AFL

With a Nigerian father and a Moldovan mother, Irish-raised footballer Stefan Okunbor has taken a unique path to Geelong Football Club’s Cattery. By Peter Hanlon.

AFL recruit Stefan Okunbor

Geelong Cats recruit Stefan Okunbor.
Credit: Arj Giese

There’s a book in recruiters’ tales of the home visits they regularly make, doing their “due diligence” by meeting the family of the young wannabe footballer who’s on their radar. These stories are a reminder that common ground can end with an ability to kick and mark a ball, that where we’ve come from is never the same place.

They might be farm kids who’ve milked cows and ridden motorbikes since before they went to school. Indigenous kids from remote communities who’ve rarely worn shoes, let alone footy boots. One legendary tale has a posse of officials arriving at a semi-rural property that was so packed with animals the name on the gate should have been Noah. When one official felt hot breath on his neck as he sat on the couch, he turned to find a horse in the living room, as comfortable as a labrador.

Since visiting the Okunbor family in Tralee in County Kerry last October, Troy Selwood knows he’s armed with a chapter that will take some topping.

“I sat down at the kitchen table and there was dad Mike, who’s Nigerian; mum Lidia, from Moldova; then these two kids, Iren [pronounced Irene] and Stefan, who arrived as toddlers and are as Irish as can be,” Geelong’s talent identification manager says. “Throw in me from Australia [and] there were that many accents going around the table we needed about three translators.”

If Stefan Okunbor makes it – something he is wholly committed to not only doing, but hopefully doing this season – it’s hard to imagine another figure quite like him among the rollcall of almost 12,700 who’ve played VFL/AFL football over the past 122 years.

Therese and Brendan Foley have had numerous long-term house guests, including the 20-year-old Okunbor. “Mike and Lidia came and stayed with us at Easter, and to sit down and speak with them about their lives was just fascinating,” Therese says. “Mike is so passionate about politics, passionate about the colonisation of Nigeria. Lidia is angry at what Russia’s done to Moldova. Stef is studying biomedical engineering, Iren’s just graduated in physiotherapy. They’re an incredibly clever family.”

Stefan is sketchy on details – and uncomfortable talking about himself – but his earliest memories are of the farmhouse in Moldova where he spent his first few years, surrounded by a vineyard. Landlocked and bordered by Romania and Ukraine, Moldova boasts more vines per capita than any other country in the world. Therese Foley, who grew up in the Hunter Valley, has seen pictures; its beauty reminds her of home.

Mike Okunbor is one of eight siblings; Stefan says three still live in Benin City, the rest are “dispersed all over Europe”. Encouraged by his parents to seek a better life, Mike earned a scholarship to study agriculture in Moldova, where he met Lidia, who was at university doing linguistics.

“When the Cold War finished, Moldova was basically upturned and became incredibly depressed economically,” Therese Foley says. Russia maintained control of an area that become known as Transnistria, which also controlled Moldova’s power source. Quality of life plummeted, taking the price of wine with it. “It wiped them out.”

The family scanned the global horizon for a place to raise their children. Catholic, English-speaking and safe, Ireland ticked vital boxes. “They had no link at all, didn’t know anyone,” Stefan says. “But it was a nice place to grow up.”

When he was 14 the family holidayed in Nigeria. “Loud and boisterous, radiant and colourful,” Stefan recalls. Two years later they spent a month in Moldova, back in the farmhouse the Okunbors still own. “I put the pictures together and it was the same, the place I was born.”

In Tralee, Lidia works for Johnson & Johnson and Mike drives a taxi. “He knows every man and his dog,” Selwood says. “You go out for dinner with the Okunbors and everyone’s yelling out to Mike.” Mealtimes betray their heritage – borscht as a nod to Eastern Europe; plantain, rice and pepper soup from Africa.

Stefan was good at school, maths especially, and loved soccer and Gaelic football. Surprisingly for someone drawn to Australian rules by its physicality, he never played hurling. “I went to one hurling training session and it just wasn’t for me. Those boys are brutal animals.”

Identified as an AFL prospect by former Sydney Swans player Tadhg Kennelly and his Ireland-based spotters, Okunbor impressed at tryouts in Dublin in late 2016, then caught the Cats’ eye as one of a handful of Irish attending a camp in Florida. On a visit to Australia his testing for speed, power and endurance produced elite numbers.

“I was fascinated by how athletic he was,” says Selwood, who’d found a project that remains thrilling.

A waiting game followed, with Okunbor back in Ireland studying and playing Gaelic for Kerry, occasionally kicking an Australian rules ball with Selwood’s former Brisbane Lions teammate Colm Begley in Dublin. As Okunbor churned out an outstanding under-20 Gaelic season, Selwood got up in the middle of the night and live-streamed the Munster final. “Stef was man of the match. I was convinced that if he still wanted to do it, he deserved a chance.”

He texted Okunbor and got an almost immediate reply: “I thought everyone had forgotten me. I would absolutely love an opportunity. Thank you so much for watching.”

Okunbor arrived late last year with a bang, throwing himself in at training with such abandon that Joel Selwood (Troy’s younger brother) and Tom Hawkins were among those collected by his 190-centimetre frame. “I thought it was a pretty clean challenge, shoulder to shoulder,” he recalls of the Selwood clash. “But I found out you can’t really do that in training, it’s frowned upon. No one got around me … you learn from your mistakes.” Kind of – a head clash in recent months with Harry Taylor left both with stitches.

Selwood likes that Okunbor’s had challenges but has worked through them. Early-season groin discomfort was diagnosed as osteitis pubis; Okunbor had never heard of it, thought he’d miss a week or two, and was out for 10. “It takes away your strength, your change of direction, and it’s just constant pain.”

He feels fortunate to have countrymen Zach Tuohy and Mark O’Connor at the Cats, and drew inspiration from sitting down for coffee with Tom Lonergan, the former premiership defender who lost a kidney and very nearly his life in 2006. Living in a self-contained bungalow in the Foleys’ backyard, he was comforted by their familial embrace. “It’s been a real joy,” Therese says.

In late July the Foleys and their neighbours from across the street (who housed O’Connor during his first years in Geelong) flew to Kerry to stay with the families of the young men they’ve looked after. “Our little enclave of Geelong that’s become a little enclave of Kerry,” Therese says, laughing.

Stefan is gratefully otherwise engaged, building momentum with Geelong’s VFL team since returning from injury. He can feel his game improving, is more confident each week with ball in hand. Selwood sees a modern defender, who despite coming late to a foreign sport has an innate knack for it. “He’s got football instincts. He knows when to join in attack, knows when’s the right time to defend.”

In an observation that goes beyond football, he adds, “I think we’ve got a really unique player on our hands.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 3, 2019 as "Gaelic force". Subscribe here.

Peter Hanlon
is a former Age sportswriter turned freelancer and bus driver.