African footballers flock to India for greener pastures (Sports Feature)

New Delhi, Jan 12: Far away from their homes, African footballers are flocking to India for greener pastures. They have not only won a million Indian hearts in the last two decades but have also been a source of inspiration for young Indian footballers. While some 400 Africans are playing in various clubs in India, around 25 feature in the top clubs in the elite I-League football tournament.

They come from Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and South Sudan, the world’s newest nation that is engulfed in civil strife.

At a time when Indian football is taking time to catch up with the world’s best, African footballers have given a new face to the game in the country. Their raw speed and power remain a challenge for the Indian players who are trying to make their way to foreign leagues in Europe and America.

Be it in Kolkata, Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune or in Goa, African footballers are finding their way into the top sides in Indian football. And why not? After all top clubs are spending anything between $100,000 to $400,000 each on African imports for a season.

Mohun Bagan skipper Odafe Onyeka Okolie is now the highest paid professional footballer in India with a pay package of approximately $400,000. His compatriot Ranty Martins, who plays for United SC, is also not far behind.

The fact that in the last six seasons, two Nigerians, Odafe and Ranty, have emerged as the top goal scorers in I-League shows the impact African footballers are having on Indian football.

“India made me famous. Had I stayed back in Nigeria, I wouldn’t have achieved all this name and fame. India is special as they have good players and playing with them has been a great experience,” Odafe told IANS.

Right from the days of Nigerians Emeka Ezugo, who recently converted to Islam, and Cheema Okerie, who used to be the star attraction in Kolkata teams during the 80′s, African footballers were always in great demand.

Emeka, who played for both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, also represented Nigeria in the 1994 World Cup and is now a coach with professional side Abia Warriors in the Nigerian Premier League.

Emeka will always be remembered as the first World Cupper to play in India. He was adjudged the best player in the 1990 Nehru Club Cup, scoring eight goals to take Kolkata’s Mohammedan Sporting into the semi-finals.

The first African name to strike a chord in India was David Williams who represented Tamil Nadu in Santosh Trophy in the 70′s before being recruited by East Bengal.

But the way Emeka and Cheema dazzled and enthralled the fans with their skill and power, opened the window of opportunity for other African footballers as well.

Even the youngest country in the world, South Sudan, which is in the midst of an armed conflict, has a player in James Moga who plays for East Bengal.

Former India captain and Olympian P.K. Banerjee feels Emeka and Cheema have had a great impact on Indian football.

“Of all the overseas footballers, Cheema and Emeka were a class apart and no wonder they played World Cup. It is not easy to get such quality players all too frequently,” he says.

Former India coach Sukhwinder Singh feels players like Odafe are crowd pullers and good advertisement for the game.

“In the past, people used to come to see Cheema and Emeka. There was a dip in between, but now Odafe is creating waves in the I-League,” says Sukhwinder, a former national coach.

But Brazilian Jose Barretto, who remains the most successful overseas player in recent times, feels that the quality of African footballers has gone down in the last four to five years.

“We had some good African footballers in India, but I feel in the last four-five years the quality has gone down. The two main reasons are cash crunch and lack of proper scouting. I also feel the clubs are to also blame for it. Had they been more professional in their approach, the quality of foreigners could have improved,” Barretto, who now plays for Kolkata’s Bhowanipore FC in second division I-League, told IANS.

Barretto feels Martins remains the best African player in the last five years adding that it is discipline that sets Brazilian players apart from all other overseas imports.

(Abhishek Roy can be contacted abhishek.roy@ians.in)

IANS