach after the 62-year-old faced fans' criticism following the Nigerian's substitution with 20 minutes left in the first leg.
"He is a very experienced coach and he kept faith with me when I didn't score," explained the African of the popular Czech coach. "The key is we must believe in ourselves and fight together for victory. Al Ittihad are the reigning champions and a big team, but I believe in our quality. We conceded one goal at home so we must battle hard from start to finish in Jeddah and give them not one single chance."
Change of date
The fixture, originally scheduled for 31 October, will now be played on Saturday in order to avoid the final days of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
"I have not been affected as I'm a Christian," he says. "But my team-mates are all fine and in peak condition. We've trained and played together and there have been no problems."
Like many of his countrymen, the Nigerian left his homeland at a young age to seek his footballing fortune. The former Enugu Rangers star has already played for Tunisian giants Etoile Sahel, themselves possible rivals for Al Ain in the FIFA Club World Championship quarter-finals, and a season in the UAE at Al Khaleej.
He believes the recent professionalisation of football in the UAE and other Arab countries can only help teams improve.
"In Africa, players are individually highly skilled and many of them have become established stars in Europe, but the infrastructure, organisation and conditions there are not as good as in Asia," he confides. "And Asian players are very talented too of course."
From Al Ain, he picks out three.
"Midfielders Helal Saeed and Subait Khater have great vision and beautiful skills," he gushes. "Our goalkeeper Mutaz Abdulla is shrewd with a quick mind. He's been doing a great job between the posts."
A game away from the world stage, Onyekachi dares look towards Japan 2005 and the dream of rubbing shoulders with stars of Liverpool, Sao Paulo and the best clubs from across the planet.
"It would be a great honour to play in Japan, but in football the challenge is everywhere so I'll be fearless even against the world's best," he boasts. "It would be a good chance for me to showcase my abilities and I'll be able to prove I'm worth my salt. Like most players, at club level I want to play in Europe. "
Should Onyekachi catch fire in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, he could soon be packing his bags once again.