The burden of playing while Black and Irish

Racist and violently anti-migrant attitudes in Ireland might have become less overt, but athletes from Africa, or those born in Ireland to African parents, continue to face a struggle for acceptance.

Chiedozie Ogbene, 24, stepped into a racially charged atmosphere when he made history at Szusza Ferenc Stadium in Hungary on 8 June. “All I could think about from the start of the game was coming on and scoring to silence them,” he said.

The “them” includes his own fans who had heckled the Ireland players at the start of the game for taking the knee as part of football’s gesture in the fight against racism. The home team, Hungary, went a step further by refusing to take the knee. This is the environment in which Ogbene made history when, with just over a minute left of regulation play, he stepped on the field to become the first player born in Africa to represent Ireland. 

“To be titled the first Africa-born… I’m really blessed and it’s a huge honour, something that I want to inspire everyone else to follow their dreams,” said Ogbene, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria. 

31 May 2021: From left, Chiedozie Ogbene, Lee O’Connor, Adam Idah, Daryl Horgan and Andrew Omobamidele of Ireland arrive for a training session at the PGA Catalunya resort in Girona, Spain. (Photograph by Stephen McCarthy/ Getty Images)

Despite the less than ideal atmosphere for his debut, the winger is part of a wider cultural shift in Ireland as increasingly more Nigerians are beginning to don the green and white of Ireland rather than that of Nigeria’s Super Eagles. 

Gavin Bazunu, Adam Idah and Andrew Omobamidele have earned maiden call-ups in the past year too. Omobamidele made his debut against Luxembourg in March. But for injury, the highly rated West Ham forward Ademipo Odubeko would likely also have been in the running. The current situation is a far cry from what used to be the norm in Irish football.

The man responsible for blazing this particular trail is Emeka Onwubiko. In 2004, he became the first Nigeria-born player to earn a call-up to an Ireland squad at any level, appearing in an Under-15 friendly against Wales.

Little wonder then that he feels a brotherly pride at the sudden influx of Nigerians on the Irish international scene, especially as they have been able to go one better and turn out for the senior national team. That was far from a given considering what the now 31-year-old went through: despite being hailed as one of the brightest young talents of his generation, Onwubiko’s career was held back because of a rampant culture of discrimination in Ireland.

Taunted and hated

After moving to the country at the age of 12 as part of the first wave of Nigerian migrants, Onwubiko quickly stood out, not just for his footballing potential but for his otherness. Being the only Black child in school, he was frequently taunted with requests to “go back to your country”, and his distinct features were the subject of morbid fascination among his peers. 

“They had never been outside Ireland before,” he said. “All they knew was Irish people. It is not hard to see where their ignorance came from.”

A particularly impressive performance at an Under-13 school competition made Manchester City sit up and take notice, and Onwubiko was signed by the Eastlands outfit. But then it emerged that he did not possess an Irish passport, a detail that threw a spanner in the works. He would eventually get a passport years later as a result of the intervention of Sport Against Racism Ireland (Sari), a non-profit based in Dublin that is dedicated to integration and social inclusion. However, by that time, he had faced a few more rejections and his career never quite took off as it should have.

Ken McCue, Sari’s international officer and cultural planner, recalls contacting the Irish prime minister directly on Onwubiko’s behalf. “I said, look, if this young lad goes to Belgium and gets a Belgian passport within three or four years, we’re going to lose him. Next day, there was a passport arranged. That’s what it was like.

“We had to have individual representation for the players. So imagine what it was like for other young African boys and girls growing up there.”

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Founded in 1997, Sari has played a critical role in challenging discrimination and driving social inclusion and integration through sport and education. In the late 2000s, it entered into a partnership with Belfast club Glentoran and formed the Insaka-Ireland Glentoran Academy, with a view to addressing the culture of racial abuse and segregation that had barred young children with African backgrounds from participating in sport.

“When they [children of African heritage] tried to join a local club in the suburbs, they would get abuse. That abuse would come not just from their white peers, but from the coaches and the people on the sidelines at football games. So starting Insaka Academy was very important for us. Glentoran had a reputation for development, so we were keen to work with them.”

This approach was not without its challenges, though. “We had 40 boys in the academy, mostly Africans, and every single one of them had been abused,” McCue said. 

