A local televised tournament in January and the gut feeling of an Arsenal scout opened the door to the Premier League-club for George Lewis (20) who has signed a contract with Arsenal through to 2022.
It all started in when Lewis was back in his hometown having a trial for the newly-promoted side Fløya who were going to play in the Norwegian third tier this season.
“It’s the way football is,” says Lewis. “Suddenly an opportunity can present itself, which you hadn’t seen coming. After the iTromsø Cup, I suddenly got a message that Arsenal is interested in me. In the beginning, I didn’t believe it, but after a while I realised the interest was real.
The iTromsø Cup was a new concept this year, a nine-vs-nine tournament with two 25 minute games, played on 24th-26th January between eight of the best teams in northern Norway. It was his performances in this tournament that led to the trial in London a few weeks later.
“My agent (Arfan Rehman) lives in England so he had been in touch with a lot of English clubs, so I knew there was some interest when Arsenal had seen the tournament and got in contact,” says Lewis, “it was unbelievable.”
According to Lewis, he was lucky in a sense, that Arsenal had recently released a lot of academy players and hired new backroom staff in the scouting department.
“An agent who had recently been employed at Arsenal had seen footage of me earlier while I was playing in Tromsø when he was working for Chelsea, so he remembered me from a few years earlier.
“He contacted Arsenal’s scouting department in Scandinavia, and they said ‘he’s not on our radar’, he hasn’t really played any games’. Luckily for me, this guy had a gut feeling about me and went against the advice and brought me over. The first training sessions with the under-23s went really well, and then it got better and better each day throughout my time there.”
In the middle of February, Lewis got on a plane to England. First, he had a one week stint with Ipswich under-23s, then he travelled on to Arsenal the week after.
“I was supposed to be with Arsenal for a week, but the trial period was prolonged to 14 days,” he reveals.
“I had a good week of training with the under-23s, so they wanted to see me at a higher level and I got one session with the first team while I was there.”
Suddenly Lewis was there with the big boys; Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mesut Özil, Nicolas Pépé, Alexander Lacazette and the other stars of Arsenal.
“In a way, it’s completely sick. You’re standing there thinking if anyone had told me six months prior I was going to play with Arsenal, no one would have believed me!”
George Lewis Igaba-Ishimwe Maniraguha, to give him his full name, turned 20 on 16th June this year.
In 2018, he signed his first professional contract with TUIL (Tromsdalen UIL) and got three games as a sub in the Norwegian second tier. In May 2019 he chose to terminate his contract with TUIL and that summer left for Fram Larvik in the Norwegian third tier, where he played just two games as a sub.
His only start at senior level is for Tromsdalen reserves in the 5th tier of Norwegian football.
“I’ve struggled to break through,” he reflects. “I was in Tromsø (TIL) at the beginning, but didn’t feel it was a right fit, and it became hard for me there. I left for Tromsdalen (TUIL) and my career accelerated when I got there, but then I didn’t get the trust I wanted.
“In my eyes, I was underrated there and didn’t get the opportunities, so I chose to terminate the contract there and move on.”
His last meeting with the leaders of TUIL is something he remembers very well.
“After an episode at the training ground I was told by them I wasn’t good enough for either the first or second division and they told me to find a local club in the fourth tier.”
“I’m not gonna lie, I’m a big Arsenal-fan, so this move couldn’t have been better for me.”
He hasn’t made it very far at any club to date, but now is his chance for hi, to turn things around.
“That’s football,” he says. “Sometimes you get opportunities you’d never imagine. I’m just so thrilled this move has gone through.
“I’m starting with the under-23s and I’m hoping I can take that next step and be a part of the first team.”
That a major club like Arsenal has chosen to sign a 20-year-old player who has barely has seen first team football is certainly unusual.
“My guess is that they have seen something in me that no one else has. That I have some exciting skills they wish to develop further.”
Lewis will now move to a new apartment near St. Albans, Boreham Wood, not far from London Colney. The duration of his contract, two-and-a-half years makes him humble and proud.
“It feels very good, as if they really believe in me. Now it’s all up to me. I will make every effort to make it up to the first team.”
In Tromsø there were major headlines when youngster Bryan Fiabema, 16, signed for Chelsea last December. Fiabema turned 17 and is three years younger than Lewis, but the two lads grew up together in the municipality of Kroken in Tromsø.
“He’s a good friend of mine and my family, and I wish him all the best. He’s really made an effort to come where he is now and truly deserves to be where he is.
Fiabema has worked through the youth ranks with the national teams and recently signed a new contract with Chelsea through to 2023, but Lewis, his senior by three years, has not made it to the international level.
“You have make your own path. Everyone has his destiny.”
Fiabema is already at Chelsea. A third local lad, Isak Hansen-Aarøen is moving over to England to sign for Manchester United when he turns 16 in August. That Lewis now becomes the third football player in a short time moving from Tromsø to the Premier League academy, is not just pure luck, according to the player.
“The guys coming up now maybe have a different mentality. We’ve seen talents make it and we’re asking ourselves if that guy can make it, why not me?
“I want people to look at me and think if he’s made it, so can I. The moral is, never give up, no matter what obstacles you meet on your way.”
Lewis was born in Kigali, Rwanda. His family moved to Tanzania when he was just 1 and at age 4 they moved to Tromsø.
He has grown up a devout Christian, has no memories of Rwanda and considers himself Norwegian.
“The only thing I know about the country is stuff my parents have told me. First and foremost I’m a Tromsø-lad. This is where I grew up and this is where I have been all my life.”
That Visit Rwanda is a major sponsor of Arsenal, doesn’t have anything to do with why he’s joining the club.
“I’ve seen in the media, that people have written about that. I don’t give it much thought. They’ve signed me because of my abilities as a footballer, and it is up to me to show I’ve earned my place and deserve to be here.”
Lewis adds that he has high hopes and want to learn from the likes of Gabriel Martinelli and Nicolas Pépe. He describes himself as a pacy winger who likes to dribble, take on players and to score goals. He recognises he has been given an enormous chance at Arsenal.
“Even if some people in your hometown thinks you’re not good enough, another guy can come along, see the same game, the same football match, and see something completely else. The moral is, never give up, never stop trying and always be yourself.”
“I feel a lot of people have [doubted me], but we’ll wait and see. Time will tell.”
According to Lewis, there has been a mixed response to the sensational transfer.
“It’s been mixed, but I really appreciate the people who have had belief in me, supported me and are still there for me now. I’ve also had great support, which is something I cherish.”
Thanks to Tobias Stein Eilertsen for sharing and translating his interview with George and for sending over accompanying pictures.
You can give Tobias a follow on Twitter @tobiaseilertsen