A gambling addict who almost went bankrupt, a goalkeeper who was accused of living under an assumed identity, a backpacker who travelled in vain around Asia in search of a contract last year and a defender who is the butt of all jokes in his country.
The cash-rich Indian Super League (ISL), which will be officially launched here on Thursday, has turned out to be a playground for retired and over-the-hill football professionals to dust off their boots and enjoy a final fling with the game. At the same time, the three-month tournament, which begins on October 12, has also revived the careers of several foreign players who have been on the verge of sinking into oblivion.
Last week, the owners of eight teams gathered at a plush South Mumbai hotel and splurged crores to acquire the services of 49 foreign players.
But Michael Chopra, Apoula Edel, Manuel Friedrich and Bernard Mendy stand out among them not just for the exploits on the field during their prime but also because of their bizarre stories that have eventually landed them to India.
Till a month ago, Indian-origin English striker Michael Chopra’s future on was on the tenterhooks. He was let go by his club Blackpool after the 30-year-old failed to score for an entire season. He was in the docks for placing illegal bets on horse racing, in which he lost £2 million and almost became bankrupt.
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And with no football club willing to take him on board, there were serious question marks over his career. “That’s in the past now,” Chopra said last week. “I want to move over that phase of my life and hope to play for the Indian national team by giving up my British passport.”
Valued at $58,185, Chopra was the first pick for Sachin Tendulkar co-owned Kerala Blasters. Interestingly, the team is coached by former England goalkeeper David James, who declared himself bankrupt in May this year.
Like Chopra, Cameroon goalkeeper Edel too had hit a roadblock after none of the clubs showed interest in him. The former Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) goalkeeper was released by Israeli club Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2013 and had failed to get a contract since.
Crucially, it was the controversy over his identity that virtually made him a pariah. Edel has been accused of living under an assumed identity, of having two passports. He is in fact five years older than his reported age (28) and his real name is Ambroise Beyamena. And although he was cleared of any wrongdoing by the French police four years ago, the damage had been done.
At $80,000, Edel’s former PSG teammate Bernard Mendy was the highest-paid player at last week’s draft, snapped up by Team Chennai.
The 32-year-old French defender has the distinction of being the longest-serving player for the Parisian club, having played there for eight years from 2000, notching up 189 appearances.
Yet, he has been an unknown quantity not just in Europe but also in his country. Arsenal’s French manager Arsene Wenger’s, ‘sorry who?’ remark when asked about Mendy, who then played for Bolton Wanderers, summed up his career.
The error-prone centre-back has also been a victim of jokes that are of ‘Sir Jadeja’ and Ranjikant proportions. “India is going to discover a character worthy of Bollywood,” a French sports website wrote last week. Another blogger said: “One day, Bernard Mendy missed a pass to Djibril Cisse. Cisse apologized.”
While all these players are seemingly past their prime, Germany’s Manuel Friedrich makes for a very interesting case. At 34, he is the youngest among the marquee players to feature in the tournament. Last year, the defender refused to renew his contract with German Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen, instead choosing to end his career in Asia.
He was approached by Thai team Bangkok Glass but wasn’t offered a contract after the club’s manager Attaphol Buspakom wasn’t sure enough whether Friedrich would have the necessary fire at the age of 34. Friedrich, who’ll represent Ranbir Kapoor co-owned Mumbai City, ended up playing Champions League football for then German champions Borussia Dortmund later that year, quelling all concerns.
Not many clubs in Europe would pay $80,000 for three months to Mendy or the $58,185 for Chopra and Edel. But Bruno Satin, a players’ agent appointed by the ISL, said for many of these players, money wasn’t the deciding factor. “We wanted good players nearing retirement along with those out of contract and without a bid during the transfer window. For many, this is also an opportunity to revive their careers,” he said.