Faith, Family and Football: The inside story of four Nigerians in Tulsa

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FC Tulsa is a professional soccer club that plays in the USL Championship, the second division of U.S. Soccer. FC Tulsa was founded in 2015 as Tulsa Roughnecks FC, and plays in the Western Conference.

Published April 17, 2020                         By: John Horlander


One played in the street, cleats so bare the socks stuck out the front like a tongue.

One played keeper, dreaming of scoring goals as a striker.

One played against his parent’s wishes, knowing he’d be punished each time he returned home.

One played with no shoes, feet bloody and bruised after every training session.

Four Nigerians playing professional soccer in Tulsa, bonded by heritage and culture. All holding Faith, Football and Family above all else.

We hear from FC Tulsa’s four Nigerian players, in their own words, about their heritage, their soccer journey, and the impact their deeply-rooted culture has had on them.

Solomon Kwambe, Defender – “I was born and brought up in Nigeria. Growing up there, it’s very difficult. Throughout Africa it’s very tough for kids to grow up into who they want to be, unlike in places like Europe and America.”

Mfon Udoh, Forward – “I came from a very low-class home. We played street football, but growing up was very difficult, I must confess. It wasn’t a piece of cake. But, we did what we had to do.”

Kwambe – “Kids our age would always gather in one park, we’d arrange ourselves into team or we would find other boys playing and gather versus them. We would go to any place we could to play a game. It was always playing, playing, playing.”

Toby Uzo, Forward – “My dad would take us to this field to play and mess around with a ball. I’ve always liked being around sport.”

Raphael Ayagwa, Midfielder – “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to play soccer. I made that decision when I was six. I was kind of close with my dad, and I told him one day ‘Hey dad, I know what I want to be in the future.’ And he was kind of like ‘Whoa! At your age?’ and I said ‘Yes. I want to be a soccer player.’”

Kwambe – “We played barefooted. There was one ball we used to play a match. If the ball goes out, somebody better go get it. If it takes ten minutes, it takes ten minutes.”

Udoh – “I didn’t have soccer shoes, I had a lot of issues finding soccer shoes. Even when I managed to find some, I wore them all the way down, to the point where my stockings would stick out of them like a tongue.”

Raphael Ayagwa at training.

Ayagwa – “It is really tough to play soccer in Nigeria. Sometimes you go for trainings, and you don’t have soccer shoes. I would come back from training and my feet hurt or were bleeding.”

Udoh – “We were four boys and three girls, and I am the last. The youngest of everybody. I don’t go on any errands, or do any of the home chores, because by the time everyone else got their chores, they were all done, so what was left was for me to get pampered. Honestly, it gave me more time to play football. Because I didn’t have work to do around the house, I could sneak out and play football without getting in trouble because there were no chores for me to do.”

Kwambe – “I would play in the street with my friends, all the time. I broke into the school team eventually, but it was difficult. My parents didn’t really support me in that. They thought I should be doing something else other than sports, because they didn’t send me there to do that. They sent me there to study. It was tough for me because I had to find time to play, I had to sneak out and play in secret. I knew that when I was coming home, there was trouble waiting for me. I knew back home I was going to receive some punishment.”

Ayagwa – “We didn’t have any of the necessary equipment to play growing up. It wasn’t until I joined an academy that I had any of that stuff. It was a local academy, run by a man named Abeya. The man was very supportive, he started buying kits and equipment for the boys, and he knew that some of us had what it takes to get to the professional level. Almost every boy who came out of our town, anyone who made it to the professional level made it through his academy. He passed away when I was just 10, may he rest in peace.”

Udoh – “I played in the Youth Fund Academy owned by the Nigerian Navy. It was one of the best academies at the time, they had a lot of good players. That was when I began playing in competitions. I was very little when I started, maybe 9 or 10. I eventually moved to Diamond academy because the Youth Fund academy was lacking sponsorship and facilities.”

Solomon Kwambe (left) and Mfon Udoh (right) flash the gold on the FC Tulsa City Kit.

Uzo – “In Nigeria, nobody really wanted to be a goalie. So, my brother and his classmates told me ‘Oh yeah, go to the goal so we could take some shots at you,’ so they were just messing around, and they were having fun. I was just standing in the goal as they would take shots at me. So, I ended up being a goalkeeper.”

