In a time when race has sadly become as prevalent possibly as it ever has, football is trying its foremost in being a catalyst to spread awareness, and educate in hope of making the future one for the better. To go forward nonetheless, it is imperative that we know our history.
The late great Laurie Cunningham, we had been told was the first black player to represent England. In 1977 he played at Under-21 level. Viv Anderson was the first black player to don the ‘Three Lions’ on his jersey at senior level in 1978. And for decades these were the only two men who were spoken of. However, before both of them, the first black player to take to the pitch at any level for England was Charlton’s Benjamin Odeje. A rapid striker who was born in Nigeria. Ben played for England Schoolboys against Northern Ireland in 1971. Wrongfully erased from history, he is still in an on-going fight to get his desired and rightful recognition.
The current England setup is littered with black and mixed race players. It is looking like more will make the step up within the foreseeable future. Therefore the individual who paved the way for many needed their voice to be heard. For you to now see the likes of Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker and Marcus Rashford plying their trade at international level, there had to be someone who preceded them. There unfortunately had to be someone who was the first to experience the vitriol from those in attendance. Why racism is still so prominent flummox many. To say things have greatly improved is actually a paradox. Some are just covert in their mannerisms and dialogue compared to previous times. No one and I mean no one should ever be subjected to gross discrimination in their place of work.
The ‘forgotten footballer’ Benjamin Odeje
I was able to get a rare interview with the ‘forgotten footballer’ Benjamin Odeje for the D&D Football Factory podcast. We spoke on his battle to be recognised as England’s first black player at any level. About the racism he endured through his career, his upbringing and his life post-football.
“My girls brought tears to my eyes when it was Black History Month”, Ben states in the most heartfelt way that you could think of. One of his lovely daughters had proudly shared at school that her father was the first black footballer to represent England. There was a silence in the classroom, and then hysteric laughter erupted. As no one could find it on ‘Google‘ or ‘YouTube‘, his children were proclaimed liars. His daughter who had been heckled in class came back home to ask him if he really had played for England. He had to reassure her that it was indeed the truth.
Ben nowadays has his own soccer school. It was only partly because of this that he has more recognition today. A parent of a child that he coaches had a friend who was a season ticket holder at Arsenal. They took him along to watch the Gunners play Everton. During the dinner Ben was spotted by a reporter from the BBC. The reporter informed Ben that he knew who he was. That this had all been setup so that he can inform the BBC of his story. The reporter came down to Ben’s football academy ‘Atlantic Sports Development‘ in Queens Park and did a two-minute segment. When it aired this allowed his daughter to inform her class that it had been released. She was to the butt of the jokes no more, a form of justice had prevailed.
People still don’t give him his rightful tag
Despite the evidence now being at hand, Ben mentioned that, “there are people who still say it is Laurie Cunningham or Viv Anderson. Let me add this, Laurie Cunningham was actually a very good friend of mine, we grew up together”. Ben met Laurie at the notorious Bisham Abbey. As they both headed back to south London after practice they bonded. At the time Laurie was an apprentice at Leyton Orient and Ben was an apprentice at Charlton Athletic. A compassionate Ben says, Laurie was “a special friend who passed away too early”.
Despite the BBC News featuring Ben, BBC Radio still do not give him his rightful tag. “I was listening to the news. They were talking about Jack Leslie, who was the first black footballer selected to play for England. The selectors had never seen his picture, so they never knew who he was. So when they realised he was a black player they dropped him, and replaced him with a white player”. Then he told me: “and in the breath the newscaster said, ‘and 50 years later Viv Anderson became the first black player to represent England’“. Still he fights for what he has done and what he represented.
(Ben Odeje donning his England blazer in 1971. Image from ‘inews.co.uk/getty images’)
It could have all been so different for Ben. His parents had initially come to England without him. They had only looked to stay for three years or so when they came over in the mid-1960’s from Nigeria. The African status quo was to come to England, and gain the necessary qualifications. People would then return home and setup their own business. After his parents settled they sent for Ben and he joined them a few years later.
“The racism was rife, (much) worst than it is now”, Ben recalls. Proceeding in a more stern manor to talk of a sign he saw one day when he was walking with his Dad. The sign read ‘room to let, no Irish, no dogs, and no blacks’ in that exact order. “It was showing dogs are more important than blacks. The Irish on top, dogs in the middle and blacks on the bottom”. Name-calling was a standard procedure, and no-non black saw any real issue with it. Names like ‘n**-nog’ were bellowed at you if you were black literally as soon as you left your house. ‘C**n’ was another favoured derogatory slur. He still seems quite disgusted when he informs, “we had to suffer in those days. There were only four channels. On primetime TV we used to have Alf Garnett, Love Thy Neighbour, programmes like that. The words that were being used, were not words that should be used, but they were used”.
