Everyone knows ‘The Beast’, but not enough people know Adebayo Akinfenwa. From playing last goal wins on the estate to playing in the Lithuanian league—Bayo has had a more interesting footballing career than most. He tells us about winning his first trophy for a set of very confused FK Atlantas fans…
“Playing football while growing up in Hackney was the purest time. We lived on an estate, and there was a football pitch right at the bottom of the flats we lived in, and I kid you not, especially in the summer holidays, it was 9 o’clock in the morning until 9 o’clock at night. That’s where everybody was; you stopped for an hour to go and buy some ice pops and then you’d come back. There were no phones, so you started off with one person and go and knock on people’s doors and then there would be like 18 of us—we’d put two jackets down on either side of the tarmac and get going. Of course, it’s a beautiful feeling to be a professional footballer, but the enjoyment of playing football can’t get any purer than playing with your friends on the estate from sunup to sundown. And because I didn’t go through an academy, the estate is where I feel my whole game has come from.
“My first professional contract was at FK Atlantas in Klaipėda, the third largest city in Lithuania. It came about after I had a trial at Watford. My agent at the time was Lithuanian, and I got invited for a two-week trial. The first day was, well if Carlsberg could do trials—this was it. I was on fire. I scored a mad Ian Wright-like chip, and after three days they were like, “We want to sign you.”
“So I came back to England and tried to work it out over here. September turned into January, and still nothing was happening, so I signed for Atlantas. When I got there, it was freezing cold and only one player, a Japanese lad who was luckily my housemate, spoke English. He was really helpful.
“The first game I played was a preseason friendly against a local team in Klaipėda, and that’s when the racial abuse started. The pitch was similar to a non-league pitch over here—no stadium and all the fans are just standing around the edge. I start getting the ball, and they started singing “zigga zigga zigga, shoot that n*gga”. I was shocked, thinking oh my days—what is going on here? Then our away fans started singing the zigga chant too. I came off in the second half and there was a massive cheer. I remember getting on the phone; I didn’t have a mobile, so I used the president’s phone, and calling my older brother to say “I’m coming home”. He said, “Look, I’m not telling you to stay anywhere you don’t wanna stay but if you come home—they win.” But I remember that the next morning I woke up and thought, nobody is going to run me out of anywhere. And that was that.
“The same people who were singing “zigga zigga zigga” were the same people who were elated when I scored the winner in the final. Klaipėda hadn’t won a trophy for eleven years, and up until the final, I just didn’t care about it at all. But before the game, they put the trophy in the middle of the pitch, and it was massive. We walked past and weren’t allowed to touch it —and suddenly I was thinking “I wanna win this now, I wanna touch it!”
“So, I scored, and the fans ran onto the pitch, and at first, I was screaming “Yehh! Get in!” Then, I’m in the midst of our fans on the pitch, and they’ve all taken their tops off—and they’ve all got shaved heads and a swastika tattooed onto their chest. And suddenly I’m going “Yeh! Woo! Yeh, oh. Wow, oh ok. Right.” I went from elation to apprehension in a second.
“It was an experience I’m glad to have gone through, though. If I close my eyes, I can see the elation on their faces, and it was a black guy who had won it for them. I was fearful for those first six months; I just didn’t go anywhere. But after a while you started to see changes to the ignorance, not to say they were hugging me, but the attitudes altered. I became a minor celebrity; I didn’t have to pay for anything in the town. It’s a nice feeling to think that the next black person to go out there could have it easier because of what I went through, and hopefully, it’s a good legacy to leave.
“I think every person in this world has a story—I’m writing mine at the moment—and Lithuania was just one aspect: one big chapter that shaped me into who I am today and what I can deal with. Whatever you take from me, whether you like me or you don’t like me—I’m cool with my lane, I am authentic, I am being me. When you hear about Beast Mode, you automatically think size, especially with a bloke like me—I’m a big guy. But I kid you not; the strongest thing I own is my mind. It’s being able to defy the limitations that people put on you. You have to apply yourself to the best of your ability, and you’re not always going to win—but you will always either win or learn.”
This article first appeared in Issue 010, which is now so rare you can only buy it on eBay, sorry. You can still buy Issue 014 from our shop though, or subscribe to our magazine, starting with Issue 015.