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'They were just like: "You can’t make the team. You have to be an Irish citizen’"

Wexford Youths player Vanessa Ogbonna on her experiences in relation to race and football.

Vanessa Ogbonna was part of Wexford Youths' FAI Cup-winning squad last season.
Vanessa Ogbonna was part of Wexford Youths' FAI Cup-winning squad last season.
Image: Mick O'Shea/Women's Soccer Photos

IDENTITY AND RACE are topics most footballers in Ireland don’t have to think too much about. For Vanessa Ogbonna, though, these issues are an intrinsic part of her life.

Born in Nigeria, before moving with her family to Waterford around the age of six, Ogbonna and current Wexford Youths team-mate Aisling Frawley played with local side Tramore in their early teens and caught the eye during that period, earning a call-up to the Ireland U15s squad ahead of an away trip to England.

“They said to everyone in the dressing room on the day: ‘I hope everyone’s passports are good to go.’ I didn’t know much about immigration. But I knew well enough I wasn’t born in Ireland. So I was like: ‘There’s nothing wrong with my passport, but I will need a visa to get to England.’ I didn’t know that, obviously, a visa takes time.

So literally in the middle of training at the AUL, halfway through at dinner, I just saw the coach and my dad walk over. They were just like: ‘Can we talk to you? You can’t make the team. You have to be an Irish citizen.’ 

“After three weeks of travelling up and down to Dublin, it’s great to know on the last day. So that was a horrible experience. Every year, at the Gaynor Cup, it was: ‘Do you have your passport?’ ‘No, no. I’m not an Irish citizen yet, sorry.’

“Because of that, it made me not really care for the sport anymore.

“So I just took a break.”

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image0 Ogbonna pictured competing for Wexford Youths.

Growing up, Ogbonna’s idol was Steven Gerrard.

“I was a big Liverpool fan, but my upbringing was very much Irish culture. I had my issues with identity and understanding where I’m from. My family and I were very much welcomed in our community in Tramore, especially because we played sports, that broke a lot of barriers. 

“The micro aggressions that I did experience were easily brushed off, because I didn’t understand them really. I didn’t know they were happening at the time.

“So I grew up not understanding these issues. And at the time, I didn’t look for black role models. As I got older, I understood that I lacked that and I found that understanding and connection to the black and African community. It’s not until you grow up that you understand the importance of having people that look like you in different spaces.

“If all that’s portrayed of people that look like you is negative, you will start to believe that all you are made to do in this world is negative and all you can provide is negative.’” 

Part of Ogbonna’s response to this issue was to set up a podcast/YouTube series, heyitsmenesser (you can check it out here). She had also been inspired by the fact that Ireland was one of just four countries that had a dedicated black history month, yet “no one was doing anything. The majority of people didn’t know about it.” 

She continues: “I had a couple of friends who actually made history in Ireland — Brandon Arrey, the sprinter, another friend of mine who does MMA, there’s Blessing, she technically would be the first black African to play for Ireland [women], and then a lot of my friends are artists. So I was like, I don’t really have to look far to see the progress of black people in Ireland.

So it’s just having a conversation with my friends and you can see from the quality of videos that it was very much spontaneous and it was more just talking to people to give a positive influence for other black kids. I never grew up with anyone [that looked like me] on TV.”  

There were other issues for Ogbonna and her family after moving to Ireland. Though she hasn’t “received a lot of overt racism,” she has experienced “inherent micro aggressions”.

She explains: “To be honest, it’s something that happens every day. It’s hard to explain to white people that it’s actually racism.

“Here’s a perfect example. My family moved from one side of Waterford to the other. The estate is a predominantly white neighbourhood and would be pretty affluent. I remember when my mum moved here, the neighbours would be nice, coming over, helping out.

“In conversation, it just came up that they asked my mum about ownership of the property. When the individual realised my mum wasn’t renting and actually bought the house, their demeanour changed and it was almost like they were surprised that she could afford something in this type of neighbourhood.

“There was also a Romanian family that moved in to one of the council houses at the end of the street. Their kids were not really welcomed by the other kids first of all. You could kind of tell in the demeanour of people in the estate that they were looking down on them. I don’t think they lasted six months there.

“It wasn’t people with pitchforks saying stuff and writing the ‘n’ word on their home, but they weren’t welcomed.

“When more of a minority live in an area, it actually brings down the value of your home. So while people in the estate might not be overtly racist, they’re not happy that these people are moving in here, because now their house doesn’t cost as much.”

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aisling-frawley Ogbonna grew up playing with current Wexford Youths team-mate Aisling Frawley. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The Ireland setback threatened to derail Ogbonna’s career. When she eventually returned to soccer and joined Cork City while doing a degree at UCC, she was no longer at the level she had been, with peers quickly developing while she was stuck in limbo.

“I was just so far behind them,” she remembers. “I would have been overweight, my touch was crazy. So that kind of made me a bit more driven. 

“So I was just like: ‘There’s no way I can be in the same system and the same country as them, with less resources, and get to that level.’”

Ogbonna consequently opted to move to America in August 2014. She balanced soccer and a wellness and health promotion degree with a minor in psychology at Michigan-based Oakland University. 

