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Meet Lola

Lola Ogunbote

British-Nigerian football professional and altruist Lola Ogunbote shares her experience growing up in an immigrant family and learning how to follow your heart rather than your head.

Lola Ogunbote

I've lived in London since the age of two when my family immigrated from Nigeria seeking a better life. The majority of my life has been London based. When I was much younger, we lived in East London which, during the 80s, was typically a place that people wanted to avoid. There was high crime, high unemployment and a lot of poverty. When my parents moved there, we were one of the very few black families in our neighbourhood. Because of the social-economic status of the area, there wasn't really much to do for kids. I realised very early on that if I wanted to make friends it would be playing sports in the local park. And since this was England, the sport was football. Football is the biggest sport that's played here in England, and so you would often find kids in a park with, like, two jumpers on the floor and a football. The jumpers would be the goalposts and we would just play. Anyone could play, anyone could join. I remember being one of the very few people of colour, and definitely, the only girl that would be found playing in a field full of boys - that theme has continued throughout my life. In football, I made friends and then it was just fun! 

My name is Lola Ogunbote, and the reason why I’m choosing a football as my object is because the game of football has been one of the most consistent things in my life. Football has been the tool through which I have been able to learn life's challenges and also earn a living. It's been a tool to teach me about my character, resilience, talents and skills. There's just so much discipline that the sport gives. I wouldn't be where I am without it. Second to my religious beliefs, football is my life. I love it. So, that is the object of my affection.

I’m always very careful about how I articulate this because I'm not a parent and I don't know what it means to have the full responsibility of a child. I think one thing to make clear, and I shouldn't speak for everybody, is that when you have immigrant parents who have sacrificed so much to give their child or children a better start in life, you often find that their focus is all about educational success. My parents had no interest in my football development, and I say that not in a spiteful way, but it just wasn't their focus. They were about academic excellence. So me playing football was like, “it's just great that she's keeping fit.” I don’t think they understood the depth of the talent that I had at that age and where that could take me. To this day, I don't think they’ve ever watched or been to a game. And that's not because they don't care, it’s because it just wasn't the priority. While I understand that, it was very much a lonely journey.

Football became my escapism. No one else was involved; my siblings didn't play, my parents weren't really keen to watch games, so it was like Lola's escapism world. It was a space for me to unwind and express myself without words and be free. It's taught me discipline, it's taught me how to win, how to lose, how to respect authority, to keep time. It's giving me the discipline that I use in my life. So, that's kind of why I love it as much as I do.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, though. I was pretty much a tomboy when I was younger so my mum thought, for the longest time, that I just had a funny walk because of that. But she's a nurse and so she started to pick up that there was something wrong with my back and that my shoulder blades were not even. She arranged for a visit to the doctor. Immediately I was referred to emergency surgery because I had a very severe case of scoliosis.

At 15, my only concern was how I was going to continue playing sport. But for my parents, it was a lot more severe. At that time, I had a school friend whose scoliosis was a lot more severe than mine but required the same surgery. He ended up going to the same hospital, the same surgeon and passed away. So we, as a family, were then faced with having to decide whether or not to send me to do this same surgery, given what happened to my classmate. We were very prayerful about it and decided that it was still the best thing for me to do. We went into the surgery, and it didn't go as planned. I had to have a blood transfusion. It was very complex, but we made it through the surgery.

I remember, just as they were about to put me under the general anaesthetic, I was panicking and they were trying to calm me down and they were like, “What's your favorite football team?” They had literally given me general anaesthetic, and apparently, I said, “Arsenal Football Club” and I was out. Can you imagine that your last words were “Arsenal Football Club”?  It wasn't even like, “Mum, I love you” it was, “Arsenal Football Club”. That's how much I just love the sport.

And then there was the recovery. I did not anticipate the emotional toll that surgery can have on you. The recovery was 18 months. I had to relearn how to walk, how to run, how to pull on my shoes. I was also in the ugliest body brace for two years which was designed to have a football on it. I think I was probably depressed because I was just watching all of my other friends progress to scholarships and pursue football and accolades, except for me. I was in the prime of my life but could not participate in sport. It left me, at that time, very bitter. I remember just looking at my sister and just breaking down into tears and crying. With knowledge and hindsight, I know now that it was depression and anxiety. But at the time there were no words really to put on what I was feeling.

I think when you talk about Nigerian culture and my native tongue, there isn't a word for depression. To the extent to which it's not even recognised. It's not even really spoken about. Nigerians are very much anti-anything that's negative. But of course we experience it. And so whilst I had these feelings, it was also a problem that I was unable to articulate them. I think that came from the fact that one, I just didn't know what it was, and two, it wasn't in my nature to know what it was either. 

But, on the other hand, what a life lesson. And what a privilege, given the situation of my school friend, that I'm alive and here. So that in itself has been a journey and one that will continue to be a valuable lesson to me when I'm feeling sorry for myself. That thought always reminds me that I need to be doing something worthwhile with my life.

