Sampdoria forward Stefano Okaka almost gave up on football, thanked Antonio Cassano, would only play for Italy and transforms into “a beast” on the field.
The 25-year-old made his Serie A debut at 16, but that early promise never really developed into a full-blown career until now.
The son of Nigerian immigrants, Okaka Chuka repeatedly turned down offers to play for the African nation and scored on his senior Italy debut this month.
“I feel totally Italian and when the Nigerian FA called me in May and again 20 days ago to ask if I would play for Nigeria, I said no because it didn’t feel ‘natural’ the way it did when Conte called me for Italy,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
“I am like a tree that does not know its roots: it’s important to know where you come from and I would like to know the other side of my family and that land.
“I do feel that I’d have been given more consideration if I had been white. A black player always has to give something more.
“However, the only real incidents of racism I suffered were at school in Cittadella. More than the fact I was black, it was my second name, Chuka, which means ‘God above all else.’
“I didn’t hit them because I’d have done damage, but I did suffer a little. A year later, when I was playing for Roma, suddenly those same classmates who made fun of me were asking to friend me on Facebook. No way! They were dead to me.”
Finding success so early and seeing the limelight slip away made Okaka intensely aware of how precious real friendship can be.
“Parma, Leonardi and Donadoni wanted me, but then sent me on loan to Spezia without any explanation. I returned and was left to train on my own, again without explanation.
“Today I can only thank Parma, because otherwise I wouldn’t have ended up at Sampdoria. However, at that moment I really had reached the point of thinking perhaps a professional football career was not my path.
“The only one who believed in me and protected me was Cassano. He always told me: ‘The water in the sky falls sooner or later, and then it falls hard.’ Come to think of it, maybe Antonio should’ve been a meteorologist...
“At the start I put my faith in the wrong people, but now I realise friendship only really begins when you are young or you are a nobody. It’s pure, uncontaminated. There’s always a little bit of self-interest when you make your Serie A debut at 16 and people suddenly start liking you.”
Okaka also revealed he is transformed when he steps on to the pitch.
“My mother told me right when I was a kid that I change completely on the field. I am a softie really, but on that pitch I become a beast that respects nobody. I think that is my strength, as for 90 minutes it doesn’t matter who I am playing against, I hate them all equally.
“First I study their footage, then I detest them. I don’t argue, because that’s not my style, but my eyes tell them I am going to win and that is all.
“At times even the referees become my enemies, but with them it’s not hate so much as driving them up the wall. I talk continually, I complain and debate every decision. I admit it, I’d never want to referee a player like Okaka!”