“I was overweight and unfit for Women’s National League, and I was 100% worse in America.

“So it’s a miracle I got a full scholarship to a Division One school. I don’t really know how that happened, but I’m thankful regardless.

“By the end of that year, I was starting to get fit. We won the championship, so it was cool, a great experience.

“And then, I decided I needed to get fitter. I played my first 90 minutes in post-season and five days later, I tore my ACL. 

The whole process of rehab takes a toll mentally. But it was probably one of the best things that’s ever happened to me with regards to the outcome of it, being able to become a stronger person and player.”

After returning from the US, Ogbonna’s initial instinct was to quit football.

“In America, the mentality once you’ve hit college is that that’s your prime. If you don’t make it to the draft, then ‘don’t plan on being a professional football player’.

“I was in a relationship at the time and I hadn’t had time to be a normal person and not be an athlete ever. So I was like: ‘I’m kind of sick of this whole training every day of my life kind of thing.’”

Ultimately though, her old friend Frawley persuaded a reluctant Ogbonna to come training with Wexford Youths. Despite the initial feelings of scepticism, she has barely looked back since.

It was a mixed first campaign for her last year. There was disappointment in the league, as they finished well behind champions Peamount. Nevertheless, a positive end to the season saw Wexford triumph in the FAI Cup final, though Ogbonna had to be content with a place on the bench for that memorable day at the Aviva.

This year, there is seemingly greater pressure. Ireland international Rianna Jarrett’s departure to Brighton has left a void up front. So along with fellow attackers Blessing Kingsley, Lauren Kelly and Ellen Molloy, Ogbonna will be aiming to compensate for the loss of their star player.

A decent start saw them win their first two games, before last weekend losing to another team expected to challenge for the title — Shelbourne. The 24-year-old, who balances football with work in a Waterford-based call centre, started on all three occasions, scoring in the 4-1 win over Bohs and providing the assist for the only goal in the victory away to Athlone.

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“Terrible” is the word that springs to mind when Ogbonna reflects on the various violent race-related incidents that have occurred over the past few months and which have inspired football and other sports to demonstrate their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ogbonna’s current pinned tweet is a picture of her kneeling before a game, accompanied by the words: “Not just a couple seconds. It’s my life.”

“We weren’t surprised, this stuff happens every day,” she says. “It’s literally still happening. What’s surprising is the blatant disregard for human life in the face of cameras. It comes from a certain place where you know your privilege is going to get you through, even when there’s evidence there. It’s just [always] been happening. I don’t know what was different with [the George Floyd tragedy]. It definitely struck a chord, brought a lot of us together. Because when you see a black person being murdered in a situation where there’s not a crime, it just makes you think that that could be you at any stage. It’s not dramatic to think that, because it literally could be.

It just took me back to when I was thinking where I wanted to go to college in America. My first five options were very deep south. The fact that I had to think of my safety, not as regards the normal things that every teenager has to think about, but whether or not I will be treated a certain way because of my skin colour and may have to put certain opportunities on hold because of this. That became very real for me and I was just thankful that I didn’t have a lot of those experiences when I was in America. Sport shields you from a lot of things.

“And it’s just something that becomes a bit more hurtful [the more you see it] and then you feel the obligation to fight for your people and fight for yourself. When people are hitting back with you saying: ‘Oh, this is nonsense. Don’t be dramatic. People aren’t racist. What do you mean?’ Or people are trying to justify the killing, when nobody in the world has the right to kill you. A lot of those things were terrible initially, then it was great seeing the uproar collectively and seeing the little kind of spark that it brought.

“It was a bit draining, because you just woke up every day and you were essentially fighting, whether it was mentally with yourself or with trolls. Just having to realise that these people are not using their real name on their Twitter accounts, so they obviously know that what they’re saying is not correct.

“You’re battling with: ‘Do I want to educate more white people? Why is this falling on me? Why do I have to put up with it once again?’ It just getting a bit of hope that stuff will happen. And then everything we do is being hit with a backlash of: ‘Oh, people don’t care.’ And people completely missing the mark.

“You just want to see justice and then you question what actually is justice, in this case, and there are a lot of questions all the time.”

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kylie-murphy-lifts-the-so-hotels-fai-womens-cup Wexford Youths celebrate winning the FAI Cup last year. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

As regards football and specifically the Women’s National League choosing to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement by kneeling prior to games, Ogbonna takes a nuanced view on the matter.

“The hope that we had with the protests just kind of diminished when we saw nothing was happening. It’s great that people were able to show support for Black Lives Matter. But it’s a lot more than a photo op. And that’s my biggest issue. I get it. They’re going to be watching this sport. But what are we actually doing outside of this sport? Awareness is nothing without action. We can make everyone aware that this is an issue, but what are we actually changing?

“If someone was to call me the ‘n’ word on the pitch, are they actually going to get sent off? Or are we going to brush it off as ‘banter’? If someone throws a banana, or calls me a monkey, what’s actually going to happen? I’ve had friends who’ve been in situations like that. The ref has been there. It’s been heard by everyone. And for someone to tell you ‘it’s just a joke,’ while wearing a ‘show racism the red card’ armband, it’s very ironic.