There was an expectation from my parents to be academically successful. I was a decent student. I wasn't Einstein, but I was a good student. If I applied myself, I could do well. I applied myself to law, got a law degree and worked as a Barrister. I was working at various firms and was doing quite well. But I just got to a point where I felt this sense of independence. I’d always been told, “this is good, this is good, this is good.” “But is it what I want, not what Dad wants for me or a spiritual leader wants for me or society expects of me? What does Lola want?” 

I just knew that I would not be happy if I continued with law. Actually, the conversation I had with myself was, “Lola, if you were to die tomorrow, would you be happy with the life that you've lived?” That seems very drastic and extreme but that was it, and when I was writing down my list of pros and cons, the con was I would be unhappy without trying to fulfil my football dream. And so, even if I tried and I failed, I’d be okay because at least I had tried.

You know, some people believe in miracles, other people believe in coincidences. I definitely believe in miracles. I quit my law job; it was very impulsive. I came in, I think, on a Tuesday or Wednesday, and I quit my job on the spot. I said “I’m leaving” and I was on the train home with no real plan, but with a desire to follow my dream. I opened the newspaper, and I saw an ad for Arsenal Football Club - the team that I supported - recruiting for people who had no football coaching experience. They didn't want people who had it, they wanted people that didn't have it because they wanted to be able to instil their coaching philosophy and their ideas into newbies. So I’m like, “this is perfect, because I've played football but I’ve never coached football.” And so I applied. Over the weekend I had an interview, and by the next Tuesday or Wednesday, I had the job. 

I know that that's a luxury and a privilege not everybody has, sadly, because of a lack of access to opportunities. If my parents had not made that move from Nigeria to the UK, I would not be in this position at all. So I understand that and I acknowledge that, but I also feel like if you do have that privilege, you do a disservice by not using it in a positive way.

The club was exceptional in giving me the tools to become a football coach because, at that time, it was too late for me to become a player. I wanted to be involved in helping other people, to coach them. With the Arsenal Gap Programme, we were in Manica, Mozambique, which is considered one of the poorest regions in Africa, rolling out football initiatives for kids. I lived there for about four or five months and it was the most impactful experience that I've had, just seeing how a simple ball can bring so much joy to a child. We also went to Zimbabwe, South Africa, all across Europe, the UK and then Australia. I didn't realise that through football I'd be able to see the world. I had so many wonderful experiences. 

Recently, an opportunity came up for me to move to China, so off the back of the year with Arsenal, I secured a coaching job in Beijing. I was the only female coach in that organisation, and so I created a women's football programme. The infrastructure to accommodate women and encourage women to be in the sport wasn't there back in the day. But now there's a massive push for gender equity and equality along with a recognition that women can contribute to the game. When I got there, the women's football team started off with four women that would come and train and I would do sessions twice a week. Those four became 20, which became 40, then became 126. I take pride in the fact that that was something I created.

I have a picture in my room from my time in China with about 15 male coaches and then there’s me. It’s a male-dominated sport and football can be quite chauvinistic, quite sexist. You still have people with archaic views that believe that women shouldn't be on the pitch, or shouldn’t be playing football. You have to grow a thick skin and navigate those spaces as well. Learn to be less defensive, and more willing to educate on why we should be there.

I think there's a lot of power when women get together. I focus on making change, whatever that change looks like. In China, our change was trying to raise the profile of women's football in Beijing. We travelled across China and other countries in Asia, competing in competitions and showcasing the sport. We had great talent and it was a great time. I think China was a unique place for many reasons, but surprisingly, they were open to these changes. It was a cool experience. When I worked with the adolescent boys there, at the very least, I felt like I had given them the opportunity to appreciate women in a way that they probably hadn't before. 

When you give a Nigerian a name, you can trace that Nigerian to the precise village street name that that person is from. So, if I didn't have context about who I was, I’d go to Nigeria, and I’d say my last name, Ogunbote, and people would be able to direct me to where I'm from. I feel like that's the same with football. I feel like football gives me the sense of knowing who I am and where my origins are. It's the birth of who I was as a young girl and has continued to be present in the growth into who I am as a woman. Most of my core memories revolve around the sport and my involvement in it. This, I think, has a lot to do with its inclusiveness. What attracts me to the sport is that anybody can play. There are no barriers, and I feel that that should be the same in life. Everyone can play in this game of life and we can find what connects us rather than what divides us.

Pre-production: Krischelle Joseph
Interview: Krischelle Joseph 
Assistant interviewer: Louise Paulsen
Transcription: Clare Hamn
Writing: Krischelle Joseph
Editing: Zinta Jauntis & Amy Epps
Audio: Emma Reyelts 
Photography: Louise Paulsen

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