After a devastating acid attack, Tega Agberhiere has sights set on the top
Teenager from Waterford is on a scholarship in the US and is focused only on the future
Christie Agberhiere doesn’t know who they are. She doesn’t know how they knew. She knows they’re a couple but that’s about it. She has no name or address, she couldn’t tell you if they’re local to her beloved Dunmore Road in Waterford or if they come from further afield. All she knows is that they are the good in the world that she keeps telling her kids about, even when the world tells them different.
A few months back, they got in touch to talk about Tega, her 18-year-old son. Partly, it was to commend him on his recovery from the acid attack that had come close to blinding him in 2019. Partly, it was to congratulate him on the news that he had earned himself a soccer scholarship to America.
But mostly, it was an offer – an insistence, really – that they would pay for his flight to Texas when the time came.
“It was just out of the blue,” Christie says. “Whoever it is, they bought him his flight to America. The ticket was sent here and that’s what he used. That’s why I always told Tega, ‘Look, there are good people in Ireland. People are good.’
“It has been tough. This incident happened and you just have to go through it. Thank God for the people of Ireland and my community in Waterford. They have showered us with kindness and love. That helps you go through it.”
The incident, as she calls it, happened on April 25th 2019. It was traumatic and it was life-changing and it will be a part of them, literally and subtly, for the rest of their days. Tega Agberhiere was an under-17 Ireland soccer international at the time and the attack landed him on front pages and news bulletins nationwide for a day or two. But people tend to move on to the next thing fairly quickly.
"The nuts and bolts of the attack are both unbearably grisly and frighteningly banal. Wrong place, wrong time, basically. Walking with a couple of friends through the Earlsfort Estate in Waterford city when they were jumped. In the scuffle, drain fluid was thrown.
All three of them suffered burns. Oisin Killilea Daly was left with scars on his back after it burned through his jacket and t-shirt. Pádraig Sullivan got it on his leg. Tega was unlucky to be standing directly in the way of it and was hit full in the face."
My intention is 100 per cent to make a living in football and to be a footballer
Within minutes, his eyes were swollen closed and he couldn’t see. His friends had to carry him to a nearby petrol station to get water to splash in his face. The specialist would tell him later that it was a small miracle that he didn’t lose his sight altogether. His skin was badly burnt though and he would need endless skin grafts and creams and bandaging and medication to recover.
He was 16-years-old. He didn’t kick a ball for six months.
Hold up a minute. We’re not here to write a lament. That’s not what he wants. He doesn’t mind you telling his story but he has done all the crying and all the wondering why and he’s basically quite tired of it, if it’s all the same to you. “I don’t really think of it too much, to be honest with you,” he says. “I do my best to train hard, stay focused and concentrate on my health.”
This is Tega’s life now. At Western Texas College in the town of Snyder, he lives about a four-hour drive from Dallas in one direction and an hour and a half from New Mexico in the other. Snyder has a population of just under 12,000 so it’s big enough not to feel like the middle of nowhere but small enough to be unmistakably a college town.
He has officially been a student at the community college since arriving at the start of January. The soccer team trains every morning from 7.30am to nine. Then classes until lunch, gym in the afternoon, dinner at 5.30. He has Thursdays off. It ain’t Ballygunner but it’s home.
“I think I’m an open person,” he says. “So I don’t think it’s really hard for me to do this or anything. I just think it’s a new challenge. I miss my family and I miss my friends. And I miss some parts of Waterford as well.
“But there’s a time when you have to move on. I think that was the main thing. I just wanted a fresh start. I wanted to start over, not just in terms of my life but in terms of my football as well. That has been in my head for a while.
“My intention is 100 per cent to make a living in football and to be a footballer. Everyone’s path is not the same, that’s how I think about it. I didn’t have to stay and play in the League of Ireland to make it or to go to England at an early age. I have gone a different way.”
As a family, they always have. Peter and Christie Agberhiere (pronounced Ag-ber-HERE-ay) arrived in Ireland from Nigeria in April 2002. They spent a couple of weeks in Dublin, a couple more in Limerick before settling in Waterford. They had their eight-year-old son with them and Christie was seven months pregnant with their second. Tega arrived on June 12th, the day after Ireland beat Saudi Arabia 3-0 at the World Cup. His younger brother was also born in Waterford a couple of years later.
Football was always central, cobwebbing out to capture more and more of him as the years passed. He spent his early teens scuttling over and back to England for trials - a few days in Southampton here, a few at Crystal Palace there, interest from Spurs and West Brom and others.
And though nothing stuck, he kept working and kept getting noticed. The Ireland underage teams that he played in contained plenty of names that are starting now to bubble up to the surface. Jason Knight, Troy Parrott, Joe Hodge, Gavin Bazunu. Tega was in there amongst them, a tidy, choppy-striding left-back. Raw, yes. But everyone’s raw at that age.
