Lido Lotefa left Oriel Park last Friday with arguably the biggest smile but it hasn’t always been that way for the young attacker.
The 20-year-old’s close range finish, having nipped in ahead of Cameron Dummigan, ensured a 1-0 win for his side in the club’s first proper 11 v 11 training game.
It might be a small landmark in the grand scheme of things but it was also a reminder that despite the prospect of a reduced season this year, Lotefa is hopeful of playing a part.
Prior to now, a three minute cameo off the bench in the 3-0 win over Cork City on February 24th was Lotefa’s biggest contribution of 2020 but he also came to national prominence last month when he took part in the ‘To The New Generation’ project, a series of portraits of black athletes in Ireland representing their communities and families.
Each of the participants – including Republic of Ireland international Rianna Jarrett, Leinster rugby player Adam Byrne and local boxer Evelyn Igharo – held up a slogan. In Lotefa’s case, his message was very simple: ‘Black Lives Matter’.
It might be the current trend globally after the tragic death of George Floyd in America but for Lotefa racism is something he has had to deal with virtually all his life.
He might be loving life at the moment but it hasn’t always been easy. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he was forced to flee his homeland along with his family at just five years old as the Second Congo War raged.
Ireland was the destination but while it brought a more peaceful surrounding than back home, it had its challenges too. After a brief stint in Killarney, the family resided in the Direct Provision Centre at Mosney in Co Meath for a year and a half – a place which Lotefa described as “the worst of conditions” before finally finding permanent accommodation in Balbriggan. They would later move to Swords and most recently to Hollystown where life on the whole is good these days but it hasn’t always been that way, hence the reason he was happy to hold aloft the ‘Black Lives Matters’ poster.
“It’s something important to me because it’s something I’ve faced and it’s something my family has faced,” he said.
“Racism is not nice but it’s something that has to be highlighted. We just can’t keep brushing it aside.
“Even with all the publicity it has got recently, I still feel like it’s just going to be brushed aside in the next month or two and then we’re back to square one but hopefully I’m wrong because the feeling when you are being discriminated against because of your skin colour – which has happened me growing up and in football – is the worst.
“You don’t even want to play any more and you just feel so left out.”
Thankfully, Lotefa’s ability with a ball at his feet met he gained some respect but other black friends were not as fortunate.
“My whole life growing up here I would have experienced racism but luckily because of football I was usually better than a lot of the people around me so even though I was black I got respect because of my ability.
“I was able to fit in because of that and they kind of accepted me but for my friends who didn’t have skills they were left out and had to play by themselves or make a group by themselves. I was kind of accepted but it shouldn’t be like that.”
It’s a while since he has been abused on the field at least.
“I’ve not had any at my time at Dundalk thankfully,” said Lotefa.
“I’d say the last time I had it was in 2016 in my final season for St Kevin’s when I had a big altercation with a team-mate. That was kind of disappointing but we shook hands and moved on.”
There would be too many low points to mention for a man who went 10 years without seeing his father who stayed behind in DR Congo to help provide for his family here and who cried when his best friend got deported during his youth.
Yet, Lido’s mental toughness is one of the qualities which make him such an exciting prospect. The fact that Dundalk are likely to have just 13 league games left when the season returns, with the likes of the EA Sports Cup and Leinster Senior Cup already axed, isn’t good news for a guy who is a fringe player but he’s not letting that get him down.
“It’s tough to lose those games but at the end of the day when you’re playing for Dundalk competition is always high and I’m still young and trying to break through so I’m not going to be complacent and give up on it.
“I’m looking to push on. I want to play as big a role as I can this season and then hopefully kick on again next season. I’ll be trying to get in as many match day squads as I can for the remainder of the campaign and then I’ll take it from there.”
He’ll hope there are bigger moments ahead than Friday’s goal but for Lotefa, it’s a good starting point for the second half of the year.
“It was a good feeling to score. I’m going to treat it as my first goal and hopefully now I can kick on from it.
“Whether it be a training game or not, once it’s a game I’m just happy to score.
“It’s going to be tough to get game time but it’s something I’m prepared for. If I impress and do well in training and make the match day squad I’ll definitely take my chance if it comes along. I won’t back down.”
Minutes might be at a premium right now but Lotefa is confident that playing with some of the best players in the country every day is having an impact on him.
“That’s 100%. From when I came into Dundalk at 18 to now at 20, there has been a huge difference. I’m not who I used to be, I’m better, and that’s down to the guys I’m playing with every day and the environment I’m in because I’ve had to up my standards to reach theirs.
“Every day I’m really learning.
“I’m at the best club in the country and I really want to give it a shot here.”
It’ll be hard for Lotefa to get game time for the rest of the year – he’s aware of that – but he has overcome bigger and tougher challenges and perhaps most importantly is taking this one on with a smile on his face.