The stories that began to circulate back in January made for easy digestion, simple nuggets of allegation-cum-fact that could be clicked, consumed and then absorbed into popular hearsay.
Faiq Bolkiah, a man who even the most diehard fans were unlikely to have heard of, was apparently the Richest Footballer in the World.
Yes, Faiq’s father is the megarich Prince Jefri Bolkiah, younger brother to the Sultan of Brunei. A man who was the subject of a 2011 Vanity Fair profile that labelled him as a “notorious playboy” who had “probably gone through more cash than any other human being on earth.”
If that hints at a less ordinary upbringing for Faiq—underscored by a heightened interest that has increased as the player has taken his first timid steps into professional football in England—then there is truth in that.
But what are we hoping to know about this young footballer and why? More urgently, what kind of impact could this probing have on a 20-year-old? Who, if anyone, is looking out for him?
“I don’t want another story like the one that appeared online [in January],” insisted one of Faiq’s representatives, who had heard that another journalist had been asking questions about him.
“Faiq isn’t the Richest Player In the World. That’s nonsense and really unhelpful to him to be called that. He’s just a young boy trying to make a career in football.”
Circumstances have made Faiq a celebrity in his family homeland, where he has captained the national team despite never having played a minute of professional football in his adopted home of England. But circumstance can be afflicting.
“I called the newspaper who ran that original story and said: ‘You won’t be getting anything out of me in the future. You’ll get no cooperation after this,'” the representative said. “We just want him to be shown for what he is, not some silly headline that’s only going to distract from his development.”
Dennis Wallace was looking for a favor. A retired NBA professional who had moved to the UK some years earlier, Wallace knew Paul Morgan as the coach of the under-11s team at AFC Newbury, a reputable football youth team in the county.
In the days that followed, an introduction was arranged between Morgan and two 10-year-olds in Wallace’s care. One was his own son, Ukasyah, tall for his age, sinewy and showing the early promise of an athlete in the making. The other boy was lithe and diminutive, a smaller frame with a shorter build, and he was introduced to Morgan as Faiq.
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Faiq and Ukasyah were cousins—their mothers were sisters—though they had been raised more like brothers. They had attended the local Thorngrove Prep School together in nearby Highclere. Until the age of eight, both played for the village side there, Woolton Hill Argyle, which held its matches on the field of Woolton Hill Junior School.
The day of the meeting, Wallace drove the pair to AFC Newbury’s pitches.
Faiq had been sent to the UK by his father, His Royal Highness Prince Jefri Bolkiah of the oil-rich kingdom of Brunei Darussalam—located over 11,000 kilometres away on the South Pacific island of Borneo—to be raised away from the spectacle of the so-called “orgiastic” wealth of his family.
Even before moving to the UK, though, Faiq had caught the football bug.
In a rare 2017 interview with FourFourTwo, Faiq said: “I’ve played football since as early as I can remember, and from a young age, I’ve always enjoyed going out on the field and having the ball at my feet.
“My parents have always been supportive in helping me to achieve my dreams of being a footballer, and they trained me hard both psychologically and physically through my childhood years, so I have to say they are my role models.”
Faiq’s life in Newbury, meanwhile, was a privileged one, but any sense of entitlement doesn’t seem to be part of him. What stood out more than anything else was his talent.
When Morgan first met Ukasyah and Faiq, they were resplendent in their pristine Arsenal replica kits.
“With the ball at their feet, they were outstanding,” he says.
Wallace, an ex-professional sportsman himself, had ambitions for the pair. He had hoped to give them the best possible chance of progressing in professional football. So the call went to Morgan.
“It sounds awful, this, but he wanted the boys playing for a better team than Woolton Hill,” he says. “Their philosophy was that everyone gets to play, irrespective of ability. Which is fine, but my philosophy was to create more teams and have a first team, second team, third team and so on.
“Interestingly enough, it was Ukasyah who was the one everyone thought was the better of the two. That was primarily because he was a lot taller and stronger. Faiq was quite a small guy, still is quite small in fact. Small in stature but so much skill. Both of them were very, very good players.”
In that first season at AFC Newbury, Ukasyah played in midfield, and Faiq played up front, positions that suited their respective builds. The boys were rarities in Morgan’s experience. Usually in junior age-group football, it takes a number of weeks or months for a player’s potential to show itself. That’s just the nature of children’s football. But Faiq and Ukasyah stood out immediately for their skill and, most eye-catchingly, their intelligence with the ball.
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The pair had benefitted from Wallace’s care; the practical upbringing that comes from being raised by a former professional sports player was clear. He had installed in them the seed of desire and the emotional stamina that fortifies would-be athletes for the physical and mental challenges of their disciplines. As a parent and guardian, he was strict. Academic achievement came first, regardless of the allure of the football field.
It was only when Morgan was filling in the registration forms for Faiq and Ukasyah, with their home address listed as Hollington House—the prestigious, lavishly converted former hotel in the village of Woolton Hill in rural Berkshire—that the thought occurred to him his two new signings might be more than simply gifted young footballers.
Morgan’s own children had attended Woolton Hill Junior School, on the grounds of which Ukasyah and Faiq’s previous club had played. A few well-placed enquiries at the adjacent Thorngrove Prep helped him find out more about his new signings.
The Kingdom of Brunei, which sits on the north-west coast of Borneo, is one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies, where the ruler is directly equitable with the rule of law. In recent years, that status quo has been reinforced, as a strict Islamic code has been imposed on the country’s subjects.
