'I had to develop a thick skin': England's first black footballer Benjamin Odeje on encountering racism
Julia Gregory Local Democracy Reporter
- Credit: SEBASTIAN NEVOLS
“There were 70,000 fans at Wembley shouting and screaming ‘England’. We were waiting to walk onto the pitch. The nerves were such that if you were given the option not to go out and play you’d take it – but once the referee blows the whistle and there’s the first kick of the ball, all that disappears.”
Trailblazer Benjamin Odeje made history in 1971 when aged 15 he became the first black footballer to play for England at any level.
“I did not realise at the time… I was just going out to play football,” he said.
His leading role came 50 years after one of the first black players in the UK, Walter Tull, took a leading role for Spurs and Northampton Town before he was killed in the First World War.
Mr Odeje was called up to play for the England Schools Team as a striker and his first match was against Northern Ireland. They won 1-0.
“That was just like nothing else. We were over the moon,” he said.
He later played at the Berlin Olympic Stadium, where black athlete Jesse Owens sensationally took four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics.
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The tournament also took him to Stuttgart and the team faced Scotland, the Netherlands and Wales.
His story is one of the tales which features in the film ‘Eleven’ which shares Londoners’ love of the beautiful game.
It was commissioned by the Museum of London and the Greater London Authority to mark Euro 2020.
They include 101-year-old George Taylor, who was goalkeeper during the 1937-38 season with Cray Wanderers – London’s oldest club.
It also stars Helder Silva, who plays with Arsenal Amputees and Grenfell Athletic FC which puts bereaved and survivors of the West London fire through their paces.
The film also features Fleur Cousens, founder of Goaldiggers – a not for profit club that makes football accessible for all women and non-binary people, and The St Matthews Project, a safe and encouraging environment which has helped young people in Lambeth fulfil their potential through football for almost two decades.
Football-mad Odeje had played since he was a young child back home in Nigeria. When his family moved to England when he was 10, it helped him make friends near his home in New Cross.
“I would kick the balls against the wall at the back of the flats and that was my training ground for me arriving in England and I joined the school team,” he said.
“Football has been my life ever since I can remember.”
The 65-year-old father of four now runs Atlantic Sports Development soccer school at Queen’s Park.
After his football career, he took an access course for mature students at Paddington College in Westminster before gaining a degree at university in Plymouth and teaching qualification. Following a career as a PE teacher in secondary schools he still works as a supply teacher when called on.
One pupil told him he had opened the doors for a succession of black players including John Barnes and Raheem Sterling.
“My pupil told me ‘if you hadn’t been around, none of these guys would have done it, you’re a legend,’” he explained.
Sadly he has had to endure racism and said the incidents were “too many to mention”. He’s had bananas thrown at him. His response – to eat half and throw the rest in the direction it came from.
“That used to make me play even better,” he said.
“It will never be eradicated,” he added, but believes it comes from ignorance and aims to be a role model by showing young players how to excel and focus on their sport.
“I just had to develop a thick skin and not let it worry me so much as it would affect my game.
He also encourages players to report racism so it can be challenged.
However, he said football is powerful and can break down barriers, uniting people.
The film screenings take place daily, every 20 minutes in the Museum of London’s Ellipse Hall. Entrance is free.