From Peckham Town to the Super Eagles, Nigeria’s Tope Okeowo Still Yearns for a Professional Career

Teddy Cutler

It’s a balmy spring morning in Dulwich, southeast London, just past midday when a tall figure in a blue basketball cap strides up the long path leading to Peckham Town FC’s clubhouse. A coach wryly, affectionately, explains that the man in question keeps his own time, but today he is several hours early for a scheduled game.

Tope Okeowo is Peckham Town’s starting goalkeeper. He is also, as of Saturday March 25, one of the newest members of Nigeria’s senior football squad, the Super Eagles.

Those two facts might seem to jar, because Peckham Town is not accustomed to sending players up to international teams. It plays in the Kent County League Premier Division, the 11th rung of the English football league system. Its position is an artificial one, as promotion to a better standard has been continually prevented by facilities that do not match up to the English Football Association’s requirements, but this is a steep hill away from the relative glamour of professional football, let alone the Premier League. Peckham, named after the district a few miles to the north, is not even the biggest club in Dulwich. A little over two miles north is Dulwich Hamlet, which has attracted crowds of 3,000 and plays in the Isthmian League, two promotions away from league football.

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Peckham Town goalkeeper Tope Okeowo.

Peckham Town goalkeeper Tope Okeowo. The 28-year-old non-league player was called up to Nigeria's squad for friendlies against Senegal and Burkina Faso. Tope Okeowo/Peckham Town

To understand why and how Okeowo came to be here, aged 28, requires a comprehension of life’s—and especially football’s—tendency to hurl dreams in unpredictable directions.

“I was born in Lagos,” he explains. “But, you know, Lagos is a busy area. It’s a ghetto as well. When you are born in a certain area of Nigeria a lot of people expect you to become something in life. You have to choose, to say: I’m going to be good. Or would you rather be bad? You have to say, ‘I will step away from this kind of person.’ But I thank God I chose my way, to say: I want to become a footballer.”

He thanks God a lot as we sit in Peckham’s immaculately-kept home changing room—shorts and socks and training tops folded militarily, Okeowo’s bright pink goalkeeper’s jersey hung up for wearing later that afternoon on the wall.

It must have been hard to keep faith in the Almighty at times during his childhood in Nigeria. “It was really tough for me,” he says. “I was someone who didn’t have a daddy, you know, people didn’t want me to play football.”

Equipment was hard to come by, especially for a young boy who had decided he wanted to play in football’s most idiosyncratic position. Goalkeeping can be a lonely pursuit but on top of a curious kind of mental toughness it also requires special gloves and jerseys. “I really struggled for kit when I was back home,” he remembers. “It’s really tough for a lot of young players to have kit, to have money to go and buy football boots or to go and buy trainers, jerseys…”

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In teeming Lagos in the late 1990s, hardship mixed with hope and opportunity. “There is a big place in Lagos, a lot of big stars come there to play. They come from abroad and play there. I used to go there and watch football, I would train there as well. A lot of people saw me, they would encourage me. I tried there to move closer to the big goalkeepers. A lot of them encouraged me, giving me kit to use. Giving me boots to use.”

In Europe, meanwhile, Nigerians were prospering at the highest level. The FIFA 1998 World Cup squad was loaded with talent: Nwankwo Kanu, then briefly at Inter Milan before moving to Arsenal the following year; Celestine Babayaro at Chelsea. The jewel amongst them all, Jay-Jay Okocha, played for Fenerbahce and would transfer to Bolton Wanderers four years later, from Paris Saint-Germain.

“Yes, yes, I remember watching Jay-Jay Okocha. When he was playing for Bolton, when he was playing in Germany as well [for Frankfurt], I just wanted to see what he was doing on the ball. For me, as a goalkeeper, he’s one of the great Nigerian players. Any time you ask him to do something with the ball, he’s ready to do it.”

For a moment, singing drifts through the wall into the changing room as Okeowo recalls why he began playing in earnest. “I looked at the goalkeeper for Nigeria at that time, Peter Rufai. He was like a mentor to me, he really inspired me to say, ‘You know what, I love this man and I look forward to being like him.’ To represent my country in a crucial game where people would see me and say, ‘This is great.’”