It’s one of those things you have to weigh up. Even that game against Athlone, it was the first time that I’ve had to do it and the second you were told in the dressing room we were going to do this for Black Lives Matter, the first question was: ‘Does everyone actually agree with that? Me and Blessing are the only two black people here. You can’t tell me that someone in this room doesn’t agree or doesn’t understand, if given the opportunity, would not actually kneel.’

“So that’s when I got a bit frustrated. It is extremely performative. ‘Do people actually understand what they’re kneeling for, or are we all just being sheep?’ I even said to [Wexford Youths manager] Tom Elmes: ‘I don’t want to think about that.’ I shouldn’t have to think about that for the first 10 minutes of a game.

“Realistically, there are no answers for these things. It’s a great gesture. Obviously, it’s great that people are willing to do it. But it seems a little bit like a trend. And at the same time, if they didn’t stand up for it and they didn’t show solidarity, would I be happy with that as well? All of these thoughts come into your head, while just trying to live and get through the whole thing.

“It’s something I don’t ever think we’re going to have the answer for, but I do understand that we are getting places with actually being able to have the conversation. Ireland is notorious for brushing over not just racism, but all things that aren’t easy.”

She continues: “This is the thing with racism — because you don’t know how people are going to react, you have to always put your beliefs aside. I personally didn’t want to kneel. I wanted to have a conversation about it first. But at the same time, I didn’t know how people were going to take that in the dressing room. I didn’t know if people would be like: ‘Aww, let’s talk about this later.’ I hate that I didn’t say something in the meantime, but you always have to think about how you deal with racism. Unfortunately, we can’t ever just say what we mean, because it’s always just taken the wrong way.

“Someone gets defensive and doesn’t always accept what you’re saying at face value. It’s like: ‘Oh, you’re calling me a racist.’ 

“Stuff has happened before where it’s [a matter of]: ‘Do I address this issue now for the greater good of the team, or for football, or just get through this day and I’ll deal with it after.’ I’ve actually had to take that [latter] option more than actually dealing with it.

“I didn’t do anything [for the Athlone game], I just spoke to Tom after the match and was like: ‘Look, it just felt more of an act to me. I don’t care if we do it, but I just would like to know our stance on it.’

“I just want to understand that we’re doing it for the right reasons. If not, then it’s not something I can be part of. As the team with the only two black girls, I would expect a bit more.

“Tom was very understanding and definitely kind of agreed. We talked about it and he asked me: ‘Do you not want it in there?’ I explained what I’m explaining now, that it’s very hard to answer that question. But as a team, we kind of just agreed on it, knowing where we stand.”

Appointing people from minority backgrounds to positions of power in sport is one potential step in the right direction, though Ogbonna simultaneously emphasises that tokenism must be avoided.

“If you look at the demographics of the people in charge of the FAI, there’s no way they know how to target minority communities,” she adds. “It’s not their fault. If you’re not a minority, you’re not going to understand.

“But is there an effort at grassroots level to promote these things? And at the same time, it’s like: is it football’s job?”

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rianna-jarrett Ogbonna is hoping to help fill the void in attack after Ireland international Rianna Jarrett, pictured above, left for Brighton earlier this year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ogbonna still dreams of one day representing Ireland. For now though, her main focus is on starting and scoring consistently for Wexford Youths.

As the conversation draws to a close, the debacle with her visa is reflected upon further.

“I am an Irish citizen now and I have been since I was 18. So it would have been three or four years after that happened. It’s weird, because I’ve always just brushed over that situation. I don’t know whether it was intentionally or unintentionally. The way I’ve always thought is I was the first African black girl that they would ever have to deal with. There were the likes of Rianna and Rebecca Carroll — both of their parents were Jamaican, and English and Irish. That’s kind of a no-brainer. 

“African countries are never really looked on the same way. So I would have preferred if there was a bit more understanding there. 

“It’s hard, because from a white point of view, you may be thinking: ‘Is asking this question too sensitive?’ But they’re questions that need to be asked.

Where you’re from is definitely going to be important when you’re playing for your country. Asking these questions, asking about your status [is important]. Because it was very heartbreaking to know that my ability wasn’t what stopped me. To this day, I’d much rather someone had come and said: ‘Oh, you’re shit.’ That would have been something for me to work with.

“Aisling was the one that sat down with me and she was like: ‘Shit Nessa, I’ve been thinking about that day a lot. A lot more should have been done.’ I don’t think anyone should have gone knocking down the embassy for me. But asking me every year at the Gaynor Cup whether I was an Irish citizen or not is definitely not [appropriate].

“At the same time, I was very young. Maybe, it wasn’t that important and if it was the senior team, and they really wanted me [it could have been different], but I definitely have seen cases of people fighting for players that aren’t technically born here.

“I don’t want to speak for them, because there was no malice in the way that they dealt with me. I think it was more ignorance and just not understanding. And not only in football, I think in everything, that needs to be [improved]. Because of the diversity of kids that are coming up, it needs to be understood that not everyone has the same situation.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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