‘These kids feel Irish as much as Nigerian’: Hopes new generation can escape racism scourge

Jonathan Afolabi's injury-time equaliser should have been cause for celebration. But soon after, the day turned dark for the Dublin-born striker
‘These kids feel Irish as much as Nigerian’: Hopes new generation can escape racism scourge

Emeka Onwubiko in action for Republic of Ireland U-15 against Wales U-15 in 2004. Picture: David Maher 

Jonathan Afolabi's injury-time equaliser should have been cause for celebration.

His 94th-minute strike two Saturdays ago kept Dundee alive in the Scottish Cup, and set up an extra-time victory over non-league Bonnyrigg Rose.

But soon after, the day turned dark for the Dublin-born striker on loan from Scottish champions Celtic. Seven Instagram messages in nine minutes, full of racist abuse, quickly altered his mood.

In south Dublin, Emeka Onwubiko read the news, and couldn't contain his emotions.

“When I saw what happened with [Afolabi], I dunno — I didn't expect anyone to read it — but it was just in me, and I didn't want to keep it in me, I just had to get it out there. Then it went crazy...” 

Onwubiko is now a football coach in Co Wicklow, but many years ago he was the player on the end of the same abuse as Afolabi.

Seventeen years ago this week, Emeka Onwubiko became the first Nigerian-born player to be called into an Ireland squad, when he was named in Vinny Butler's U15 team to play Wales.

It was a photo of that game that he uploaded to Twitter last week, when sending a message to Afolabi.

“Just over 15 years ago I made history as the first Nigerian kid to wear the Irish Jersey, 15 years later a huge crop of Nigerian kids are now wearing the Irish Jersey,” he tweeted.

“Makes me a proud older brother. Message to next generation of Nigerian kids following the same path is be strong.” 

The tweet went viral, but not all replies were positive.

“It's interesting times,” says Onwubiko, “the pandemic might have something to do with it, people getting bored, banging out online abuse...it might be just too easy to do now.

“When you are bored, you try crazy stuff, and unfortunately racism is one of the main things. I just wanted to let [Afolabi] him know he had to be strong. Not just him, the lot of them coming through.” 

Jonathan Afolabi suffered racist abuse following a Scottish Cup game. Picture: Matt Browne

Jonathan Afolabi suffered racist abuse following a Scottish Cup game. Picture: Matt Browne

Onwubiko, who played for Bray Wanderers and Athlone, came to Ireland as 12-year-old, and quickly made an impression on the football pitch.

He stood out then as the only black player in his team, but while he was an exception then, the thousands of families that followed his to Ireland in the early 2000s have ensured that is no longer the case.

From figures released in 2019, Nigerians represented the largest single African group in Ireland, and the second-largest non-EU section of migration into Ireland.

“Pre-2000, there was nothing here, in my time in school in Swords, I was the only black kid,” Onwubiko says. “They used to want to touch my hair, as if I was an alien.

“But since then, there's been an influx, and a lot of these players coming through now were born here. You'll see a lot more of the integration coming, the benefits will start paying off, when you see the Nigerian-born lads coming through.” 

Afolabi joins Michael Obafemi in those ranks, alongside the likes of West Ham's Mipo Odubeko, Derby's Festy Ebosele, and Man City's Gavin Bazunu.

There is no shortage of Nigerian surnames in the underage ranks, and Onwubiko admits the racism some face may have negative consequences for the Ireland team.

“It's definitely a danger, the Nigeria FA are ringing everyone,” he says. “They were doing that with me back when I played. There are definitely people jumping in their ears.

But these kids feel Irish as much as Nigerian.

“I hope most of them will want to wear the Irish jersey. I hope they would. Hopefully the racism doesn't affect them and make then not want to.

“I got a lot of racism, but I was strong enough to get on with it. The best way to shut people up is massive success and that drove me.

“They need to have that mindset too, if not they'll be like 'eff that, I can't be bothered' dealing with this.

“I felt welcome, and looked after even though there were negatives. I wore the Irish jersey with pride, I sang the whole anthem, I embraced it all.

“These kids feel the same. But people shouldn't take that for granted. If you make people feel at home...they'll just want to be part of it.” 

Though Onwubiko felt compelled to speak out in support of Afolabi, he insists that when a footballer suffers racist abuse, it's a sign that he's doing something good.

'You don't really get it unless you're playing well'

“I played for St Kevin's Boys and I was flying, scoring 30-40 goals a season,” he said.

“That's where I went to a tournament in Liverpool, and Man City came in for me after I scored something like 12 goals in five games.

But as a kid I got loads of abuse for that — it seems you don't really get it unless you're playing well. Nobody cares if you're terrible, they don't come at you unless you're doing well.

“I had players or parents saying stuff to slow me down.

“Once I was on international duty with a player, but when we went back to our clubs, we played one another and he told me to “f*ck off back to your own country”.

“So I say to young players now, you're doing well if you're getting that.

“It's not ideal, I want things to get better, but for now that's how I tell them to cope with it.”

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