Encouragement and motivation came from a white voice
Odeje attended the Lucas Vale Primary School between Deptford and Lewisham Way in south east London. This influenced and shaped his life. In the face of all the adversity black people were facing, ironically outside of his parents, Ben’s encouragement and motivation came from a white voice. “In regards to who helped me, how can I forget Mr Wind. Mr Wind was my teacher, my coach, my advisor, my everything at school, after my parents it was Mr Wind. Mr Wind saw something in me that other people did not see”. Ben is ebullient when talking of Mr Wind. He was his ‘white’ shoulder to cry on when things got extremely tough. Mr Wind used to take the kids to the playing fields in Blackheath. He got Ben to use his left foot more. He was a right-footed player, which made him much more effective. Mr Wind also showed Ben that with all the names you get called by white people whilst playing football, it is only because you are hurting them. If you were not hurting them with your ability then they would not be as assertive in their discrimination.
Living in England at the time was hard enough. So Ben’s parents did not want him to play for England, because of all the baggage they believed may come with it. His late mother never came to ever watch him play, even when she was not working she refused. She in particular expected a lot from Ben, and football did not fall into the things she felt were compulsory.
Reading was the key to success she believed. Both his parents were voracious readers, so they would obviously expect the same from their son. His Dad was also reluctant to watch him. But towards the back end of his career he eventually came to see him play. Back during his schooldays, the family used to have meetings at home. The elders were mystified at how his parents could let him play football. Odeje’s Mum never had money for anything football-related for him. If it was anything to do with education there would always somehow be money available. An ardent Ben says “but I can understand what my Mum did, how many ex-professionals have something to go on to?
It is not every player that retires that becomes a pundit for the BBC or work for Sky. If you have not got a paper qualification you do not know what job you will be getting”. Ben is even more emotional and adds “So Mum bless you for doing what you did. Because the happiest day of my Mum’s life was when I graduated with a degree. And working as a schoolteacher nowadays, everyday I wake up I think of my Mum”. Ben’s degree is in Recreation and Community Studies. And is the reason he has worked as a teacher since his football career ended.
Awarded the ‘Man of the Match’
Ben’s transparent adroitness saw him score an astonishing 400 goals in three years at schoolboy level. This was whilst playing for South East London, Blackheath District and London Schoolboys. He would garner the nickname ‘Boy Pele’ and was called up for England Schoolboys. His debut that illustrious day of 6th March 1971, was in front of over 70,000 people. Ben can remember it vividly, despite at the time not fully recognising it would be so significant.
His teacher the aforementioned Mr Wind, was also the first person to call Ben outside of his family when he made his England schoolboys debut. Odeje was so nervous, he said that if someone had told him he did not have to play, then we would not have played. “When you walk onto that Wembley turf and the crowd are roaring, and the referee is ready to blow that whistle, and the whistle is blown, you are (just) thinking about your first touch. Now, if you make a mistake with that first touch, the next ten minutes you can kiss it goodbye”.
He further adds: “But if your first touch is okay, the crowd sits there and appreciates it, (then) you are gone, (it is) great. And of course all of the noise level from the crowd disappears. And then all you can hear is your teammate calling you, giving you instructions on what to do”. England won the game 1-0 and Ben was awarded the ‘Man of the Match’. And he did all this despite being played out of position; England used him on the wing, although he was a striker by nature.
(The South London Press reported on Odeje being called up for England. Image from ‘South London Press/londonist.com/(londonnewsonline.co.uk’))
‘One of us’
Regardless of what he did on the pitch, he remembers two things that let him know that prejudice was everywhere. Whether it was done covertly or blatantly. Before the England game he made his schoolboys debut in, the team gathered at a hotel. Here they would receive all their England apparel, they would shake the directors hand and then walk away.
When it came to Ben’s turn, the director said to him ‘you are now one of us’. At the time being a teenager Ben did not really think any of it. As he got older in hindsight it became clearer. His ‘acceptance’ if that is even the correct word was only through football, and nothing else. The catalyst for him understanding where exactly he stood in the community came when he was travelling home from Wembley after the game. A man walked past him as he stood outside a shop in Oxford Street, and called him a ‘black bastard’. Ben froze in disbelief.
Racism in the 70’s
Odeje recollects that in his head he thought, “a few hours ago I was on the Wembley turf, wearing a white shirt with the Three Lions on it. I was regarded (I suppose) as an Englishman. But now I am in my street clothes, I am a black human being or a black bastard”. He could never get over the shock. Name-calling was like breathing for racists then, it was natural and there were no consistent repercussions. They would have not known he had just represented England, but they would not have cared nevertheless. He was just another black person in street clothes who was looked down upon.
