BRITS ARE OFTEN PERCEIVED as having an island mentality, an insular view of oneself no doubt exacerbated by the unexpected Brexit vote last June. Another characteristic of island mentality is the perception of superiority, a widely held opinion when it comes to English football.
The Premier League, so the marketers and fan boys tell us, is the best in the world; the richest, the most exciting, the only league in the world where the worst can beat the best on any given day.
Due to this perception, the vast amounts of money on offer in English football, and almost six divisions of full-time clubs, Brits travelling abroad to ply their trade is a rare occurrence. For David Olaoye – the first Englishman to sign a professional contract with an Argentine club, following spells in Greece and Slovenia – it has almost become a way of life.
David Olaoye was born in London in October 1996, just months after England hosted the European Championships where football nearly “came home” before the dream was cruelly and predictably ended by Germany on penalties. Olaoye attended the Stratford School Academy – located in East London less than three miles from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – finishing his secondary education in 2013, one year after the showpiece sporting event was hosted on home soil.
Olaoye represented the Junior Hammers and Elite Pro Sports FC at football, citing coach Lester Thomas in particular as being key in his development as a young player. His twin brother, Daniel, is also a professional footballer and is currently forging a career in Sweden where he represents Nordvärmlands FF.
Olaoye’s link with Elite Pro Sports FC also afforded him exposure to football figures such as Kostas Kiassos, a Greek footballer whose professional career has spanned almost a quarter of a century. “Kiassos brought me to Greece and got me to sign with AO Tympakiou. It was a good experience playing in Greece, I learned a lot,” Olaoye says of his time in Greece.
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After six months with AO Tympakiou, another improbable six-month spell, in Slovenia with NK Bravo, with whom he signed for in January 2017, followed. “I didn’t get much luck in Slovenia because I spent four months out with a ligament injury,” recalls Olaoye. “I don’t think it was right for my development but both moves were good experiences and introduced me to the real world of football,” he adds.
Searching for opportunities relatively close to home in Europe is one thing, but his next move was far from predictable. It took him to South America, making him the first Englishman to sign a professional contract with an Argentine club.
As has been well-publicised, the relationship between Britain and Argentina can be fractious, characterised by peaks and troughs throughout history. After the initial falling out over a certain set of islands in the South Atlantic, Brits were a key part of Argentina’s immigration boom in the latter part of the 19th century. Liberal economic policies saw the Argentine railway network sold to private British investors, a move which angered locals. The number of British workers swelled to an estimated 45,000 in 1890, with the new arrivals creating schools, hospitals, newspapers, and businesses.
Like with many other countries where the tentacles of the far from altruistic British Empire reached, football was also a gift to the locals, with a Scot credited as being behind the creation of the first football association on the South American continent. Relations soured in 1948 when President Juan Domingo Perón nationalised industries and services key to the Argentine economy, including the British-owned railways.
In 1982 the Falklands Islands – a British Overseas Territory whose sovereignty is contested by Argentina where they are known as the Malvinas – were invaded by Argentina’s military junta in an attempt to keep their brutal and flailing regime afloat.
Despite these grievances, British visitors to Argentina will often be surprised by the warm welcome. The 1982 conflict plays a huge part in the national psyche and identity, instilled in youngsters from an early age by the national education system. However, many of the younger generation are indifferent, or at least able to separate British travellers from historic governmental decisions. Today’s Argentine youth have also grown up with a more inclusive world view, aided by movies, music, sport, and travel.
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Football fans are routinely at the more extreme end of the political spectrum, and it would be naive not to expect some to associate Olaoye with the country of his birth. However, fans also rally around their own and are often more supportive and protective in the face of abuse from rival fans. “I’ve been treated really well and everywhere I go the people are friendly,” says Olaoye of his positive experiences so far in Argentina. “My teammates are very friendly, it’s like a family here which makes me feel very comfortable and has allowed me to settle in quickly which I’m glad about” he continues.
The teammates he talks of are from his new employers, Club El Porvenir. The club’s home stadium, which was inaugurated in 1971 and holds a modest 15,000, is located in Gerli, a district squeezed in between Lanús and Avellaneda in Buenos Aires province, less than 10 kilometres south of the capital’s downtown.
Buenos Aires is saturated with football clubs, with the city and its suburbs currently home to 13 of Argentina’s 28 top flight teams, not to mention dozens more in the lower leagues. Several of those – including grandes Racing and Independiente, Arsenal de Sarandí, Lanús, Quilmes, Club Atlético Temperley and Banfield – are in close proximity to El Porvenir’s home.
The saturation of local clubs perhaps explains Porve’s somewhat modest existence since their founding in 1915. The club has occasionally appeared in Argentina’s second tier during its long history, although most of their experience further down the pyramid. Amongst their honours are two Primera C titles and two Primera B Metropolitana titles, the most recent coming in 1998.
In 2016 Porve won the Primera D, Argentina’s fifth tier, and last season missed out on a second successive promotion after failing in the playoffs. As a result, they will compete this season once again in the Primera C, the fourth tier of Argentine football, with a view to going one better than in the last campaign.
Whilst it seems a strange move to many, Olaoye’s attitude to new challenges is refreshing. “I spoke with my representative about coming to Argentina and how I wanted to play in South America because I really believe I can flourish there,” says the Englishman confidently about the roots of his move to Argentina in the summer of 2017.
Olaoye prefers to occupy an advanced left-sided position where he can use his pace and trickery to beat defenders in one-on-one situations and drive into the box, a style that should be popular with Argentine fans. “My favourite player is Neymar so I’m always trying to take bits from his game to add to mine, and I always learn a lot when watching him.”
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The confident youngster is under no illusions that the transition to Argentine football will be easy, though, declaring his opinion that the football is much more physical and strong in South America than it is in Europe. “I will have to make sure I am physically and mentally 110 percent ready for the football in Argentina.”
A factor habitually overlooked by football fans when examining the success of overseas players is the difficulty of adapting off the pitch, which can be significantly more troublesome than what happens once they cross the white line. Football is a universal language and although there is an obvious linguistic barrier in the early stages of such a move, he is trying to learn and has noticed huge improvements in his ability to communicate since his arrival.
Since the advent of the internet and budget air travel, the world has become a much smaller place. The spread of knowledge, scouting networks and contacts make such moves to Greece, Slovenia and Argentina possible and are now more commonplace in modern football. Young players, such as the Olaoye twins, now have the option now to eschew the traditional academy route by accepting risky but potentially life-changing and rewarding challenges outside of the British Isles.
The recent move of 17-year-old Jadon Sancho, who left Manchester City and joined Borussia Dortmund for £8 million without kicking a ball at first-team level, is indicative of the bravery and curiosity of the new generation of young footballers.
Despite Olaoye’s wanderlust, his ambitions are to return home once he’s experienced what foreign football has to offer. “My dream for the future is to play at the highest level possible and it would be an honour to represent either England or Nigeria at international level. To play for Manchester United, Arsenal, or any of the top teams in England or Europe would be a dream come true.”
Only time will tell whether or not David Olaoye reaches his goals, although his drive and determination, not to mention his willingness to take the unconventional and exotic route to the top, is wholly refreshing. In an era where the big clubs are stockpiling youngsters at the detriment to their development, the 20-year-old has packed his passport and football boots and taken a leap of faith. “It was a big risk coming to Argentina, but I believe risks always lead to success.”
With an attitude like that it’s hard to bet against him succeeding and it’s sure to be an intriguing ride. The question is now: how many more young British footballers will follow in his footsteps?
By Dan Williamson