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The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
Matthew Lindsay

Pele - a black icon for Nigerian refugees amid racism and violence of 1970s Glasgow

THE sense of excitement among the 300 or so guests who arrived at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Glasgow city centre to attend “An Evening with Pele” back in the September of 2016 was palpable.

The opportunity to spend a few hours in the company of the legendary Brazilian footballer was an enticing one. Some diners had even paid as much as £900 so they could meet and have their photograph taken with the three-time World Cup winner. 

For two of those who joined the crowd that night, Ude Adigwe and Geoff Ijomah, the event was particularly poignant and especially emotional. For the boyhood friends, he was far, far more than just a great sportsman whose achievements they admired. He was a black icon who had a profound impact on their lives.

Pele, who passed away aged 82 last month following a battle with colon cancer, was laid to rest earlier this week amid scenes of mass grieving. Thousands of mourners lined the streets of Santos to pay their respects as the coffin of the man who scored 1,281 goals in 1,363 games during his unparalleled playing career made its way to a private family funeral.

Yet, “O Rei” had not, for all his accomplishments on the field of play, been immune from the criticism of his countrymen when he was alive. Some felt the Afro-Brazilian could and should have been more outspoken on racial issues in his homeland and across the globe.

But for Adigwe and Ijomah, who had both arrived in Scotland with their families during the early 1970s after escaping the horrors of the Nigeria-Biafra War which had raged in Africa, Pele had been a shining beacon of hope amid the prejudice, persecution and violence which they suffered growing up in Glasgow.

“He was a huge influence on me,” said Adigwe. “When you are young black kid living in a predominantly different culture you look for people who can show you what you can achieve. Pele undoubtedly was one of them. In a world where there weren’t many prominent black people, he stood out.

“The 1970 World Cup which Brazil won in Mexico made a lasting impression on me. What was remarkable about it was that it was in colour for the first time. The romanticism associated with Pele made it really memorable.”

Ijomah said: “Pele was one of my childhood heroes, somebody I looked up to as a boy. Watching someone like him playing on the international stage on television was quite inspirational. He was almost like a superhero figure for us. 

“Seeing a strong, iconic, black sportsman was a very positive image. He had worldwide respect. It gave you a sense of belief. Your parents obviously gave you encouragement. But you needed something over and above that to back up what they were saying and he provided that for me.”

The Nigeria-Biafra War, which started in 1967 and lasted until 1970, claimed the lives of millions. There were over 100,000 military casualties while an estimated two million Biafran civilians died from famine as a result of a Nigerian naval blockade.

Life in Scotland, though, was by no means easy for Adigwe and Ijomah, who were among 500,000 who fled abroad to survive, either.

“Glasgow was a very multi-cultural place at the time,” said Adigwe. “I grew up with people from the Asian subcontinent, from India and Pakistan. But there was certainly racism. It was far more overt then than it is now. I was a keen footballer and there were games where I suffered abuse. You also had to endure the National Front (the far-right, fascist political party).

“I attended St Mungo’s Academy in the East End. When I started there, I was the only black pupil. Geoff came a little later. A lot of things happened. I could spend hours talking about the experiences which I had. I could be sitting in the library, say, and be accosted for no reason. To be honest, any black man growing up back then would be able to give you the exact same information.” 

Ijomah added: “The teachers at St Mungo’s were very helpful. They protected us. They would find out when pupils from other schools in the area were coming to try and beat up the black kids at the school. They would be phoned and warned by the teachers at the other school. Your name would be called and they would let you out early so you could avoid being attacked in the street.

“Ude was very heavily built. There is always a thing about being the best fighter at school. But there were times he would actually have to take on former pupils who had left the school, who were adults. They would come up to school on their scooters and he would have to fight for his life. But he survived.” 

Adigwe was an outstanding footballer himself and attracted the interest of Aberdeen, Celtic and Newcastle United among other clubs as a teenager. But he was encouraged to pursue his academic aspirations by his mother, who brought him up by herself after his father passed away, and he went to Glasgow University to study engineering and then philosophy.

Would the man who is currently a union organiser with GMB Scotland – a role which he describes as “rewarding and inspiring” - have had the confidence to make his way in the world after what he had endured had it not been for Pele?  

“Seeing what he achieved was an inspiration,” he said. “Not just from a sporting perspective, but also from a social one.

“Coverage of sporting events back then was not the same as it is now. There were very few people like Pele at the time. Muhammad Ali was one and Arthur Ashe another. They were black men who strove hard, reached the pinnacle of their sport, showed what could be achieved in life by applying yourself.

“For somebody who didn’t have too many role models, Pele really did play an important part in my upbringing. He grew up in poverty. The difficulties which he had to overcome to enjoy the success that he did were considerable. It spurred me on to show both my implicit or explicit detractors that I could better them.”

Ijomah added: “What people thought Pele could or should have done for racial issues is up to them. But I know that he was an inspiration for me. His image being beamed around the world was good enough.

“I had aspirations of going to university and becoming a doctor and I went on to do that. Pele made me realise that dream was possible. He came from a very deprived background. He showed that you could make it.”  

Both Adigwe and Ijomah were touched when Peter McLean, another childhood friend who they had grown up playing football with, got in touch back in 2016 and invited them along to “An Evening With Pele”, an event which he was helping to organise, in Glasgow. 

You should, the old saying goes, never meet your heroes. But neither man was left disappointed. Quite the opposite proved to be the case.

Ijomah added: “Peter phoned me up and said: ‘Pele is coming. I know how much he means to you. It’s really important for you to be there’. It was so nice of him. Actually meeting the man was very special. Pele was probably very used to people being starstruck in his presence, but he really put you at ease. His passing is such a body blow.”

“It was an absolute joy and a pleasure,” said Adigwe. “I went to see Nelson Mandela when he came to George Square in 1993. It was on a par with that. The photograph I have of me with Pele is one of my prized possessions.

“I gave him a wee hug, shook his hand and told him how much I had admired him all my life. That night his humanity shone through for me. I could literally imagine taking him to a pub in Glasgow and having a couple of pints with him.”

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