In 2003, the 15-year-old Okeowo got his break. FIFA’s Under-17 World Championship was held in Finland that year, and he was noticed through a friendly game between the north and south of Nigeria, and picked in the Nigeria squad. FIFA’s records show Nigeria drew with Costa Rica, beat Australia and lost 1-0 to Argentina in its final group game.

Football’s paths can be forked and fickle. Three years later John Obi Mikel, the pulse and anointed star of that Nigeria team, was at Chelsea via a lengthy, messy dispute with Manchester United that eventually involved a complaint from United to FIFA. Mikel rode frequent managerial changes over the next decade and won a Champions League before departing for Tianjin TEDA in January.

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Okeowo, too, moved to England but began to fall through English football’s sieve-holes. “After 2003 an agent brought me to England and I said, ‘I’m not going back to Nigeria.’ Because it’s tough when you go back there. I wanted to stay in England and pursue my career. I wanted a better life.”

He says he was given bad advice by an agent brought over from Nigeria. “Things didn’t work out with the agent. They just dump you down, they want you to find a way. It’s tough, you understand?”

To Dulwich Hamlet, then, and a brief glimpse of English league football at Leyton Orient. George Bankole, a Nigerian goalkeeper turned coach who played for Queens Park Rangers in west London between 1998 and 2000, called him up. “Martin Ling [then Leyton Orient manager] said he really liked me in training. They wanted me to be the third-choice; the first choice was going to leave.”

Dulwich Hamlet and Orient could not work out an agreement, Okeowo says. Unable to return to Dulwich, he followed a friend to Potters Bar in Hertfordshire, north of London, then to Leyton FC, now defunct and unrelated to Orient. In 2011 another agent took him back to Finland, for trials with OPS Oulu who would have signed him but for a financial disagreement between agent and the club’s owner. Agent and player went to Malta, with the same result, until he returned to southeast London and Peckham. Okeowo took a sports science qualification at a local college and  married a Nigerian woman  in 2013 to—she is Igbo, while he is Yoruba, and speaks the language to his two young children.

Years passed and still he was a non-league player, sometimes relying on the financial support of those close to him so he could concentrate on his dream. “No player wants to play in non-league but you have to start somewhere,” Okeowo says. True enough, but he has been starting and starting again for 14 years now and to keep on starting and dreaming at 28 requires a special kind of fortitude.

Perhaps, then, the call in late March from the Nigerian Football Federation felt like a form of deliverance. “I was just thinking, lying on my bed, I want something good to happen in my life. Most of the time I am thinking of the future I want to give my little girl and boy. You need to think ahead, make something good happen in life. And the call just came in. I was really shocked, I couldn’t hold onto it.”

Nigeria had problems with all three goalkeepers it had brought on the two-match trip to London. Daniel Akpeyi was late arriving from South Africa, while Ikechukwu Ezenwa’s visa had been held up. Then Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Carl Ikeme went down with injury. As he had been in 2009, for Nigeria against Republic of Ireland at Fulham, Okeowo was the emergency call-up.

Just like in 2009,when Vincent Enyeama arrived from Israel just in time, Okeowo was released before the game against Senegal on March 23 when Akpeyi and Ezenwa made it to London. Twice potential international caps were whisked from his head, though he was back in Barnet, north London, the following Monday for the fixture against Burkina Faso that turned into Nigeria against Nigeria after seven Burkina Faso players failed to obtain visas.

But Okeowo is convinced that all the years spent crashing through the thickets of non-league football will be rewarded. “I believe I will become a professional footballer,” he says. “I want to work with the right people, the right agents. A lot of people will step in front of you, say they want this and that.

“My prayer is the right people at the right time will locate me and I will locate them. Because I leave the door open. I am a free agent at the moment. In the future, I am hopeful something good is going to happen. By God’s grace, my name is ringing bells and nobody can stop it.”

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