Not many people in football have heard the name Ben Odeje, no thanks to the fact that his feat has largely been left unrecognized until few days ago when he was contacted by the English FA.
The FA are inviting Odeje to England’s UEFA Nations League clash with Germany a week today as part of a move to commemorate our country’s ‘black football trailblazers’.
Odeje’s story is one of racism, respect and, eventually, recognition. The 67-year-old tells a harrowing story of a fan asking him if people still lived in trees in Africa as he made his way home after a defeat in the 1970s.
Laurie Cunningham was widely recognised as England’s first black footballer when he featured for the Under 21s in 1977. But an investigation by the BBC in 2013 cited Odeje, whose parents are Nigerian, as the first black man to represent the Three Lions in a schoolboy fixture against Northern Ireland in 1971.
‘I kept asking myself, why has it been given to someone else?’ explains Odeje. ‘The fact is Laurie and I were very good friends. When he signed as an apprentice at Leyton Orient, I was an apprentice at Charlton and we used to meet regularly.
‘We went our different ways, he went to West Brom and Madrid and I stayed here. But the thought it was given to him and everyone around south-east London knew it wasn’t him, it worried me a bit.
‘It got to the stage where my children were being called liars at school. But then the recognition was given to me by the BBC.
‘That made my kids happy and they went back to school extremely happy because they had the ammunition to show ‘Look, this is my dad’.’
Asked if waiting more than half a century for a nod from the FA took its toll, Odeje responds: ‘Yes, I was left hanging, forgotten, cast aside.’