Born into one of the most devastating wars to ever befall the continent of Africa, 19-year old Lido Lotefa’s memories of his homeland are vague but striking.
“To be honest, my only memories are gunshots, violence.”
Lotefa and his family moved from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Ireland when he was five years old, as the tears of the Second Congo War ran across the fabric of the country. His mother was more than aware that this was no place for a child.
Fast-forward 15 years, and for a moment ignore the in-between.
Lido Lotefa. Professional footballer with the finest team in the country, League of Ireland champions Dundalk, and highly touted as one of the brightest prospects still plying their trade on the island. Still just 19.
The destination for Lotefa has by no means been reached. His ceiling in the game is as high as any young player in the country.
It’s his journey however that has so far defined him both on and off the field.
“We first settled in Killarney,” Lotefa tells Pundit Arena.
“After that we moved to Dublin and then that’s when we had to go through the asylum seeker’s process.”
In Ireland, a key component in the asylum-seeking process of which Lotefa speaks, is Direct Provision, a system of temporary accommodation for asylum seekers while their application for protection is processed by the Reception and Integration Agency.
For Lotefa and his family, Mosney Direct Provision centre in Co. Meath was the first place in Ireland they really called home, staying there for a year and a half before finding permanent accommodation in Balbriggan in North Co. Dublin.
Direct Provision has been criticised by many in the past, with conditions in centres often poor and time spent there often lengthy, without the guarantee of asylum being granted.
Lotefa speaks about a childhood friend of his from his days at in the centre. “My best mate and his family got deported. I’ll never forget that. I cried like hell.”
It was a tough period but Direct Provision was where the 19-year-old found, what he referred to as the key to settling into his new life.
“I played a bit of ball back home, but the first team I played for was in Mosney. We just set up a team between us it was called Albert Johanneson, named after one of the first high-profile black players in English football.”
In a team made up of any and every nationality you can possibly think of Lotefa stood out – “there’s Lido the footballer” – so much so that his career took him to Ireland’s premier schoolboy football club, St Kevin’s Boys.
Again he shone, in a strong team that also contained current Bournemouth midfielder Gavin Kilkenny, one of Lotefa’s best friends.
The pair’s performances caught the eye of scouts across the water and they were invited for trials with Coventry City, but it was in the airport on the way to Birmingham where Lotefa suffered a stumbling block in his career.
“Everything was setup, the chairman of Coventry was meeting us in Birmingham airport,” he explains.
“Now bear in mind, I’ve been on about ten flights before this Coventry flight, I’ve flown by myself, without any problems, visa everything in check.
“We get to the airport and Gavin checks in he’s there earlier than me so I go to check in and the lady says ‘wait one second’ so I’m thinking ‘what’s the story here?’ and then the manager comes and he says to me ‘you’re under 16 I’m not letting you fly.’
“I’m looking at Gavin who is also under 16 and he’s ok to fly and ready to go. I’m telling the manager ‘I’m going to Coventry this could change my life,’ but he’s adamant that I’m not flying unless I go with an adult.
“We’re in there looking at the next flights, even the Coventry chairman is on the phone to the manager trying to sort it out. We even tried to ring Birmingham airport and tell them there’s a kid coming in but the airport wouldn’t pick up the phone.
“Everything was just fishy that day. The next flights were like 400 euro and we aren’t the type to ask Coventry to pay for them. It was just too much for us.”
When speaking to Lotefa he is confident but it never evolves into arrogance. It’s this self-belief that helped him get over the disappointment of the Coventry conundrum. Another trial was promised but it never came.
From there it was onto Bohemians U17s where he immediately clicked with manager Jimmy Mowlds, scoring 18 goals, in what he described as the best season of his career.
When Lotefo and his family moved to Ireland, they did so without his father who, working in a good job, made the sacrifice to stay in Congo to help provide for his loved ones who had left for a better life.
Lotefo went 10 years without seeing his father, which he admitted was difficult. In Mowlds though, the talented attacking player found a father-like figure to turn to in a time of need, which unexpectedly came with Bohs’ U19s a year after his standout campaign with the U17s.
