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Centre-forward discusses life growing up in Italy and bursting onto the scene as a highly-rated teenager

Colney Chat | Stefano Okaka

By Kevin Affleck

  
    

Christian Kabasele must have been squirming in the corner when he saw Stefano Okaka, that tower block of a centre-forward, walk through the door for the first time at the London Colney training ground last summer. 

The last time the pair had crossed paths was a few months earlier when some play-acting from Kabasele got Okaka sent off in a Belgian Division One clash. Okaka was not a happy bunny. The Italian striker therefore got the surprise of his life when he went round the dressing room at the UCL Sports Ground shaking everyone's hand on his first day. 

"When I arrived in the dressing room I said hello to everybody and then I saw Kabasele," Okaka said. "I didn't know Kabasele is at Watford. In the beginning I did a face like I was angry. We didn't speak for two or three weeks, no hello, nothing. But now we are friends. Now he sits next to me in the dressing room. It's unbelievable. Now we watch the video [of the incident] and laugh. Me, I did nothing but he was clever." 

Okaka felt the 5-2 defeat "finished the title for us [Anderlecht]", bringing an end to a season in Belgium that harvested an impressive 17 goals for him, the highest return of his career and a tally that shows what he is capable of given a fair wind and an extended run. 

Okaka scores for Anderlecht during a Europa League tie against Tottenham last season

The striker burst triumphantly onto the Serie A scene in 2005 as a raw schoolboy and was considered by some as the hottest prospect in the country at 16.

"Sometimes I scored five or six goals in youth games," said Okaka, now 27. "I was really quick when I was younger. I was an excellent player. You are new and a revelation. Everyone expects you to carry on when you get older and that you get better, better and better.

"Sometimes players do this straight away, sometimes in two to three years, sometimes in four, five, six years. Now, slowly, slowly I get back to my level after my injuries. I have plenty of time to show this as I have a five-year contract [at Watford]."

So highly-rated was Okaka, as a strapping teenager, that two of Italy's top clubs battled it out for his coveted signature. "I went to Milan and it was like done, but my father said [Roma technical director] Bruno Conti had called. He said "it doesn't matter if you chose Milan, come and see us with your eyes".

"When I went to see Trigoria [Roma's training ground] I say, 'I want to stay here'. We had to call Milan and say I've changed my mind. I signed for Roma."

Things escalated quickly for him at Roma. He made his debut as a 16-year-old in a UEFA Cup match against Aris, making him the youngest player to feature in an international competition for an Italian team.

He says he still holds that honour. Another record [the youngest scorer in the Coppa Italia] came three months later when he scored his first goal for Roma. 

Okaka was on target for Roma against Fulham in a Europa League tie in 2009

"I was still at school," Okaka said. "I was so young. The first-team trained in the morning so I had to arrange a lot of things with the teacher. It was not easy. It was school, training, school, training, like this. There was a lot of pressure. The training ground was inside the college and my parents lived in the college because I was so young, I couldn't stay alone."

He found himself rubbing shoulders with the greatest Roma player of them all. "I was near Totti," says Okaka. "I sat next to him when I was 17. I grew up admiring him. I sometimes speak with him now."

Okaka didn't quite kick on at Roma after his record-breaking start and was sent out for five loan spells in as many years, including one at Fulham where he worked under Roy Hodgson and Ray Lewington in the season they got to the final of the Europa League.

"Fulham was good," says Okaka. "I was very young. It was my first experience in another country. It was not easy and I felt a bit sad at the beginning but Mr Hodgson spoke good English and Italian. He spoke to me like a father."

He scored twice at Fulham, in wins against Wigan and West Ham, but was cup tied for the Cottagers' dizzying run in Europe. He feels his best form came in a year-long spell at Sampdoria, which included a run of five goals in his first 13 appearances at the start of 2014. "It was amazing. We started with a normal team, not a big team, but after we started to play well we were third or fourth. It was my best football for now."

Okaka in action during a 2010 loan spell at Fulham

It was at Sampdoria where Okaka gained international recognition, called up by Italy and Antonio Conte. He scored on his debut, against Albania, but played only three more times. He could have played for Nigeria, the birthplace of his parents. 

"My parents moved from Nigeria to Italy to study," said Okaka. "After three years my brother was born and they stopped the study and started work to help the family. Then, after eight years, me and my sister was born." 

There were issues with racism. "Maybe my parents were one of the first black people in Italy. It was not easy, it was so difficult. Sometimes when you were young people called you "negro". I just said "yes, it is my colour". It is no problem for me. I can do nothing about it."

Mr and Mrs Okaka worked long hours to provide for their embryonic family. "They did two jobs," said Stefano. "My father worked on the roadworks and my mum was at a restaurant cleaning dishes. This was seven in the morning until five in the afternoon. In the evening we went to the school and cleaned the school and the swimming pool. Me and my sister went with them to help."

Stefano and Stefania are twins. His older brother is his agent.

Okaka takes on De Bruyne during an international friendly with Belgium in November 2015

Now, in a fortunate position as a professional footballer, Okaka is keen to give something back. "I help everybody," he says. "It is my obligation, my position. They are my family."

While lending a hand with the cleaning, the twins probably talked volleyball. As teenagers they were both hugely promising players. Stefania still plays now as a professional. 

"I stopped football for volleyball when I was 13 or 14, but after three months I woke up one day and started football again and stopped volleyball completely," said Okaka. "I haven't really played since. Volleyball definitely helped football at the beginning for jumping. Stefania is very good. I sometimes play beach volleyball with her in the summer."

This summer is a big one for Okaka. Now approaching his peak years as a striker, he will partake in a full pre-season with the Hornets and, with miles in his legs and fitness work under his belt, he should be in the shape of his life by the time the season kicks off. We should see more of the Okaka who charged onto the field against Chelsea to such menacing effect on Monday night. 

"I am very happy to be here," he said. "I just wish I hadn't been injured twice. But hopefully I can finish this season strong and then be ready for next season. I like to try and do my best."

    
  

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