Wilfred Agbonavbare died four years ago to this day. While his playing career may be less than dazzling, his face will continue to be seen around Madrid’s less-privileged housing estates and his name will continue to be spoken with reverence for years to come.
Born in Lagos in 1966, Wilfred “Willy” Agbonavbare began his professional playing career with the unusual club New Nigerian Bank FC, unusual because it played in Benin City, across the border. The club would ultimately suffer relegation in 1989 amidst liquidity concerns, shortly before entering administration. The strong goalkeeper would quickly find a new employer in the shape of BCC Lions FC, another Nigerian outfit. His tenure at this club would be short lived however, and after a brief spell at Brentford FC, Willy would wind up at la Segunda División outfit Rayo Vallecano in 1990, the club at which he would make a name for himself.
Six years at “Madrid’s third club” would stand out as the most fruitful era of Willy’s playing career. The charismatic goalie would make 177 appearances wearing La Franja, aiding the club in its promotion campaign to La Liga in 1992 and playing for the Vallecas side for 3 seasons in Spain’s top flight. During the early 90’s, Willy would also make 15 appearances for Nigeria’s national side, the Super Eagles, way before their jerseys became a fashion must-have. The Super Eagles would emerge as one of the African continent’s strongest sides in the 90’s, winning the African Cup of Nations in 1994 and competing in the FIFA World Cup in 1996. Wilfred earned caps in both competitions, helping lift the image of Nigerian Football in doing so.
Though nobody knew it at the time, 1996 would prove to be the peak of Willy’s career, and possibly of his personal life too. He would move back to La Segunda with Ecija Balompié before being released by the club a year later. Unable to find a club willing to take him on, Willy became a goalkeeping coach and a part-time delivery man at the young age of 31. The Madrid resident would then use most of his savings from his Football playing career to fund the private treatment for his wife’s breast cancer. The investment would prove to be in vain, as his wife died from her illness in 2012. More bad luck was to befell Willy, who was later made redundant after being diagnosed with cancer himself in late 2014, by now a baggage handler at Madrid Barajas airport. His struggle was made public, with well-wishers and associates appealing on his behalf to raise the necessary funds to fly his children from Nigeria to Spain in order to see him again. During a Madrid derby, Atlético Madrid and Rayo Vallecano fans would together unveil a “Fuerza Willy” banner on the 24th of January, 2015. Three days later on the 27th, four years ago to this day, Wilfred Agbonavbare died, aged only 48.
However, Willy’s legend and character lives on inside the fabric of the club where he most felt at home. As one fan put it on Rayo Vallecano’s Social Media account;
Wilfred; symbol of rayismo, of the fight against racism. You always proudly defended the strip and the values of this club, this neighbourhood and this fanbase. Because of this, we love you so much and will never forget you. Unforgettable and eternal, Willy.
The big Nigerian found his form at the same time when the “Bukaneros”, Rayo Vallecano’s leading Ultra group that occupy the terrace behind the western goal, was forming. His popularity as both a player and a person is well documented. But it is his humility as a professional Footballer in an era in which people in that profession have a tendency to splash the cash and engage in frivolous self-indulgence that has really endeared him to fans of the club. Since his death, the Bukaneros have continued to chant his name to celebrate an example of the forces for good that can exist within the sport. And furthermore, the club has paid tribute to the man by renaming the west terrace the “Wilfred Agbonavbare stand”.
As fans walk down the Avenida de la Albufera, clutching their red and white scarves, they will head towards the gate through which they must make passage in order to enter the Wilfred Agbonavbare stand. As they queue outside the doorway, holding their season tickets, a round, kindly face will stare back at them. Sadly only 2 dimensional, but the image will continue to be seen for years to come outside the Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas. Willy’s profile greets you as you enter the stadium, just as he did during his playing years at the club.
Wilfred personified the club’s internalised values of multiculturalism, humility and distaste at needless spending, and did so while being a hugely popular figure in the club. Fans and club employees alike have made a commitment to honour his memory and not to forget him.