THE STORY OF WILFRED AGBONAVBARE

THE STORY OF WILFRED AGBONAVBARE

After a decade of playing in his homeland Nigerian goalkeeper Wilfred Agbonavbare made the move to Europe, joining up with second division outfit Rayo Vallecano, a club that would remain his home for the next six years. In making this move he became one of the first black goalkeepers to ever play professionally in Spain. Rayo fans loved him from the start and bestowed upon him the affectionate nickname Willy.

His second season with the Madrid based club saw Willy play in every game on the way to helping them secure a second place finish and win promotion to the top tier of Spanish football for the 1992/93 season. 

This season would be a momentous one for the Nigerian keeper. His first taste of Spanish top flight football meant an increased profile. The man who was already becoming a hero in the Vallecas neighbourhood of Madrid was starting to attract wider attention. While the historically left leaning and inclusive fan base of Rayo had always welcomed him with open arms it was clear from the very start of the season that racism would meet the famously kind hearted and quiet, Wilfred at every turn.

The abuse he suffered tarnished what in all aspects should have been a dream season for him. In December, during a home fixture against Real Madrid, Willy was imperious, stopping shot after shot as Rayo ran out 2-0 winners with the keeper stating that it was the best day of his career. This clash alone, irregardless of his role in the promotion push the year before, would have been enough to secure his cult hero status among Rayo’s fanbase but in many ways it was the return fixture later in the season that would cement his place forever in the hearts of Rayo fans. 

 

In May of 1993 he was subject to some of the most abhorrent racism imaginable. The abuse started early and only got worse as the goalkeeper, as he had back in December, had a fantastic game. His performance was epitomised by his fantastic diving save to keep out a penalty from Michel that would have sealed the win. Willy himself said of the experience that as he is dark skinned and an opponent it is to be expected but in truth after experiencing the horrors that he did that day and with a microphone thrust at his face he probably just wanted to get out. Just six weeks later Madrid lost out on the title by a solitary point to arch rivals Barcelona. Rayo finished the season four points clear of relegation, the exact number of points Willy’s heroics had won them against Madrid that season.

From a purely footballing perspective it’s fair to say that his heroics against Real stand as his career’s brightest moment, though he continued as first choice keeper for another three years at Rayo.

On the international stage he represented Nigeria 15 times over a decade and was back up goalkeeper for the super eagles at the 94 World Cup in the US. 

After a year with Spanish second division side Écija Willy found himself out of the game, largely due to lack of interest in him, and began to look elsewhere for employment. Tragically he lost much of the already meagre sum of money earned from his playing career in helping to pay for his wife’s cancer care after she fell ill, it was a battle that ultimately, tragically, she would not win. 

Though isolated due to his wife’s passing and his children in education back in Nigeria life went on for Willy. He found work as a handler at Madrid’s barajas airport, a job he reportedly took great pride in and performed diligently. 

In a final cruel twist to the life of Wilfred Agbonavbare he received his own cancer diagnosis while still only in his late forties. 

Even after he knew he was dying he did not make the information public and having already lost his wife and without the financial means to see his children he may of felt he had nowhere to turn.

What he had though was Rayo and it was time for the club that he had given so much for to give back. In a match just three days prior to his passing both fans of Rayo and their opponents Atletico prominently displayed banners of support for Willy. The club, despite hearing of his prognosis so late did all they could to make him comfortable. They attempted to fly his children from Nigeria to Madrid though tragically Visa issued meant they did not make it in time. Wilfred Agbonavbare passed away on the 27th January 2015, aged just 48.

Just three days after his passing Rayo officially renamed the main gate of their stadium the Wilfred Agbonabvare Gate. They also dedicated a mural which reads, Eterno Willy and thank you for your fight against racism. He was a never a superstar but his story should never be forgotten and with this gesture from his club he hopefully never will be.

_

Words by Andy Gallagher

 

Leave a comment