Udoh – “I signed my professional contract in 2011, with Calabar Rovers in the second division. I left to Akwa United and moved to Enyimba, where in my first year I really came into my own and had a good year. I really still saw myself as a growing player, I didn’t see myself necessarily as top class just yet, but my team did. They put a lot of trust in me and gave me a lot of responsibility, and that season was really explosive for me.”

Kwambe – “2009 was when I signed my first professional contract, for Plateau United. We were in the second division then, but we got promoted in my first season. I stuck with Plateau United until 2012, when I moved to Sunshine Stars. From 2012 to 2019 I played for the Nigerian National Team.”

Udoh – “It was a great experience to play [for the Nigerian National Team] alongside these players that you see on TV and I got to play with them and learn from them. One thing is having that honor, because yes, it is an accolade. Another thing is having that as a goal and achieving it. Football is not of the past but of the present. That was an incredible achievement for me.”

Kwambe – “It’s a great privilege for me, I will say. A lot of players in Nigeria are looking for opportunities such as that, but it comes around only once maybe for a lot of people. You have to take your chance.”

Ayagwa – “I have played once for Nigeria, but I have been on the bench several times for them. That should be a motivation for me to continue to work hard and improve. It can show people who haven’t achieved that yet, that look where I got to. It’s a responsibility I feel to protect that name, of Nigeria.

Uzo – “How we always rolled is, wherever the oldest [sibling] goes, the next one goes, and the next one. It’s how we’ve always been. We stick together. So, when my brother chose to go to Houston Baptist University [in the U.S.], that’s where I went.”

Solomon Kwambe (left) and Toby Uzo (right) at a training session at ONEOK field.

Kwambe – “Me, for my family, I am the breadwinner of the family. So, the responsibility is on me to pay the bills every month, support the family [back in Nigeria] so they’re okay. It’s tough.”

Ayagwa – “I still support my family. It’s common. In Africa, if one person has made it from the family, its believed that you are representing the family, so you have to take care of the family. My mom gave birth to three of us, three boys. The oldest two are not really doing well, my immediate older brother is still schooling, the other, who is the first in our family, it’s not really working. So, I have to support them, and my stepbrothers and stepsisters who are still schooling, with their school fees and that.”

Kwambe – “I always miss [my family], even if we talk on the phone. I wish all the time that we could sit and have dinner together. It’s not easy, but I know that with time, things will fall into place.”

Uzo – “Culture-wise, [FC Tulsa] feels at home, it feels like I’m at home in my living room, honestly. When I just see Rafa [Ayagwa] and I see Solo [Kwambe], I see Mfon [Udoh] or I even see Coach [Michael] Nsien, you know, it just feels more at home to have that similarity.”

Kwambe – “It is very, very tough [to be so far from home]. Each day, every day I try to talk to my family. We’ll talk for a couple of hours, but it’s difficult. The presence of people that are familiar to you, Rafa, Mfon, Toby, I think it helps a lot. It helps because being here alone is going to be very difficult. It would be so hard to be by yourself all the time, to be alone, only be on the phone talking to people. But here I can talk to people in a way that’s normal to me, we can crack jokes in a normal way like in Nigeria. We feel at least some relief from the loneliness.”

Uzo  “The fact that everyone gets together [to pray before practice] also makes me very happy. It brings kind of a union, a sense of togetherness. I’m happy that we’re praying cause obviously, I’m a Christian, based on my experience, and the way God has done amazing things in my life or God has opened my eyes. But really, just the fact that we’re just together as a team, doing something before we start playing are the good sources of unity.”

Ayagwa – “I’m highly religious. My mom and my dad taught me that growing up. They used to always tell me, ‘Boy, before you go after success in this career you are choosing, there will be a whole lot of obstacles. The only key to overcoming all these obstacles is God. You have to keep your faith strong, you have to be prayerful, hardworking, and your talent alone is not enough. You have to back it up with God.’ Everything I do, I work hard, but I back it up with God and prayers. I was happy to see the players here do that too.”

Kwambe – “It’s a cool thing that we do. I believe in God, and whenever you have challenges, you go to Him and pray to Him. I think it’s a good thing that we as a team pray together and ask God for him to come to our aid as we play. It is a privilege for us to be here with FC Tulsa, and we are here to represent ourselves and to represent Nigeria.”