Micheal Azira is no stranger to making the most out of his time, no matter how much or little he has available.
Growing up in Kampala, Uganda, Azira would wake up at 5 a.m. and head to the local market to buy clothes, which he would resell for a profit in order to make money to help support his family, which included six children living in a one-bedroom house.
As a senior at the University of Mobile, Azira worked in the school cafeteria and coached youth soccer in Alabama while completing his degree in business management and administration and earning NAIA All-America honorable mention.
While the 32-year-old defensive midfielder isn’t suiting up for Chicago Fire FC because Major League Soccer (MLS) and other sports have been suspended indefinitely due to the increasing coronavirus pandemic, Azira is utilizing the enforced break to his advantage. Not only does it offer him an opportunity to spend more time with his two children, but he is continuing his pursuit of a master’s degree in sports management at Southern New Hampshire University.
“You have to use your time wisely,” Azira said. “You’re bored when you’re not occupied. If you occupy your mind there’s no way you’re going to be bored. It’s important to have a routine. As a player we have a schedule, and these are times you need to sit down and reflect without someone directing you to do these things.
“It’s important for all soccer players to use this time wisely and improve themselves as individuals. At the end of the day we won’t play soccer for the rest of our lives. It’s what we do, not who we are. Who we are will always be there and it’s important to invest in who you are, and to me that’s very important.”
Azira, who was acquired by the Fire in a trade with the Montreal Impact on August 7, 2019, said he is scheduled to earn his master’s in May 2021. He plans to use his degree toward becoming an agent, mentor and coach for youth players who dream of playing professional soccer.
He’s already active in youth soccer, helping coach and assist the U-13, U-15 and U-16 academy teams, and returns home to Uganda each offseason to run soccer tournaments as part of the Pearl of Africa Youth Organization he co-founded.
“I want to use what I’ve learned to help the young players,” Azira said. “I want to be the person I needed when I was young. I want to be able to give back to the young players, motivate them and encourage them.”
Azira’s journey from poverty to professional soccer is an inspiring one. Playing for SC Villa in Kampala, he was offered a scholarship to Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky. After playing three seasons at Lindsey Wilson, including helping the program win the 2009 NAIA national championship, Azira transferred to the University of Mobile to finish his collegiate career.
His professional career started with the Charleston Battery of the United Soccer League in 2012. Azira scored the game-winning goal to lead the Battery to the USL Pro championship in his first season.
He advanced to the MLS in 2014 when he joined the Seattle Sounders. Azira then played 66 games for the Colorado Rapids from 2016-18 before joining the Impact from 2018-19.
Azira made his national team debut for Uganda at 29 years old in November 2016 and helped his homeland qualify for the African Cup of Nations in 2017 and 2019, matching up against Liverpool FC stars Mohamed Salah (Egypt) and Sadio Mané (Senegal) in the process.
While he’s maintaining his fitness as part of training programs provided by the Fire, Azira is also trying to better himself off the field just as much knowing that one day he won’t have soccer as his main source of income and priority.
“As bad as it is, it’s a possibility and opportunity to prepare for our lives after our playing careers,” he said. “… We shouldn’t be negative because everyone is dealing with it right now. We are all human beings. We need to stay positive and be kind to other people.
“You have to find a reason to get out of bed every day. You need to push yourself. It’s better to be prepared because you’re setting yourself up to fail if you’re not prepared.”