He could once count Xavi, Luís Figo, Rivaldo and Luis Enrique amongst his teammates but Gbenga Samuel Okunowo was never quite in their league at Barcelona. This affable Nigerian, who also played for Benfica and at international level, even now, could walk just about anywhere in the world and no one would give him a second glance.
He arrived into this world on 1 March 1979 in Ibadan, Nigeria and was born to play football, taking his first tentative steps in the sport whilst still at nursery school. When others were interested in a dizzying array of other activities, Okunowo would seek solace and comfort with a ball.
Its power was magnetic and more often than not, the youngster would take the ball to bed with him. They were inseparable. Even after he had completed his primary school education, no one could come between him and his prized possession. The parents at African Grammar School in Oyo State would laugh amongst themselves but Gbenga’s parents were more than happy that their son had somewhere to channel all of that youthful energy.
Their encouragement in the very earliest stages of his life and his formative years would play a huge part later on, but a professional career was far from the minds of everyone at that stage, least of all Gbenga himself.
He was quite good, mind. He knew it and so did all of the local kids. Makeshift pitches were formed whenever and wherever the mood took everyone, and as Gbenga got older and stronger, it was clear that all those hours of practice hadn’t gone to waste.
Spotted playing for his school, he was approached by Liberty Boys Club, a team who had something of a reputation for playing good football. It was the first real chance for everyone to understand how good the player was. And boy he was good. A strong, quick right-back, it was a rarity for him to be beaten down his flank. With pace to burn, he often would take the game to his opponent, helping out in attack whenever possible.
Exide Sparkers, amongst many others, had been made aware of his talent, and being in a higher division, their interest meant that what had been an enjoyable hobby was beginning to turn into something a little more serious. By now 15 years of age, Okunowo’s schooling was of paramount importance to a family of little means, but the tones in which their son was discussed by knowledgeable local football men, led his parents to believe that they should give him the best possible chance at sporting success.
A dip in his schoolwork was to be expected but unlike so many others before him, a dip in his form on the pitch never came. Just before the World Youth Championship in Ecuador in 1995, he had come to national attention, and his rise could not have been better timed as he was picked to join the under-17s in what was an ultimately unsuccessful tournament, but one in which a lot of positives were taken away. Not least for Gbenga himself.
Shooting Stars Sports Club of the Nigerian Professional Football League were only interested in the very best, and at 16, he now fitted into that bracket. His consistently high level of performance had turned him into something of a prodigy, and a local hero to boot.
Now people were turning up to games to watch him – to see what all of the fuss was about. It was blindingly obvious to anyone with half a football brain that the boy had talent, for he stood, metaphorically and physically, head and shoulders above the rest. Always in peak physical condition, the youngster had never lost a game to injury. Though it would author his later career, he was flying in his late teens and was called up at 18 by the Nigerian under-20 selectors – the most pivotal decision in his career.
The 1997 UEFA-CAF Meridian Cup was played in Portugal and Okunowo would have a starring role. Africa was well represented in the tournament with Ghana, Ivory Coast and Guinea in the eight-team competition alongside Greece, France and Spain as well as hosts Portugal.
Though the young Super Eagles would only qualify second from their group, ceding top spot in Group B to an excellent Greek side, a 2-0 victory over Portugal saw them into the final against a Spain team which included Xavi within its ranks. A five-goal thriller was edged by Nigeria 3-2, with Okunowo one of the best players on the pitch.
Barcelona’s staff, at the tournament ostensibly to keep tabs on young Xavi, had seen enough. Like so many before them, the Nigerian right-back had them in his thrall. Less than an hour after the final had concluded, Barcelona made their move, introducing themselves and inviting Okunowo for a week’s trial.
With a still-supportive family right behind him, it was an easy decision to make and Gbenga made his way to Catalonia and a short tenure at La Masia, then located right next door to the Camp Nou.
A period of adaptation was expected and with that in mind, a second week’s trial was given. Before it was up the decision had been made: Gbenga Samuel Okunowo had made the big time, Barça paying Shooting Stars £14,000 for his services. Not long afterwards, Xavi would graciously introduce himself as one of the members of the Spanish side that Nigeria had beaten weeks before. It was the first sign of the sportsmanship and conduct that Barça expect of their players.
Signed to the B team, it would only take the Nigerian a season to force his way into first-team reckoning, Louis van Gaal handing him a squad number for the 1997/98 campaign.
He would make debut at the start of the following season, in August 1998, against Racing Santander, lasting 76 minutes of a tough 0-0 draw before being replaced by Roger García. If playing just behind Phillip Cocu and Luís Figo down the right side fazed him, Okunowo certainly didn’t show it. It was a great start.
With Van Gaal tinkering tactically and with personnel, replacing Figo on 82 minutes against Extremadura was a feather in Gbenga’s cap on his second, shorter outing. His first El Clásico at the Bernabéu saw another sub appearance, this time on the hour for Bolo Zenden, and, more importantly, it was also his third game without defeat.
In fact, he wouldn’t be on the losing side until his ninth match, but then lost four on the spin. With 21 appearances to his name including six as a sub, there was one, clear, standout moment. Marking Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole in a Champions League match against Manchester United which ended 3-3 was by far the biggest game of his career.
A reasonable end to his first season promised much but Van Gaal evidently had time to reflect over the summer, and given the Dutch bias in the Barça team at that time, it was clear that the coach preferred Michael Reizeger in the right-back slot. With nowhere to go professionally at the club, Gbenga had no option but to accede to a loan move to Benfica.
With less than 10 appearances to his name in Portugal, it’s fair to say that things didn’t work out the way anyone would’ve wanted so Van Gaal recalled the player after he had represented Nigeria at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Determined to fight for his place, Gbenga suffered a cruel blow, injuring his knee so badly that it required surgery. It took so long to heal that he was again loaned out, this time to Spanish second-tier outfit, Badajoz.
Unable to prove his fitness, he didn’t play a single game and Barcelona eventually decided to cut their losses and sold the player to Greek side Ionikos. It was about this point when Gbenga began to realise the harsh realities of life as a professional footballer. With knees that were shot to pieces, he could never get fit enough again to make a real impression.
Over the course of the next six years, he would try his luck in as far-flung places as the Maldives (VB Sports Club), Albania (KF Tirana) and Ukraine (Stal and Metalurh Donetsk), not to mention Dinamo Bucharest, Vilanova del Camí from the Spanish amateur league, Odra Wodzisław from Poland, and both Northwich Victoria and Waltham Forest from non-league in England, some eight steps below the Premier League.
From the time he joined Ionikos to the time he had left Waltham Forest, he’d played less than 20 games in eight years. It’s a miracle that Sunshine Stars would then take a risk on a 33-year-old with the knees of someone twice his age, but he was still a big draw in the locale. A boy made good.
Thirty times he managed to drag his sorry frame around the pitch before it all became too much and he retired from the sport at 34.
Just as his football career was petering out in 2012, his house in Ibadan burned down and Gbenga lost everything. There was nothing left of his property once the fire had taken hold, all of his trophies, memories, medals and papers detailing his career were lost, not to mention his passport, clothing and other valuables.
Fortunately, Barcelona were on hand to help out their old player after an online appeal alerted the Catalans to Gbenga’s plight. In his hour of need, his prayers were answered.
Now his situation has turned full circle. As a scout of some renown, he has a keen eye for talent and a moral compass that is focussed on bringing through the right type of Nigerian superstar. He hasn’t hit the jackpot just yet but his spirit, desire and will to succeed should ensure that Gbenga Samuel Okunowo is a name we’ll hear more about in the future.
By Jason Pettigrove @jasonpettigrove