To say that Roma fans have been surprised with Edin Dzeko’s performance this season would be a gross misnomer; you seldom see a reversal of fortune so great. While Dzeko’s resurgence has been shocking, the track record was there, so there was always a decent chance he’d come good. However, there might be a small pocket of Roma fans who are surprised for an entirely different reason. Surprised not by Dzeko’s resurgence but rather his existence. Let me explain...
See, twelve years ago a kid bust upon the scene, and sure, he didn’t quite cut the same figure as Dzeko, but he was strong, mobile and dynamic; the prototypical 21st century hitman, Roma’s very own Didier Drogba, Stefano Okaka Chuka.
For a variety of reasons, Okaka’s name has gotten lost in the fray, but he’s the first subject of our Roma Regrets series, a look back at what might have been for some of Roma’s erstwhile best and brightest prospects.
There’s an old saying in baseball, chicks dig the long ball, which means simply: home runs put asses in the seats and digits in your burner. Perhaps it’s because few singular moments in sports are as captivating or as awe inspiring as a colossal home run or maybe it’s simply the show of force, but for whatever reason, kids who can hit a ball a long way get baseball nerds excited.
The football equivalent to this is a striker. There’s just something about a well struck goal that makes you say god damn, something that the most nimble of dribbles or perfectly executed slide tackles just can’t elicit. So, when a teenager starts tearing up the youth ranks, collecting goals like so many Pokemon cards, people get excited. Like, wildly, stupidly and irrationally excited. Score ten goals for the primavera? Great, you’re the new Zlatan and your clubs conquering hero.
For Roma in the 21st century, that was Stefano Okaka Motherfucking Chuka. A rare Italian-Nigerian hybrid who would usher in a new era of dominance at the Olimpico. A tall, strong and agile focal point for Roma’s attack, someone who could, to the extent possible, make use of all of Francesco Totti’s fanciful touches.
And for a while there, it seemed like destiny. Okaka made his club debut at all of 16-years-old in September of 2005 against Aris in the UEFA Cup, making him the youngest Italian debutant in a continental competition. Okaka would grab his first Roma goal three months later in the Coppa Italia before making his Serie A debut a week before Christmas 2005.
After such an auspicious debut, the stage seemed set. Okaka started the 2006-2007 season with the senior club and grabbed his first league goal in September against Siena. Little did we know that would be one of only two Serie A goals for Roma (both against Siena ironically)...
What Went Wrong?
Great question. I have no idea. Okaka had all the measurables one craves in a modern striker—tall, lean, fast and strong—yet after that relatively impressive debut as a teenager, he sort of just disappeared. In order to get Okaka steady minutes he was sent on a series of loans starting in the 2007-2008 season, bouncing from Modena to Brescia to Fulham to Bari to Parma, getting more frequent flier miles than goals.
And that’s really the long and short of it, Okaka had more employers than clear cut chances. While his development started off well enough—7 goals in 33 appearances for Modena—he never again topped that figure, scoring six league goals total over the next three seasons.
Career’s like Okaka’s are always hard to analyze. Who is really at fault here? Could Roma have handled his post-Modena loans a bit better? Yeah, probably, but at some point talent wins out; if he really was Drobga-esque, that would have come through eventually, regardless of what shirt he was wearing, so it’s hard to pin all of the blame on the parent club; Okaka was just exposed for what he is, a decent enough part time player.
Where is He Now?
After finding a niche of sorts with Sampdoria—nine league goals in 45 appearances—Okaka broke through in a big way for Anderlecht last season, bagging 15 goals in 37 appearances in the Belgian League. I don’t know enough about the Belgian league to explain why that didn’t garner him a new deal, but Okaka has once again landed in the Premiership, plying his trade for Walter Mazzarri at Watford, for whom he has two goals in nine league appearances.
Believe it or not, Okaka is still just 27-years-old, and if his past is any indication, he’ll have several more stops before ultimately hanging up the boots. So when all's said and done, Okaka will likely be looking back on a 15+ year top-flight professional career, and while it wasn’t the one he probably envisioned, it’s still a hell of a run.