It took nearly a life time for recognition and honour to come the way of Benjamin Odeje, the Delta-born British footballer. No thanks to the evil of racism which had plagued (and still plagues) the western world.
We must however take solace in the fact that it is better late than never. And that is why 39 years after, Odeje heaves a long sigh of relief as he rightly gets recognised as the first black man to play international soccer in/for England.
It was quite historical that afternoon of March 6,1971 when 22 young boys filed out at the Wembley Stadium in England to play a match against Northern Ireland. One of the boys was Benjamin Odeje, a black boy who had made a lot of impact in high school soccer championships in South East London. Odeje had indeed scored 400 goals in three soccer seasons and he became the toast of soccer fans in S/East London.
So good he was that the Charlton Athletic manager, Theo Foley had declared that, “Odeje had every chance of reaching the top”.
And he was indeed headed to the top of his soccer career when he got enlisted into the English soccer team by his coach, Roy Hodgson, who considered him an invaluable player.
Odeje did not disappoint his coach. He played brilliantly that afternoon that he was declared the man of the match, as his team won 1-0. The 70,000 filled capacity stadium erupted in his praise. They hailed him as Boy Pele. He was the only black boy in the line-up.
Hodgson felt fulfilled that his choice of Odeje was well applauded and rewarding.
But there was a problem: he is black. The fans, even when they lauded his soccer skill demonstrated hatred dressed in racist tendencies.
Too many times, in latter performances, whenever Odeje made a mistake or did not play well enough, he was taunted by even team mates. Worse still, the fans would throw banana at him. The humiliation and embarrassment was much.
As it happened, he got dropped in subsequent outings by his coach, who may have been compelled to delist Odeje.
Recalling the ugly memories, Odeje noted in an interview in 2016 that, “the home games were ok, but the away games were horrible.”
But those unsavoury memories may have paled into insignificance when recently, the BBC after a long research confirmed that the Delta-born Ben Odeje, was indeed the first black man to represent England in any international football match.
According to BBC news story, “we have spoken to our historian and we can confirm Benjamin Odeje was the first Black player to represent England at any level.”
Similarly, a British Sports writer, Daniel Storey, had remarked that “football trailblazers Ben Odeje’s debut for England schoolboys in front of 70,000 fans at Wembley had largely been forgotten until recently (in 2013).”
He added further that, “there should be enough praise to go round. But if we are truly to atone for the abhorrent treatment of black sports people in this country, we owe it to them to tell their history completely. Odeje was a child super star,” stressing further that, “an appropriate gesture to recognise his accomplishment is long overdue.”
The recognition had come as a relief for Odeje, who for 39 years had looked forward to that badge of honour in his career. The official pronouncement of him as the first Black man to represent England may have indeed marked the highpoint of his life-long career and has finally set the records straight.
Before now, Laurie Cunningham had been erroneously recognised as the first Black man to represent England. But findings have revealed that Cunnigham had represented England in 1977, six clear years after Odeje had debuted for England.
Ben Odeje, raised in Igbuku-Orogun, Delta State, had resorted to raising young soccer stars in parts of England. He had also nursed the idea of building up football talents in Nigeria by establishing football academies.