…Odeje was highly regarded for his great pace, opportunism and agility, as well as his technical ability and his eye for goal, which enabled him to be considered as one of the greatest English strikers of his generation. A very good and perfect finisher, who was also very efficient with his head, as short as he is
By Mark Columbus Orgu and Daniel Njienue, June 15-30, 2020, News/Comments.
NIGERIA-One of the greatest football architects of all time, Benjamin Odeje made his memorable mark in the early 70s when he became the First Black to be engaged in a game of football in England. The Sapele born legend-an Urhobo, who hails from Orhoakpor, near Isiokolo in Ethiope East LGA of Delta State and, whose Father’s name is Michael Odeje, now late left Nigeria with his father to England for greener pasture at a very tender age-having great joy, aspiration to prove his young talent and zeal for greatness.
But how time flies is what one cannot help. March 6, 1971, at about 2.45pm, 22 boys from England and Northern Ireland stood in the subway of Wembley Stadium. In fact, the large crowd rackets gazed the air just to have a fun of soccer. It was like a shout of entertainment of 70,000 spectators, mainly young and old- male and female, largely reported to be schoolchildren.
Yes, the name Ben Odeje may not sound heroic in the soccer profession but those who understand the concept of footballic history may attest to the legendary of this black hero. He was the one who spectacularly scored the amazing goal for South East London School, Blackheath District and London Schoolboys, where his coach Roy Hodgson became passionate about his zeal for soccer. When the call-up letter arrived, he did not understand his full potentials and talent. That is life, but, our hidden treasures come out of us at the appointed time of God.
Odeje as a teenager on that scene of the game, became one of the most exciting players ever seen, displaying strength, talent and strong-will for victory. While he bubbled, his intention was nothing but to shake the net of the goal post with goals. This, the young Benjamin succeeded at South East London School. As fate and fortune will have it, Odeje made history by becoming the first black player to represent England. This alone calls for national recognition with accolade, because if we do not recognize those who have brought fame, honour and dignity to our dear Nation, Nigeria, then, history is lost. Odeje projected the dignity of Nigeria abroad, remembering that Nigerians are known for positive history-making.
However, Odeje was highly regarded for his great pace, opportunism and agility, as well as his technical ability and his eye for goal, which enabled him to be considered as one of the greatest English strikers of his generation. A very good and perfect finisher, who was also very efficient with his head, as short as he is. Then, he mathematically created chances for his fellow teammates, where passes were converted to goals.
Like I noted earlier, fate will always characterize our journey in life. Odeje didn’t escape this, he faced many injuries throughout his career as a young man, which in later years affected his pace, fitness, mobility and the overall consistency of his performances.
The young Odeje was very optimistic that with his God-given talent, the sky was the beginning of his career because, there was no special different between him and the great Pele of Brazil. In fact, he was called ‘Boy Pele’ by the European Media practitioners. This was after a record of scoring 400 goals in three consecutive seasons in a schoolboy level.
When he finally signed a contract with the Charlton Athletic, the then manager, Theo Foley had eulogized Odeje’s tactical handling of the ball as if he was a spirit. “Had every chance of reaching the top”. This was also followed by the Daily Mirror publication which described Odeje as “The First African to play for England”. Even when Ade Coker made his West Ham debut eight months later, Odeje was mentioned in a newspaper column which also held up Clyde Best as “the Perfect Combination of Strength and Negro Grace”.
The Great Odeje, keeping the flag of fame and honour
Like the immortal Niccolo Machiavelli noted in the Prince, that the bold would succeed more than the hesitant. This guided the horizon of the young footballer, who also went through the eyes of camel to get to the level he is today. No wonder, Daniel Storey in his piece titled, England’s first black international and his 42-year wait for recognition in JPMedia publications Ltd, England, extoled Odeje by classifying him as legend with trials. “He never made a first-team appearance for Charlton and failed to find a Football League home, largely spending his career at London non-league clubs including Hendon, Dulwich Hamlet and Clapton. The rest of 1971 was no easier. Despite being named Man of the Match at Wembley, Odeje was immediately dropped by England schoolboys without explanation. After 25 years in the game, one of his coaches resigned in protest”
The question before us now is this; should living legends live in closet of their heroism, of what use will it be to celebrate them- only when they have gone? This, sadly, is wisdom-in-foolishness. Odeje 40 years of international contributions to soccer should not be muted in isolation without recognition. Like Storey noted that Odeje’s contemporaries like Laurie Cunningham, was recognized as England’s first black representative when playing for the Under-21s against Scotland more than half a decade ago. He stated further that Viv Anderson became England’s first black senior international on November 1978 and Jokes were made in the media about him being the only player not to turn blue in the cold weather.
Our journey of recognitions definitely would come but if thus delayed, history would not forgive those who ought to have known better and act but blatantly refused to do so for reasons known to them. Storey was of the view that Odeje is now being forced to wait for his recognition, and his children would be mocked and called liars at school, who are desperately proud of their father. Odeje himself would attempt to state his case but found only deaf ears. And then, in 2013, a campaign provoked Football Association analysis, a BBC News story and the emotional words Odeje had waited half a lifetime to hear: “We’ve spoken to our historian… and we can confirm Benjamin Odeje was the first black player to represent England at any level.”
Why has England refused to honour this great Nigerian remains a case of racism, because a man who has proved his worth and gave glory, honour and service to a country like England can resolve to nepotism while abolishing the ultimate maxim “We are all born equal” Should Odeje continue to contribute to England’s soccer by running a Football Academy known as Atlantic Sports Development School, and also an Ambassador for Charlton Athletic’s Community Trust, same in England with continuous denial of his honour. That is the puzzle too.
However, Odeje need not to beg for honour or seek for help to get reward for what he deserve rightly. This is only done in an insane society or society that promotes nepotism or hate for professionalism and hardwork- Jealousy. Yes, history has a way of dealing with such attitude as told by the late Major Issac Jasper Boro, when he said in his book, Twelve Day Revolution, that it would be an unpardonable error of judgment and a deliberate misdirection of history if those who should fight for good cause remains mute.
This is the case of the Nigerian-England base, who, ordinary should have be honoured long ago but his body skill has now become a problem-he is not a white man, but black. This abnormality can only exist under the guide of weak leaders who discriminate superiority of talents of blacks against the whites who claim supper rather than promote excellence and talent. The black all over the world wants equal opportunity and treatment, which Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died for. His struggle can never be in vain. It is my candid advise for Nigerian government to quickly invite the Sapele born Soccer hero, Odeje for honour with pride and dignity.