Nigeria’s Sam Obisanya has become one of the best players on Richmond AFC, the plucky London-based football club that is being managed by Ted Lasso, the irrepressible American football coach who was somehow picked to coach a Premier League soccer team. The midfielder gained global notoriety when he turned down participating in the club’s partnership with Dubai Air, whose parent company Ceritihium Oil is responsible for polluting wide swaths of his home country.
With that in mind, GreenSportsBlog spoke with Obisanya to understand the factors that led to his decision and how he feels about the fallout since Dubai Air pulled out of the sponsorship — and pulled its sizable funding. We also asked whether he plans to broaden his eco-activism by speaking out on the need for global climate action.
OK, we didn’t really talk to Obisanya — he was busy preparing for his third campaign with AFC Richmond.
* And the thing is, Obisanya isn’t actually real — he’s a character played by Toheeb Jimoh on ‘Ted Lasso,’ the hit Emmy-winning Apple+ Series going into its third season. It stars Jason Sudeikis in the title role. AFC Richmond isn’t real, either.
So we’re doing the next best thing: Imagining a conversation with the imaginary Sam Obisanya.
GreenSportsBlog: It is a real honor to talk with Sam Obisanya, the AFC Richmond right back who, in just two seasons, has become one of the club’s iconic players. Sam, thank you for chatting with GreenSportsBlog
Sam Obisanya: Hi Lew, it’s great to be here!
GSB: Before we get to your decision to oppose AFC Richmond’s deal with Dubai Air and its owner Cerithium Oil, I’d love to learn about how you ended up getting to England and the Premier League from Nigeria.
Sam: Of course! I grew up in Benin City and loved football from as far back as I can remember. Playing in empty lots, playgrounds, the streets, wherever I could. My father always encouraged me on the pitch but also emphasized academics. So, I when I wasn’t playing football, I was studying.
Except that is, when my father would take our whole family to the forests and wetlands outside the city. We all loved it and gained an appreciation for the bounty that mother nature has given us. Father was also sure to show us the threats to our natural home.
GSB: How did he do that?
Sam: Well, on the way home from our hikes, he’d always seem to take us on a longer route that would bring us to the shore, where we would see oil tanker after oil tanker, and then to areas where refineries would dispose of waste gas though these giant, controlled fires called ‘flares’. He would let us know that, while the oil companies provided Nigerians with some jobs here and there, for the most part they would take the oil and sell it on the global market, while leaving us with the environmental costs. It would bring the mood down after being outside all day but his point was made.
A woman carries tapioca seeds adjacent to a gas flare fire, near Warri, Nigeria. Flaring is a common practice in the petroleum industry, where it is used to eliminate waste gas which cannot be easily used or transported. Excessive flaring releases massive amounts of toxic and greenhouse gases, which contribute to health problems and climate change (Photo credit: Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images)
GSB: Smart man, your dad. Now, on to football. How did you get to England and AFC Richmond?
Sam: Well, I always played with kids older than me. When I was 11, I played with the 15 year olds, and then when I was 15, I was signed to Kano Pillars in the Nigerian Premier League of the Nigerian Pro Football League. I made my debut when I was 16 as a right back who was given the freedom to attack. At first, it was very hard because the older guys really tried to get under my skin and beat me up a bit. But, after awhile I stood up for myself and started to play well. Thing was, the club’s ownership was not stable and was transferred to the Enyimba Elephants in Aba. That turned out to be a great move. I really came into my own as an attacking right back who also could defend well. We ended up winning the league in 2019 which was an incredible experience.
Several English clubs showed interest in me, mostly in the second and third tiers. Richmond AFC. a small club in West London that had recently been promoted to the Premier League, showed the most interest by far. And so I was transferred to greatest football league in the world.
GSB: What was that transition like?
Sam: Oh, it was hard. I was so homesick. We didn’t have any Nigerians in the team and I didn’t know any in town. The guys on the squad were great but I was lonely. The food was…not good. And my football was below my expectations. I almost quit and went home to Nigeria. Did I tell you the food was inedible?
But my father told me to give it six more months, that people in Nigeria were cheering for me every game, watching the news reports of our games. So, I stayed and then…
GSB…The club hired Ted Lasso as manager, a man who was an American football coach and knew nothing of football, soccer. What did you think?
Sam: At first I, like everyone else in the team, thought this was absolutely mad. We couldn’t believe that Rebecca, er, Ms. Welton, would bring in someone who didn’t know the game. Some of the boys, like captain Roy Kent, couldn’t stand him…
GSB: …Of course Roy Kent can’t stand everybody.
Sam: He can be very tough, I know, but he’s really a great guy. Thing is, Ms. Welton is a very smart businesswoman, so, I figured she must have known what she was doing by bringing in Coach Lasso.
Of course it was very strange at first, especially since he didn’t know things like…the rules. Or that there are no playoffs…
Ted Lasso, played by Jason Sudeikis (Photo credit: Apple)
GSB: …Or that there are two halves, not four quarters…
Sam: [LAUGHS HEARTILY]…Oh yeah, that was a good one. Anyway it was bad, very bad at first, but you know what? While Coach Lasso doesn’t know the first thing about football, he has an innate ability to motivate individuals and the group to perform better, to BELIEVE!
GSB: Yeah, he has those goofy, optimistic ‘Heartland of America’ sayings…
Sam: Goofy, yes, but there is often truth in them. Like there was this time last season, when I had a very bad game that cost the team. I was really down about it. So, he pulled me over at practice and told me this story about the goldfish…
GSB: ‘Be a goldfish’! Do they work?
