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Sports Features Tue, 6 Apr 2010

African players add extra kick to Indian football

Four hundred Africans and a million Indian hearts. The equation is quite simple for legions of football fans in the country who, over the last two decades, have seen the game getting new life and energy with African players dominating the Indian turf with their raw power and talent.

From the grounds of Kolkata in the east to the clubs of Goa in the west, Kerala in the south and Delhi in the north, African footballers are adding their distinctive flavour of power football at a time when football in India - a country known for its cricket craze - is trying to catch up with the world's best.

Pick any of the 12 I-league teams and you cannot miss the African presence. The top clubs shell out around Rs.2.5 million (approx $50,000) for a player for one season.

These players come from countries like Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Liberia and Congo and play crucial roles in club teams. With their power strikes, Africans have been the top scorers in football leagues in India - from Bengal to Goa, from Delhi to Kerala.

Most importantly, they add a dash of colour and excitement in the domestic season and pull crowds to the stadiums.

The first African name to strike a chord was David Williams. He represented Tamil Nadu state in the inter-state Santosh Trophy in the 1970s before East Bengal Club, the country's premier club, picked him up.

Later, in the 1980s, Nigerians Emeka Ezeugo and Cheema Okerie were star attractions in Kolkata teams. The two not only left Indian fans in thrall with their skill and power but also opened a window for other Africans to play in India. Many came as students and found a way to earn good money.

According to former India captain and Olympian P.K. Banerjee, Emeka and Cheema had a lasting impact on Indian football.

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

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.

Septuagenarian Ashok Ghosh vividly remembers how Cheema terrorised the defenders.

"Cheema was raw power. He was called the black cheetah. There were a lot of good strikers, but Cheema was of a different class. He was not only powerful but fast as well. The defenders were mortally scared of him," he said.

Like the Nigerians, Ghanaians Yusif Yakubu and Suley Musah have also brought in a high level of professionalism into the Indian teams.

The gallery of fame is long and distinguished.

Last year, Congolese striker Mboyo Iyomi played a key role in I-League champions Dempo's success. It became the first Indian club to qualify for the AFC Cup semifinals.

"Being a foreigner, it is easier to get noticed in India. Money is not the only factor," said Iyomi.

Mumbai FC recently recruited two Ghanaians - Michael Osei and James Dissimariah - and they both played with Chelsea star Michael Essien in Ghana.

"We were inspired by Essien's success overseas. We also wanted to come out of our country and prosper. India gives us good money, and the experience to become a tough professional," said Dissimariah.

Englishman David Booth, now in charge of Mumbai FC, has had the experience of coaching in Ghana and says Africans do not hesitate to venture out for better prospects.

"African players will go and play in any country. In India, they are the key players in the clubs they play for as they are the most dependable. Playing with and against them, Indian players have benefited in terms of both skills and stamina," said Booth, who has also coached Mahindra United in the past.

Being an outsider Booth is surprised to see a large number of African youngsters turning out every day for trials at the Mahindra factory ground.

"It is nice to see that young Africans who come here for studies are also serious about making a career out of football. But it becomes difficult for me to accommodate everyone," he said.

Cheema, who is now coaching Delhi's second division I-League club ND Heroes, recalls his days when he came to India as a student and went on to establish himself as one of the prolific scorers here.

"Coaching in Delhi reminds me of my olden days. Here in the morning I see several Africans, who come here to study, practising in parks and grounds. At ND Heroes I call them for trials and it is heartening to see the enormous talent that they have," he said.

Delhi clubs are now recruiting good foreigners, Cheema said, adding that there are approximately 50 Africans playing in the Delhi league.

"Delhi clubs have realised they have to be in the first division I-League, and for that they are now recruiting top African professionals," he said.

In the last two years, Africans have emerged top goal scorers in the national I-League. Churchill Brothers striker Odafe Onyeka Okolie was the best player of the inaugural I-League in 2007-08 and has been in tremendous form in the ongoing second edition.

"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," said Odafe.

JCT coach Sukhwinder Singh feels players like Odafe are crowd pullers and a 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," said Sukhwinder, a former national coach.

Goan Joaquim Leitao, a teenager, likes Odafe's slow style of play.

"Odafe is a very clever player. He... suddenly picks up speed and in a moment you will see the ball in the net. I wish we had 10-15 Odafes so that India could play the World Cup," he said.

African footballers have not only blossomed in the Indian domestic league but also been crucial to the success of Indian clubs overseas.

Ghanaian Musah led East Bengal to become the first Indian club to win an international tournament, the ASEAN Cup in 2003. Burly Nigerian Mike Okoro also played a crucial role by scoring a goal in the final for the Kolkata team.

African footballers have long been showing Indian fans how to bring a zing to a kick. They continue to do so.

Source: Indo Asian News