Stephen Sodje Together with his six brothers, former investment banker and professional footballer of over 15 years Stephen Sodje launched the Sodje Foundation to promote positive social change through sport. Bringing a British team out to Nigeria, on their fourth trip in 2012, was a life-changer.
INTERVIEW Emma Woodhouse
Taking players from Portsmouth FC to Lagos (in late 2012) was unforgettable. Governor Fashola worked with Lagos State FA to create the Eko Football Festival to coincide with the Soccerex convention. There were youth tournaments, concerts with artists like Banky W and Wizzkid, coaching programmes, seminars and distribution of sports kit and equipment.
They approached us to partner with them and bring a British team. There can be a stigma associated with Nigeria, so we knew that there would be obstacles, but we also know that there’s a huge positive side that people need to see. It was during the course of the season, so it was hard for clubs to release their academy players. Luckily, Portsmouth happened to have a week off! It took convincing to gain their trust. Some of the players were 17 year olds, and we also had to gain the trust of their parents.
Most of the parents knew that their kids would never have an opportunity like this in their lives. On the first day, the players were shell-shocked. The ride from the airport, the beeping and horns, being met by the Governor’s officials with armed mobile police and private security, and then being taken to affluent accommodation in V.I. Most of these boys have been at the academy since they were nine years old, and are from small towns in places like the Isle Of White. They had never seen another side to the world. One of them expected to see elephants on the street.
The trip opened their minds. Each player was assigned to a compatriate peer from Nigeria. We had coaching clinics, and gave away boots and kits. Our group visited two orphanages. In one of the orphanages, two of the players and one of the managers broke down in tears. They were handed a two week-old baby to hold, who had been abandoned in the street.
In Premier League football, players are pampered, and 17 year olds are treated
like Gods. These players might go on to earn £20K a week or more, but a visit like this one means that they will never forget. Now the players have gone out and told everyone about their visit. It made waves around Portsmouth, and there are plans to sponsor the orphange with a percentage of the players’ monthly wages, through the foundation.
We have now started conversations with companies to support what we are doing. The British Council have invited us for a roundtable to discuss developing the region. We hope to get CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) support from people. The more funding we get, the more we can do to empower youths. For a lot of Nigerian companies, CSR is still a new concept.
Nigerian companies are making a lot of money but not all of them are helping their local communities.
Football can engage people to pay attention. The fact that my brothers have played for the Super Eagles [Nigeria’s national team], and one played in the World Cup, has helped us to attract attention. Now we’re making good use of it.
I retired from football in 2010 to concentrate on the foundation and create a legacy. Our long-term goal is to build a community centre in Nigeria, working with the right state, government or corporation. We’d love to set up a complex where kids can go and play sport after school, socialise and be mentored. The family’s been blessed with six brothers and two nephews playing professional football. The foundation’s a way to give something back.
One of the best feelings for me is when we go to a school at playtime and see kids running around with bare feet. We turn up, stop the game, call all the kids together and give them boots from Boots For Africa. I love seeing that immediate difference in their lives. The smile on their faces is just amazing.
The foundation has taken offers from The Gambia and Ghana to Zimbabwe requesting sporting equipment. We do our due diligence, pack boxes and send them down with a contact from the UK. We’re always looking for people to bring stuff down.
We’re also engaging girls and teaching them about health awareness and staying in education. We’re getting female mentors involved in the foundation, so it’s not just a bunch of brothers. Women play football and want to be involved in sport.
We have the mentors there to deal with life’s challenges. There’s the sport side of thing and then there’s life and health awareness. We can’t turn away the kids that aren’t interested in football. Sport is the way to get things started.
The Sodje Sports Foundation is supported by an international board of trustees, and partners including Arik Air. Find out how you can help by visiting us at