“Technically very strong,” says Paddy Carey, coach and co-ordinator of the local FAI-ETB course in Waterford. “A left-sided player, he would remind you a little bit of probably an Ashley Cole-type of left back. Technically very sound, works well off both feet, very competitive.
“Although he’s quite slight, he’s very clever in the way he uses his body. His size won’t ever be an issue for him. We actually liked to use him higher up the pitch at times because he’s very adept in the final third as well.”
Along with another local coach Mark Barry, Carey runs what is essentially a cross between a post-Leaving Cert course and a one-year soccer school. They take in a class of kids each year and split their days between academic work and football. The FAI is involved in nine of these programs around the country, the kind of vital coalface work eternally obscured by the more sorrowful mysteries of the association.
The attack had come two months before Tega’s Leaving Cert and any chance he had of getting himself a decent one disappeared with it. He was travelling up and down to Cork to get skin grafts even on days when he had exams. And when they were over, he had nothing to do but get better. Slowly. Painfully.
“It was sad because I didn’t really have anything to do,” Tega says. “Football was my go-to. And when I didn’t have that, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. That’s what I was used to doing every day. I did nothing really, I just chilled at home and tried to recover. I had to apply cream on myself. I had to use eye drops. I was on specific medication.”
Carey had been in England for six years working for Reading FC so he knew Tega only by reputation. But then the acid attack happened and the whole country knew him. Unlike everyone else, however, Carey could offer more than just sympathy. He got in touch to offer the FAI course, starting that autumn.
“When kids come on the course initially, we do a one-on-one with them and we ask them what their goals are, what their aims are and the conversation covers both football and academics. With Tega, he and I agreed that the incident wasn’t going to define him, that he was never going to use it as an excuse and that he was going to give the course a proper go.
“In fairness to him, he gave it absolute buy-in. He never missed a day or a session, he took on board all the various aspects of it. We do nutrition modules, gym instruction modules, strength and conditioning. But really, for me and for Tega, the year was about building his confidence back up more than anything. Obviously, that took a hit after what happened.”
What kind of hit? Christie can tell it better than anyone. Ask Tega and he brushes it off, as a teenager should. But a mam is a mam. She watched him that summer as he receded into himself.
“The incident shocked him, obviously,” she says. “It changed him because Tega is a kid that loved to trust everyone. The incident changed him, it made him into someone who hardly trusts anybody. It definitely did that. He is suspicious of people now. It’s terrible.
“But I tell Tega that there is nothing he can do about the incident. You can control what you do to people but you cannot control what they do to you. Thank God he did well in his recovery. It’s not really easy for me as a mam to keep telling him to try to move on but he did excellent. He’s a brave boy. This was never going to stop him from doing what he loves to do.”
Football brought him back. In the beginning, it got him out of the house again, down to watch his friends play for Villa FC and the Waterford FC under-19s. When he joined up with Carey’s FAI course, six months had passed since the attack. Even just lacing up a pair of boots was a small act of defiance.
“You miss that amount of time, it’s just not easy to walk back in,” says Carey. “Especially at that age. That’s an absolutely massive time in a young kid’s life. That period, going from 16 to 17 to 18, we know all about it - that’s when the fallout rates go through the roof. That’s when lads with far less traumatic experiences than what happened to Tega just drop out of the game or drift away.
“He could very easily have done that. Nobody would have blamed if he had just put the world to one side and gone, ‘You know what? I’m not doing this anymore.’ And he could have just gone off and gotten himself into things that he shouldn’t have been doing. He wouldn’t have been the first person to do that.
“But even small things that people take for granted, he had to put weeks of work into. People don’t think twice about heading the ball but because Tega had a number of skin grafts, that was something he had to work himself up to. When we’d be doing a heading drill, for those first few weeks, he’d go off and work on some other skill.
“And then gradually, as he built his confidence back and got more used to the skin grafts, he drifted back over to us and said, ‘I might do a bit of heading today.’ He just willed himself to the point where he told himself, ‘I’m not even going to think about this.’”
America happened through a contact Carey has in a bigger Texas college, Midwestern State University. Patrick Fitzgerald is another Waterford FC alumnus who is currently assistant coach in the men’s soccer programme at Midwestern. Between them, they were able to put a scholarship on the table for Tega, although he needs to do 18 months in Snyder first and pack some grades in his kitbag to bring with him when the time comes.
So that’s where he’s at, 18-years-old and his life ahead of him. Where it leads him is unknowable. Football is who he is and if that holds into the future, so be it. If it doesn’t, that’ll be okay too. Above all else, he will be defined by himself and by his own choices. Not by the gruesome pictures in the papers. Not anymore.
“I feel that this is a new sentence to write down for myself,” he says. “As a person and as a footballer. My right eye is not really how it used to be but I think that’s really the only big thing about it. And obviously I still have a lot of scars but I don’t even notice them.
“I wouldn’t say I forget about them, it’s something that will always be there. But the scars don’t really upset me because the scars don’t determine who I am at home. I just think it’s something I had to get over and I got over it.”
Got over it. Past tense.