“At the time I rang up Jimmy, who was still the 17s manager,” he explains.
“Me and Jimmy talk every day, he’s almost like my Dad at this stage, he gives me great personal advice, so I told him ‘Jimmy, I don’t know about football anymore,’ and he was like, ‘I know you’re not playing here, do you want to go?’
“I replied, ‘Are you really trying to help me get out of the club you manage at?’ But that’s the relationship me and Jimmy have. I wanted to get out so he rang me back a few hours later and goes ‘do you want to go to Dundalk U19s?'”
The 19-year old even admits that his struggles at Bohemians almost led to him completely turning his back on the game he once loved so dearly.
“It’s funny at that time I was so close to quitting football. I was mentally drained by football. I started going out before games because I knew wouldn’t be playing.
“It really messed me up, mentally it was tough. I spent six months on the bench. I wasn’t their ideal player. It opened my eyes a lot though because sitting on the bench made me really realise how much I loved playing football.”
As jaded as Lotefa had been with football, the environment he found himself in at Dundalk immediately eased his concerns as he worked his way into the U19s starting XI, scoring six and making six in just 10 games.
Lotefa explained that when he joined the underage setup at Oriel Park, he had expected to play out his contract before deciding his next move. Senior football with the Lilywhites hadn’t even entered his mind.
His performances at Dundalk though were catching the eye of the club’s hierarchy and with two months to go in the season he was called up by manager Stephen Kenny to train with the first team, even making the bench against St Patrick’s Athletic.
“I just got a phone call from Stephen and he says, ‘I want you in on Monday.’ So, I’m thinking, ‘Ok, it’s only one training session.’ But then after Monday he’s like, ‘I want you in tomorrow’ and then again the next day. It kept going for the last two months before the season ended.”
The striker speaks incredibly highly of Kenny. He spent just two months under his tutelage but it’s clear the impact he’s had on his career. “My heart sunk” admitted Lotefa when heard the news of Kenny’s departure for the Irish U21s.
He does, however, have the lasting legacy of being the former Dundalk boss’ last signing at the club as he penned a professional deal with the Lilywhites just before Kenny’s exit.
“There was a few offers from big clubs too which caught me by surprise. I played about 30 minutes in 6/7 months of football just a few months before this, it was for me it was rock bottom and to come from there to getting a contract with the best team in the country, it just opened my eyes. Even though I wanted to give up I knew that there was just something that kept me going.”
Lotefa made his first senior start in the Leinster Senior Cup against Athlone Town, a game he admitted he didn’t impress in. But his short career has been defined by overcoming the myriad of obstacles that have been put in his way.
He played again against St Pats in the second round of the EA Sports Cup and looked much like himself, getting on the ball and trying to make things happen in his preferred number 10 roll.
“You won’t see me hoofing it,” he jokes.
Lotefa has yet to acquire his Irish passport (he’s currently on the waiting list having recently applied) and thus cannot represent the Boys in Green at international level, which is disappointing given his ability and desire to be involved.
The talented prospect, like many of this new generation of Irish, must also deal with the stigma that still disappointingly lingers on the periphery of sport in this country.
“100% racism is an issue in football here,” says Lotefa, in frank and honest fashion.
“From ‘look at the size of your nostrils’ to ‘you black bastard.’ They try and put you off your game.
“I remember playing for St Kevin’s in a cup semi-final against Belvedere, I won’t tell you his name because I’m good mates with him now but there was a rivalry between me and him.
“He went in as low as, ‘look at the size of your nostrils,’ I’d just say, ‘Ok that’s cool.’ We ended up winning 3-0 so I had to say no more. It’s very upsetting. You want to fight but you’re just going to get in trouble.
“If it was to happen now I wouldn’t back down. No way. It’s 2019 like, you can’t be doing that stuff.”
At 19, Lotefa has had a life difficult for many his age to even comprehend. He exudes a relaxed but confident aura when he speaks.
The stumbling blocks have come and gone. There’ll be plenty more to come in his career. The next step for Lotefa is a Premier Division debut.
It’s been one hell of a journey so far, but in ways, it’s only just begun.