Few African-born players have decided to make a go of it in Brazil, but as Richard Owubokiri has shown, it can be a perfectly logical and successful career move.
Now a players’ agent and the head of a real estate office in north-eastern Brazil, the former striker left his native Nigeria in 1983 to try his luck in the so-called spiritual home of football. After several successful seasons in his homeland, where he played for Sharks and ACB of Lagos, the then 21-year-old was persuaded to make what was an unusual move by two Brazilian coaches.
As it turned out, his journey across the Atlantic proved to be a vital step in his 19-year career as a penalty-box predator, which would later see him end one season as Europe’s second-highest marksman. It was so vital in fact, that after moving on to Portugal, France, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, he decided to return to Brazil and settle in the northeastern city of Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, where he is known to everyone as Ricky.
“Things are going nicely here,” he told FIFA.com. “Nobody knew me when I arrived but I pursued my goals and reached them. Salvador is a second home for me and I feel great here.”
The two Brazilian coaches who instigated Owubokiri’s move to Brazil three decades ago were Luciano de Abreu, who coached him at Sharks, and the legendary Otto Gloria, who made his name in Portugal, enjoying trophy-laden spells with Benfica and steering the Portuguese national side to third place at the 1966 FIFA World Cup England™. Together they convinced the young Nigerian to make the journey that would change his life.
The striker’s first port of call was Rio de Janeiro side America, who had enjoyed great success in the first half of the century before gradually losing ground to the Rio elite. In the early 1980s, however, they remained a competitive outfit, with the young goalscorer from a faraway land finding first-team opportunities hard to come by.
Nevertheless, he used his time wisely, studying Portuguese with the help of his mentors and teachers. In 1984, resisting the urge to cut his losses and return back home, he decided to make the 1200-kilometre journey up the coast to Salvador to sign for Vitoria.
“It’s a place with a climate all of its own. It’s special,” said the Nigerian in fluent Portuguese, spoken with an unmistakable Salvador accent.
An adopted son of the city, Owubokiri will make a perfect host when his compatriots come visiting on 20 June, the day they take on Uruguay at the revamped Arena Fonte Nova in their second group game at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013. Among those the exiled former striker is looking forward to seeing is Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi: “We were room-mates when we played for the national side. He’s a good friend. We have a chat sometimes and it will be a pleasure to catch up with him here.”
Brazil’s first capital, a status it held until 1763, Salvador is home to more than 2.7 million people and is the country’s third-most populous city. According to the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), more than 80 percent of its inhabitants are of African descent, and in 2011, after welcoming Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to the 21st Ibero-American Summit of African Descendents, the city was recognised as the black capital of Latin America. This symbolic title is a tribute to the significant influence African culture has had on the local way of life, an influence that extends from religion and food and drink to music and dance.
That connection has undoubtedly gone a long way to helping Owubokiri settle in Salvador, though it was through his achievements on the pitch that he began laying down roots in Brazil. Indeed, he started to endear himself to the locals in making his debut for Vitoria a day after he turned 24, scoring a goal in a Ba-Vi derby match against arch-rivals Bahia.
He would play for two more seasons for Os rubro-negros and score over 60 goals before moving to Europe, where he ran out for Laval and Metz in France and Portuguese sides Benfica, Estrela Amadora, Boavista and Belenenses. As he wound his career, he then joined Al-Arabi of Qatar and Al-Hila of Saudi Arabia. It was during his stay at Boavista that he replicated the success he had enjoyed at Vitoria, ending the 1991-92 season as the Portuguese league’s top scorer and the second-highest marksman in Europe behind Dutch forward Wim Kieft.
He wore the Vitoria shirt again during a brief stay in 1994. And three years later, after hanging up his boots, he was back in Salvador, this time for good. Judging by his love of the city, it is a decision he has never regretted.
“Salvador is wonderful,” he said of the place he now calls home. “If I had to give people tips on where to go, I’d definitely say the beaches, especially Porto da Barra, which has rightly been chosen as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. We’ve also got O Pelourinho, on the other side of the Arena Fonte Nova, which is very pretty. Salvador has got a lot going for it and if you come here, you won’t regret it.”
There is more to Salvador and Brazil than just sightseeing, however, as the man they call Ricky went on to say: “This country is the best place to learn football.” It remains to be seen if his fellow Africans will follow his unique lead and further their footballing educations in Brazil, but as he has shown, it could well be the making of them.