“And we had two coaches, including [former Nigeria youth international] James Igwilo, who were brought in by the Football Association of Ireland. They were told by the [association] to dismantle the football team because there were too many Black players in it. The football association was incredibly hostile to the fact that we had this team.”

Crimes of hate

The word insaka, McCue explains, is from the Bemba language widely spoken in Zambia. It denotes a gathering place where wisdom is handed down from the older generation to the younger. “So it wasn’t just a football club. It was a place where we could bring up the resilience of these young boys to be able to defend themselves against racist attacks. Not physically, but mentally.”

Despite their best efforts, it is impossible to guarantee a 100% success rate. In 2010, Nigeria-born Muslim student Toyosi Shittabey, 15, a football trainee with Insaka-Ireland, was fatally stabbed. No one was ever convicted of the murder, which was established to have been racially motivated. Ten years later, another trainee, George Nkencho, 27, was shot and killed in front of his home by an officer of the Irish Gardaí, the national police. The circumstances of his death remain under investigation.

McCue’s view is that ignorance, insecurity and the rise of social media have exacerbated an already bad situation and are enabling violence against Black people in Irish society. “People over here still think Africa is one country, not a continent,” he said. “They don’t really understand. And we don’t have hate crime or hate speech legislation in the republic. 

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“So for them, the alt-right, it’s open season to abuse anybody with a different skin colour representing the country. We have track athlete Rhasidat Adeleke, who has just broken the 100m Irish record. She’s now in the United States, actually staying there, because here she was receiving horrific abuse.”

The 19-year-old Adeleke, who is Irish with Nigerian parents, made history in July when she claimed the 100m and 200m sprint double at the European Athletics Under-20 Championships in Tallinn, Estonia. She had been openly vocal about her experience of racism in Ireland. 

“Because there is no legislation covering online conduct, you’ve got a situation where Facebook, for example, doesn’t filter hate speech,” McCue said. “Like in the case of Nkencho, there were over 400 hate messages on different platforms: ‘Oh, he’s got 22 convictions’, ‘He tried to go into a shop with a machete’, ‘He beat up his girlfriend with a hammer’, and all that. Total lies. I was his manager. This was a kid who would apologise to a winger for a tackle. But he was a big unit, so what tends to happen is the bigger the Black guys are, the more abuse they get.”

Emotional conflict

Clearly, not only does there appear to be opposition to the possibility of Black footballers dominating that space, but the players who do make it through have to grapple with the emotional conflict of playing for a country that does not fully embrace them and a society that denies them access at every turn.

Furthermore, 2004’s constitutional amendment, preceded by a referendum in which the electorate voted to limit the right to Irish citizenship by reason of birth to children born to Irish citizens, is another potential roadblock restricting footballers of African heritage from representing the country’s national team. 

So, at what point are they accepted as members of society? When are they truly Irish? Here again, Sari is front and centre, offering advice to troubled youngsters. 

“We have to sit down with them and convince them,” McCue said. “It’s about nurture. We say, ‘Look, you’ve got a choice. You can go back to Nigeria and join an academy there. It might be a little bit more difficult for you in terms of getting a game since they’ve got so much talent there now, particularly at Under-17 level.’ 

8 May 2021: From left, Adam Idah and Andrew Omobamidele of Norwich City pose with the Sky Bet Championship trophy after their match against Barnsley at Oakwell Stadium in Barnsley, England. (Photograph by James Williamson/ Getty Images)

“So eventually we talk them through it and explain how things work to them. Then we go to the managers and coaches. Thankfully, the coaches at underage level are not too bad.”

However, it is perhaps too soon to speak of this new crop of Black internationals as heralding a turning point in societal race relations in Ireland. In October, Ogbene became the first player born in Africa to score for Ireland in a competitive senior international match, which he did against Azerbaijan and also the first to start when he did so against Qatar. 

Following his historic debut, Ogbene spoke of wanting to “create a pathway” for others of a similar background, but Onwubiko is not convinced. He warns that, unless attitudes change quickly, Ireland could miss out on a crop of transformative talent.

“I was proud to wear the Ireland shirt. These kids feel the same, and I hope they will go the same route. I hope racism does not affect them, and that they have the mentality to just get on with it and prove people wrong. But we cannot take for granted that they will. The burden is on us to make them feel welcome.”

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