Ben Odeje went on to play four more times for England before being dropped with no form of explanation. In protest to his dropping, one of the coaches Don Paine left after 25 years. Whether Ben’s race had anything to do with it, we shall never know. He had been doing well, so at the time it was all very strange. At club level, he never made a senior appearance for Charlton. But he went on to play for the likes of non-league sides Dulwich Hamlet, Hendon and Clapton. Ben signed for Dulwich Hamlet in 1974, and it was there particular, he remembers how bad the crowds were. Especially in the away games.
Being a ‘Black’ players then
“It’s the fact that a ‘black’ player is actually playing and hurting a team that they support”, he mentions. “They would do everything humanly possible to disrupt your game. Bananas would be thrown at you, money chants every time the ball was passed to you. Or they would call you names like ‘c**n’ or ‘n****r boy’”. Ben just had to try and block these things out and just play football. Any banana that hit him or came near him, he would eat half of it and throw it back in the direction it came from.
The racial epithets were not just from the opposing crowd. It would occasionally be from your own teammates if you did something wrong. And a lot of it also came from your own coaches too. Odeje feels a lack of education is part of the reason why these things happened. “I must admit the coaches even though they would use ‘chalky’ and names like that, they actually never meant it to hurt us. For some of them it’s the fear of the unknown, because they did not know what they were doing, for some of them it was a joke”. He feels they were equivocal because they did not know how to introduce themselves to black players, or introduce black players to life within football.
Has Racism collectively improved?
Though racism may not be as rife and abrasive now as it was in the 70’s, to say it has collectively improved is abhorrent. Ben does however feel more content with the way some things are being handled now. When asked on how players react to racism nowadays he is quite vehement in his delivery. “I’m so happy for them that they have a voice, rather than suffering in silence. Because I did (suffer in silence). Most of my peers in those days did because we did not have a body or an avenue to go and air our views in terms of what was happening to us”.
Ben continues to express how well he thinks some players are doing now in battling the ‘elephant in the room’. “Nowadays however, the black players have a voice. Raheem Sterling…standing up for himself, ‘well done son’, I admire you for what you are doing. During my time I could not complain to anyone, because who would I complain to?” Odeje hopes that one-day black players can get-together and form a union. Possibly taking over some non-league teams and bring them up through the divisions. But for now that is all just a dream.
(After Ben was dropped by England, a coach left in protest. Image from ‘londonist.com’)
Today a lot of black and mixed race players are in and around the England squad. Funnily enough many of them are from south London. Joe Gomez (Liverpool), Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund), Tammy Abraham (Chelsea) and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (On loan at Fulham from Chelsea) are all from south east London. Having grown up there this really pleases Ben.
Paving the way
“There are no words that can describe the way I feel for these guys. Just to know that they may not believe this, but I opened the door for one or two players to go out there and play” he says buoyantly. Then he starts to reminisce. “It brings me back to the early days in south east London, when we used to all congregate in Hilly Fields park in ‘SE13’ where we used to play games; 10-a-side, 30-a-side during the summer months when it was still bright after 9.30-10pm”. The boys played with so much intensity and passion. If you could come out of the game unscathed, it was more than likely you could hold your own against anyone around that age group, at any place or time.
Ben worked for QPR after his football career ended. He was sad to eventually leave there. He was one of the founding members of ‘Football in the Community‘, that it is at the club now. “It got to a stage where what I helped to start off. I was not getting the call-ups that I used to get to go and coach. I was not invited to certain meetings. It got to a stage where the shifts that I was getting were not there anymore”. It was because of this that Ben’s soccer school Atlantic Sports Development was born. That is his priority on the weekend; in the week he is a schoolteacher. His contribution to the community cannot be questioned.
We may never know why he was basically erased from history until recently. But we must give him his ‘flowers’ while he is still here. Yes, the significance of Laurie Cunningham’s under-21 England debut and Viv Anderson’s senior team debut are imperative in regards to black players and England. There is absolutely no question about that. But this does not make Odeje’s appearance in 1971 any less important, historic or significant.
He has deserved to be treated better. We all still have time to correct this by spreading the word to those who may have not known. His frustration is evident when he says “I have got to a stage where I feel like what else do I have to do? Everyone that has done something for British football, they have got their reward. Either by being invited somewhere or by being given something special. Ben Odeje, the first black footballer for England at any level, has nothing. What else can I say?”
(The Football Black List awarded Odeje in 2019. Image from ‘footballblacklist.com’)
The full uncut interview, ’90 Minutes with Benjamin Odeje’ can be found here:
Information about Ben’s Saturday soccer school ‘Atlantic Sports Development can be found here http://asdfc.uk/