In conversation with Mission 89 Ambassador Ode Fulutudilu
Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ode fled civil war at a young age and arrived in South Africa as a refugee. Her talent and determination won her an all-inclusive scholarship to study in the United States and after earning her degree, she went on to play football professionally in Europe and represent South Africa in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
She now plays for Finnish team, Aland United, who have just won the Finnish Women’s Cup. We spoke about her journey as an athlete, the unifying power of sport and what it means to be an ambassador for Mission 89.
Mission 89: Can you tell me about arriving in South Africa as a child?
Ode Fulutudilu: After I moved to South Africa as a refugee, I grew up in a children’s home. My father had to go back to Angola. With the refugee paperwork he was struggling to get work so he moved and I stayed in South Africa. I went into the government guardianship scheme and met a foster mother who helped me get a scholarship to go to America with my soccer. That was a big turning point for my career and in my life, it opened a lot of doors. I was able to get a degree through doing what I love and something that I’m passionate about. I got a four-year scholarship with everything paid for, and a degree, which was always my aim.
M89: How did you become involved with sports?
OF: I got involved when I went into the childcare system, just playing with the boys after school. My everyday routine was to get home, put my bag down and run outside. I just loved sport and was really good at it, so any sport that the children’s home exposed me to, I did. I did karate, athletics, soccer. I enjoyed soccer the most because it was a team sport, I loved the spirit of it. The other sports were so individual, I didn’t really enjoy the pressure. In soccer there is a collective pressure. I stuck to soccer and pursued it with all my heart, practising and getting better each year.
M89: How significant was it for you to get a scholarship to study in the U.S.?
OF: Education is one of the most powerful things, especially for a poor African girl, when you don’t have a lot going for you. An education can open doors, particularly when you didn’t grow up with the correct connections or family that would give you the necessary access to opportunities. I knew education was what I really needed. Growing up poor, you know, my father didn’t finish primary school, so that was always my aim. When I was able to get my degree it was one of the greatest accomplishments, it still is, one of the greatest accomplishments of my life because no one can take that away from me, it’s done!
My number one thing when I speak to young African girls is that I always encourage them to pursue their education over the chance to go pro. As Africans, or even just female footballers in general, we do not end up with the same bank balance as male counterparts to be able to retire comfortably, so if all your focus is just on football and you have no back-up plan in acquiring your education, it’s a very thin line to be walking. That career can end any moment, an injury can end it, a team can suddenly decide not to sign you, and then you’re back to square one, back home, with no education and just football to show for it.
I know how important it is and I know how valuable it is. Knowing that I have a degree gives me so much more peace. I have a degree and so I have something to go back to.
M89: What about after graduation?
OF: I got my first professional contract 3 years after graduating from University which was in Finland, that was the first door opening for me into the professional world of football. After that I had an opportunity to represent my country during the FIFA Women’s World Cup which was another accomplishment in my life that no one can take it away from me. There’s no competition like it and to say that I was a part of it was an honour.
M89: How did it feel, to represent South Africa?
OF: It was awesome, I was so honoured. Growing up in South Africa as a refugee and just struggling through as a young girl, it was a real honour that my journey had brought me to that point. It’s the pinnacle of women’s football, and not a lot of people can say they’ve done that, male or female. That I can say that brings me so much joy.
M89: Do you see sport as unifying?
OF: Definitely. Even individual sport brings people together. Whatever sport you’re talking about, it draws people in to the entertainment or performance. It brings emotions out of you that few other things do. Sport is definitely a tool that can be used in a powerful way.
How has migration through sport changed your life?
Migration in sport and in my early life has allowed me to see different people’s perspective. I am able to understand and appreciate a lot more from having travelled. It allows us to broaden our minds and not be too selective as to how we think and how we view things. There’s more to life than just you, there’s a bigger picture out there.
M89: Mission 89’s objective is to prevent the trafficking of young people in sport. To what extent does that exploitation exist, in your opinion?
OF: Where there’s money there’ll be someone around the corner trying to take advantage and it’s no different in the sport industry where there is so much money to be made.
M89: What ways can people get taken advantage of?
OF: Club owners, contracts, agents. But I think sometimes agents get a bad reputation because there are bad ones but there are also good ones, like there bad coaches or bad team owners who take advantage of the industry. Definitely in each department there are opportunities for exploitation and that’s why Mission 89 does exist to want to make everyone aware of situations where people are being exploited. With awareness those people can seek help. It’s important with this information to expose exploitation, to expose those false agents, the people exploiting the situation. Where there are bad people there need to be good people, so [Mission 89’s] research is necessary and shining a light on what is actually happening, which I’m happy to be a part of.
M89: Do you think people within the industry are aware of the issue?
OF: Honestly I think it’s in the back of people’s minds, but what Mission 89 does is bring this issue to the front of their minds. So people could think “yes, it happens, but I’m not sure how often it happens or how big the issue is.” I know that when I was telling my teammates they were surprised. They’re used to hearing about sex trafficking, or within the modelling industry, but in soccer a lot of people are unaware. It’s important to raise awareness of how big the issue is.
M89: What advice would you give to young people career in sport?
OF: I would say to be consistent in the little things that make you better. People are always saying “you need to work hard” but some people don’t know what hard work looks like and don’t understand how often they should work hard. In a game like soccer, if you work too hard the day before a game that doesn’t help you. It’s about working smart and consistently. It’s about figuring out what your body can handle and doing it consistently. It’s a slow process which takes a lot of patience. A lot of players neglect many aspects of the game like nutrition and sleep which are huge parts of playing the game which some players don’t take as seriously.
M89: What are your ambitions for the future?
OF: Number one is to win the league here. We are on the brink of doing a double which would be the first time in the club’s history; that would be huge. My biggest dream in the future is to play for a big club in a top league before I retire. I’d love to end on high like that.
Interview by Holly West.