So it isn’t difficult to see why Newbury and the care of Wallace might have been a more low-key option for Faiq. Sure, there was some gossip but not much more beyond that.
“They were very private people who kept themselves to themselves,” Morgan says. “There were lots of rumours. The Sultan of Brunei connection was made quite early. We knew who Faiq was.
“Dennis had used to be a bodyguard. He was an enormous man but very nice. He used to drive them around in this minivan. He’d bring them to training, pick them up. And he would always be there to watch every single match. He’d always be the one who would bring sandwiches, fruit and drinks for everyone, all shoved into the back of this van.”
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AFC Newbury had become a popular club for parents to try to place their children, especially if they, like Wallace, had ambitions of them playing professionally. Morgan insists this was because of the unique style of play that the likes of Ukasyah and Faiq made possible, a technical finesse and care over the ball not often seen at junior level. “We were the only team in the league who took short corners, for example,” Morgan explained. “Partly because we were small but partly because we had the talent to do that.”
Morgan is at pains to emphasise the character of both boys. They were well-spoken and polite. They were respectful of their club and the opposition. There was none of the showboating that their exceptional talents could have afforded, on matchdays or in training. Their focus was total, “a delight to coach.”
The boys and Wallace were genuine people, integrating into the fabric of the club, playing football and making friends in this corner of rural England. Of the world of mind-bending riches to which they were inexorably tied, there was little evidence.
Morgan only got one season from Faiq and Ukasyah before bigger things inevitably came calling. At the end of the 2008-09 season, he arranged a friendly between Newbury and a youth side from Southampton, traditionally a strong footballing city, in the expectation that this would lead to greater exposure to talent scouts from the professional game. The hunch paid off.
Southampton FC took both boys on trial, not an unusual development for players from AFC Newbury. What was less ordinary was that the club opted to keep on both players. So, from 2009 to 2013, Faiq and Ukasyah learned the game in the Southampton youth academy.
Wallace has always been insistent, when it came to the boys moving on, that they came as a package. If you took one, you took the other. Certainly, that was the case with Southampton and when the two signed for Arsenal in 2013. For Ukasyah, though, that was as good as things were to get in terms of his football career. After being released by Arsenal, he signed for Birmingham City of the Championship but left without making a first-team appearance. Eventually, he ended up at non-league Nuneaton Town in the Midlands before being released in 2017.
“That was a surprise to me because back at the beginning, Ukasyah had been the better player, mainly because of his physicality. But then towards the end of the 2008-09 season, Faiq was the one who really blossomed. He became a fantastic goalscorer with amazing pace.
“Maybe it’s not a great story. They weren’t full of attitude like you might expect, didn’t bring a load of glamour to training. They were just normal, down-to-earth kids who took their football seriously.”
Faiq’s football career was slowly taking form. His time at Southampton lasted until 2013, when after a brief trial with Reading, he was picked up by Arsenal. In June of that year, he competed for the club’s under-15 side in the 25th anniversary edition of the Lion City Cup—a prestigious youth tournament held in Singapore—scoring as the side beat a Singapore under-15 representative in Kallang. Two days later, Ukasyah scored a goal as the team lost 4-3 to Eintracht Frankfurt.
As his best friend dropped down the professional ranks, Faiq moved on too, this time to Chelsea. His current club, Leicester City, picked him up in March 2016, as his contract at Stamford Bridge ticked towards its final weeks. There was understandably much interest in the Foxes’ new acquisition, though it was principally in his footballing potential.
“There was some real excitement and interest when he came here,” said a Leicester City insider, who asked not to be named. “There was buzz amongst the press and supporters, partly because of who he is. Within the club, though, there was an impulse to play it down. It’s not something that was played up.”
That Leicester have sought to deflect attention from Faiq’s background and towards his prospects as a footballer is only following best practice. The inevitable public scrutiny of private lives is an animal sometimes difficult to tame in even the most experienced professionals. For some youth players, the early forays into that world present distractions detrimental to the cause. In Faiq, there is a young man for whom that scrutiny has the ugly potential to be magnified many times over. To keep all eyes firmly on his feet and not his family tree is not just a wise move for those advising him but also a certified obligation.
Those feet are yet to tread the turf for the club’s development squad. During the 2017-18 Premier League 2 season, during which 24 of the country’s strongest academy sides compete, he has yet to appear competitively, having made the step up from the under-18 side at the turn of the campaign.
Faiq isn’t seen as one of those young Foxes about to make the leap into the first-team squad. There are players at more advanced stages in their development, older players and those with more minutes under their belts in the development league. Faiq wasn’t born until May 1998. He is still at an age when all but the most precocious talents are still mucking out in the youth ranks. At some point soon, though, the club will expect to see signs he is improving sufficiently towards that transition if there is to be a hope of him making the grade.
“There’s still a long way before he breaks into the first-team area,” the insider says. “When we’re looking at players who are going to be coming through in the near future, he’s not usually named in that list. Whether or not he comes through at a later date remains to be seen. At the minute, though, he’s not one of the youngsters likely to be coming through straightaway.”
There is still plenty of time for Faiq, though. Time to develop his skills and talent. Time to impress more people with his professionalism and personality. And time to generate more headlines, not for sensationalist links to his wealthy father thousands of miles away but for his achievements on the pitch.
The so-called “richest footballer in the world” is only getting started.