He quickly rose up the ladder. He was 19. He spent half a season in dreamland, playing for Barcelona (98-99) under Louis van gaal. But then it all fell away.
Fierce competition, an injury, an eternal pilgrimage for something ‘invisible in football, a fire that left him with nothing and forced him to start over. Okunowo, today, 40 years old, is back thanks to the hand that the Fundació Barça Jugadors extended. Now he has a second opportunity with Barcelona.
Born in Ibadan (Nigeria) on March 1, 1979, Gbenga Samuel Okunowo is a fixture in the ABJ team and regularly attends events with clubs. He studied on the courses that are taught to former players, retains enviable physical fitness and collaborates in everything he can. He is admired and respected by his teammates.
In spite of the adversities he maintains his characteristic smile and good humour. “I am very grateful to the Agrupació for everything they have done for me. I’ve had a bad time for a while but it’s no use regretting it. The past is the past. Now I focus on the present. I have challenges ahead and I’m prepared to face them,” said Okunowo, happy and eager to continue with his life.
He joined Juande Ramos’s B-team in April 1997, after being trialled for a couple of weeks. He convinced the club, but for bureaucratic problems his signing was delayed until November, although he could not play because of his status as a non-EU player, and Barça B were in the Segunda B.
Okunowo will always be grateful to Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman gave him the opportunity to debut with the first team. “He always helped me. I owe him a lot. I trust myself. I always showed I was fast, smart, strong, open to learn … I talked to all the young people. He believed in us,” he says, not without a certain nostalgia.
He officially debuted on August 18, 1998 in the first leg of the Super Cup against Mallorca (2-1) at Luis Sitjar, along with Xavi, Cocu, Zenden and Luis García. The right back spot was his until the arrival of the De Boer twins in the winter window. His last appearance was against Betis (0-3) in Seville on January 17, 1999. There Okunowo disappeared after 21 games (1,408 minutes), 15 titles, 8 wins, 5 draws and 8 losses. His competitors, Reiziger and Ronald de Boer, blocked his way.
It was then that his loan spells arrived and he had to live the most bitter side of football. He went through “a good experience” at Benfica 1999-2000 (Portugal), where he signed his first professional goal and his performance led him to the Olympic Games in Sydney. When he returned, with Serra Ferrer on the Barca bench, he had no place in the squad.
In April 2001, he went on the operating table to overcome a chondral lesion of the left knee cartilage that had been dragging for some time and spent more than three months in the dry dock. He went to Ionikos (Greece) and there began the mess. The injury hurt Okunowo and he became a globetrotter to “feel like a football player again.” He went through Dinamo Bucharest (Romania), SK Tirana (Albania), Metalurh Donetsk – where he felt recovered – and Stal Alchevsk (Ukraine) and VB Sports Club (Maldives). During this time he trained and was tested by teams from Sweden and the Netherlands. And he did not reach an agreement with Aboomoslem (Iran).
He hung up his boots at the Sunshine Stars, in 2012, and in his country went through one of the worst moments of his life. A fire at a power plant affected his home in Abidan, and the flames took it all. He lost the house, his documents… “Everything, absolutely everything. The fire left nothing. It started about two in the morning and in just two hours everything burned down.” He lived through a nightmare and suffered something he never imagined, to get back on track.
The simplest things got complicated, like applying for a new passport. He survived thanks to his perseverance and helped several clubs in his country with advice, although with hardly any compensation. He grabbed onto Barça’s olive branch. The Fundació de la Agrupació held out their hand. He returned to Barcelona to start again 22 years later, now part of the Legends team.