Sam: Well, not always — we did get relegated my first season but we rallied together, thanks to Coach Lasso and his sayings, and got promoted right back up to the Premier League last year! And, even though he knows absolutely nothing about football, he moved me from right back to midfield, which was just brilliant. Really, it’s been incredible. That’s because he brought us together as a group. Really, it was the tightest team I’ve ever been on, bar none. We all started to believe, as my great Mexican teammate and brother Dani Rojas says, that ‘Football is LIFE’, especially at AFC Richmond.
GSB: I get that. But, sadly, the effects of pollution and climate change from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is also LIFE for many around the world, including in Nigeria, where the oil and gas business is a huge part of the economy. I bring that up because this became a big issue for you and the club, around its sponsorship by Dubai Air. What happened?
Sam: Well, this all started when Keeley Jones, our fantastic PR consultant, brought us a new business opportunity with Dubai Air. They were already our biggest sponsor and this was bringing more money into the club. While AFC Richmond has been in the Premier League, we are tiny compared to giants like Manchester United, Man City, and Chelsea. So the money is very important. Anyway, Keeley asked me to be in some of the promotional ads and I was excited to do it.
But then I got a text from my dad.
He was disappointed, very disappointed to see that I did the Dubai Air photo shoot. Dad told me that their parent company, Ceritihium Oil, is destroying Nigeria’s environment and is paying people off so they’d look the other way.
This made me angry, at Cerithium for what they are doing to my country, and at myself for letting them use me as cover.
GSB: So, what did you do?
Sam: I told Keeley and Rebecca, er Ms. Welton, that I could no longer be a part of the campaign. Then, in the locker room before we took the pitch for our next match, I told the boys that I was going to cover up the Dubai Air logo on my shirt. The two other Nigerians in the club stood up and did the same. And then our star, Jamie Tartt, with whom I’ve had my disagreements and who is definitely NOT Nigerian, did the same. By the time we lined up for the start of the match, everyone had covered up the Dubai Air logo!
Coach Lasso was kind enough to give me a chance to explain myself at his post-game presser. It was a tough mood because we lost a tough game but this was more important. I asked the Nigerian government to stop allowing Cerithium and other fossil fuel companies to destroy our environment.
Keeley Jones, played by Juno Temple (Photo credit: Apple)
GSB: That took guts…
Sam: Did it really? I look at it differently. What takes real guts is working every day to provide for your family in places that have been destroyed by the fossil fuel industry, including by illegal inland crude oil refineries from companies supported by corporations like Cerithium Oil. I have it easy. I needed to speak up for my countrymen and women — and those in many other countries — who are suffering. It also took guts for Miss Welton to tell Dubai Air that she would not yield to their ultimatum: Get rid of Sam Obisanya or we pull our sponsorship of the club.
A view of an illegal crude oil refinery site in the creeks of an Ogoni community in Nigeria's Niger Delta (Photo credit: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye)
GSB: Did Dubai Air scuttle the deal? If so, what did the club do to replace the revenue?
Sam: They did. So, Keeley and the marketing team got to work to find replacements. In fact, our new shirt sponsor is Bantr, a popular new dating app that Keeley helped develop. It’s unique in that you don’t put your photo up so the other person gets to know you. But that’s another topic. AFC Richmond will be fine with sponsorships.
GSB: Good luck! Now, you’ve talked a lot about the environmental degradation — air and water pollution most notably — in Nigeria from the fossil fuel industry. I haven’t heard you talk about climate change. Why has that been the case? And will that change?
Sam: Great question. You’re right. I haven’t brought climate change into the discussion. I’m glad you are giving me the opportunity.
Clearly human-caused climate change thanks to the burning of fossil fuels is a massive threat to all life forms around the world. It is felt most harshly in poorer countries, like Nigeria, where people don’t have the resources to adapt or move easily.
And make no mistake, we are feeling the effects of climate change in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. Record heat and years-long droughts have devastated the region’s agriculture. Stronger-than-ever floods have done the same. All of this have cratered the economies of the rural areas, funneling more people into our overcrowded cities like Lagos. And that leads to conflict and climate refugees, with mass emigration to Europe, which has a destabilizing effect at both ends.
So, to answer your question, I will be speaking out more about the need for climate action in Africa, in the UK and around the world. And I’m open to ideas on how to convert talk into action. If your readers have any, feel free to tweet me at @TheSamObisanya!
GSB: It’s great to hear that you’ll be using your platform to help to spark the #ClimateComeback! Moving from climate talk to climate action is of course the hard part.
Sam: Of course. But as Coach Lasso says, “Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.” So, I’m going to ride the climate action horse, you can be sure of that.
GSB: That’s great, Sam. GreenSportsBlog, AFC Richmond fans and the rest of the sports world looks forward to seeing how your climate journey goes as you head into season three. And, we also look forward to seeing whether you and Rebecca, er Miss Welton, will still be an item this season. Any insights? Don’t worry, this is just between you and me!
Sam: Ah, Lew. Let’s stick to my climate journey and how we can spur real and urgent environmental and climate action to begin to benefit Nigeria. My personal journey with Rebecca is private. At least until Season 3 of Ted Lasso comes out on Apple+ this spring!
GSB: We’ll be watching! And to accelerate your climate journey, I’d like to invite you to become an EcoAthletes Champion. EcoAthletes is the nonprofit I launched in 2020 to ‘inspire and coach athletes to lead climate action.’ You would be a fantastic addition!
Sam Obisanya and Rebecca Welton, played by Hannah Waddingham (Photo credit: Apple) Photo at top: Sam Obisanya, played by Toheeb Jimoh, of AFC Richmond (Photo credit: Apple)