Born in Birmingham, Alabama on June 16 1997 to two Nigerian parents, Stephen Oyebolaji Payne started playing football when he was 5, encouraged by his father who was his first trainer. Since then, he has made progress coming through the ranks playing in club and academy systems such as that of MLS side, the Chicago Fire, eventually earning himself a call up to the U.S Men’s National Team U18 side.
Now playing in Portugal for Estoril Praia’s U23 side in the Right Back/Right Winger position, Stephen has a chat with Sportive interviewer, Isaac Okaa, as they discuss his journey so far playing football professionally.
You started playing/practicing football at the tender age of 5 and your father was your first trainer. Was football a game you always loved or was it forced on you in a way? Did you always know you would be a footballer?
First my dad made the game all about having fun when I was younger. That way it became something I enjoyed and could become my passion. Now as it gets more serious as my career I still love and enjoy playing which is one of the most important things in this game. This is what I have always wanted and to be getting closer and closer is the best feeling.
Congratulations on your move to Portugal. Do you have any worries about the language barrier and intensity/style-of-play in the league?
Thank you. Estoril Praia is a fantastic club and a good place to start my career. It is difficult at times with the language barrier but that is what it takes to continue to reach playing at the next level. My teammates and coaches are very helpful and friendly teaching me the basics and understanding my role to the team. The intensity is very fast and physical in Portugal. I am currently with the U23 side and this will help me a lot develop and get stronger to play at the next level.
If you weren’t playing football now, what career would you be walking towards? Do you have your sights set on working in a space outside football in the future or is it too early for you to say now?
If I wasn’t playing football now I would probably be doing something in science with Pharmacy which is what I enjoyed in high-school. Right now, I don’t know exactly what the future holds but I definitely want to stay involved in football well after my career.
What team or teams did you grow up supporting? What teams do you support now?
Ever since I was a kid my favorite team was Arsenal and will always be a team I enjoy watching and supporting. My dad is a Manchester United fan which causes a little bit of conflict in the house. Now I still like Arsenal and enjoy watching and learning from different teams and players around the world.
What was it like growing up in Alabama?
Growing up in Alabama was a great experience and Alabama will always be my home. I think I wouldn’t be the player I am today without growing up there. Soccer isn’t the biggest sport in Alabama so that taught me a lot of the hard-working qualities I needed to learn so that I could play with the top players outside of my state and country.
You’re currently a winger/right back but did you ever experiment in any other positions?
I have played everywhere offensively and I think that is important for me to be versatile in wherever a coach needs me. With that being said, I love playing winger and running at players using skill and speed to create opportunities.
What academies did you play for and what was your journey rising through the ranks like?
After my club soccer career in Alabama, I was given the opportunity to play for the Chicago Fire and Chicago Magic PSG academies in high-school. Playing with those academies was a great experience and really made me grow in my playing style. I had to immediately learn how to play quicker, faster, and with more discipline in the academy league which definitely helped my game.
How do you like to spend your free time?
When I am not training with my club or working at the gym, I like to spend free time watching football and learning more about the game. I think knowledge of the game is one of the most important things to have and it is so fun to watch all the teams at the same time.
You got your first call-up to the USMNT U18s in 2014. What led up to that call-up and how were you discovered?
I was scouted playing an academy game at a showcase with the Chicago Magic PSG in Florida. I actually remember during the game one of my friends was speaking with the head coach of the U18 National team near the sideline of my game. I made sure to play even harder not knowing he had already spoke to my coaches about bringing me in. It was a great and fun experience playing with the best players in the US.
Being that you’re eligible to play for both the Nigeria and U.S senior national teams, have you made up your mind as to which one of the two you want to represent when the time comes?
Right now, I want to really focus on my new club and playing and working hard for them. I think that is the most important thing right now and the rest will fall in place. The U.S. is my home and I am so grateful for what it has given me in and outside of football.
Also, I am blessed to be a Nigerian and have two Nigerian parents who raised me with their qualities and characteristics. With that being said, I will work hard and pray for those opportunities to come later, discuss with my family, and then make a decision.
It appears that there is about to be an influx of young Nigerian players with dual or multiple citizenships making a switch to the Super Eagles. Has anyone from the Nigeria Football Federation reached out to you about donning the green and white?
There have been representatives who reached out to my dad about me and my sister, Toni Payne, about playing for Nigeria and those opportunities. It is exciting to know there are possibilities and opportunities for that; so now we both just need to work hard and continue to let God lead us in the right direction.
Who are some players you look up to? Growing up, did you watch any players whose styles you hoped to replicate?
Growing up my two favorite players to watch were Zidane and Jay-Jay Okocha. I remember watching clips of them with my dad and wanting to use skill to dribble and beat players like they did. I think watching them really made me enjoy football and try to use and imitate their moves.
How do you balance your education and your career? How challenging is it?
Right now, I am not at UCLA anymore and I am pausing my education now to pursue my dreams of playing at the highest level. I have an agreement with my dad that I must go back and finish my education after football as it is very important to him as a Nigerian.
What is the deal signing process like, what factors do you take into consideration when making the switch to a footballing side, and how involved are you and your parents in the process?
The deal signing process made me nervous and anxious but my agent makes it very easy to transition to becoming a professional and getting involved in those decisions. My dad is a huge reason I am here today and stays in contact with me and my agent to make sure that I am working hard and staying focused.
Are there any Nigerian players that you’re currently paying attention to?
Right now, I love what a lot of the big time Nigerian players are doing in football. Specifically, Victor Moses, Musa, and Iwobi in the Premier League are an inspiration of what hard work can do for you to play at the highest level. They are incredible players.
Apart from Portugal, what other European countries do you see yourself playing in?
I love Portugal and it is a beautiful place and great league to begin with. Every footballer has dreams of playing at the highest levels and biggest stages but right now, it is all about working hard and not getting ahead of myself. I think if I do that the possibilities are endless.
What aspects of your game do you think you have perfected and what parts of it do you think you need to work on?
I think I am doing well with my skill and dribbling defenders which is what I love doing. I need to continue to work on my first touch and finishing offensively. Scoring goals is the most important thing offensively and I can always improve in that area. Also, my defending needs to continue to improve to make me versatile in this game.
If you have been following the news, a lot of African and Brazilian players who fans think are still capable of competing at the top levels in world football have been making big money moves to China and many believe that such money-motivated moves are ironically cheapening the game. Do you have an opinion on this? If such an offer was put on your table, would you take it?
In my opinion I think it all depends on the player who is offered and their situation at the time of their career. Players have families and want to create a good life for themselves and if playing in China can get them there I think it is a good decision for them. For me, I can’t say what I would do because I am not in that situation but right now I am focused on playing and working hard for Estoril Praia.
In your experience as a young footballer, what are some difficulties you have faced?
I have experienced a lot of difficulty and challenges as a footballer which a lot of players have faced. Not being selected for certain teams, playing time, and things outside of football that create adversity are important to go through to create mental-toughness and strength to succeed as a player and a person.
What advice can you give other aspiring athletes such as yourself, especially those who look to make careers out of football, about the football world?
I would tell them to continue to work hard and never give up. Don’t let anyone stop you and prove them wrong by your hard work behind the scenes. Also, I would say give 100 percent in trainings and games because you never know who is looking. If you do that the opportunities will come and once it does never let it go.