Very early on a summer day in March, 2001, a 16-year-old footballer from Lagos landed in Mumbai with a backpack that had a couple of jeans, few t-shirts and a pair of football boots. A scout-cum-agent based out of India, a fellow Nigerian, had sold the young boy the dream of playing professional football in Europe. India, he was told, was merely a short pit-stop on the journey to the promised destination.
On the rickety bus that glided through the Western Ghats, the teenager braved travel sickness and nausea to reach Mapusa, Goa. The agent was supposed to meet him there and line-up a few trials. That was not to be as the middle man had already left for Kerala. The panic-stricken teenager hopped on to another bus that took him to Bangalore and finally to Kerala.
But the agent remained elusive. Just when he was about to give up on his dream, a Nigerian footballer playing for a local Kerala club offered him a friendly game. The young boy, who played for Okobaba FC at home, jumped at the opportunity. By the time the game ended, the nimble-footed young man had impressed everybody at the ground. Word soon spread. The news of a 16-year-old setting the Kerala maidans on fire spread across the country and the agent who had evaded him all along finally showed up.
In the subsequent six years, Dudu Omagbemi went on to become one of the finest African footballers to have played in India. He scored 73 goals in 89 matches for Sporting Clube de Goa in the six seasons from 2001 to 2007 before realising his dream of playing professional football in Europe.
But it’s the journey from Lagos to Goa via Mumbai, Bangalore and Kerala that he still cherishes. “I had risked everything to come here. We had no money but the lure of playing football professionally brought me here. And India didn’t disappoint me,” Omagbemi recalls, sitting a few yards away from a piano in the lobby of a plush Central Mumbai hotel.
Those days of struggle are a thing of past now. He now represents Pune City in the cash-rich Indian Super League (ISL). Nearly twice the age he was when he first landed in India, Dudu is a known face on Indian football circuit. Like many Africans before him, he enhanced the standard of Indian football leagues with his strength, speed, power, agility and natural ball skills for years. Much before the retired European super stars got signed for ISL, it was the Africans — Cheema Okorie, Emeka Ezugo, David Williams, Omagbemi, Ranti Martins, Yusif Yakubu and Okolie Odafa —who were the MVPs.
Not many among them made it to their national teams, but in India they were household names.
“In Nigeria, no one knows who Odafa is. I’m more famous here. People here know me. There are a lot of good players there (in Nigeria), but in India I’m special. I-League has given me my identity,” Odafa says.
ISL’s new stars has changed the fan following. Now, the Africans seem to be a forgotten lot. Only seven players from Africa are a part of the ISL, as against more than the two dozen in the I-League. And just three players who have played in the I-League (Omagbemi, Martins and Penn Orji) are a part of the ISL. But as some of the best talents from Europe and Americas take the centre stage in the ISL, the players who have been lightening up the Indian leagues now play second fiddle.
Not that they are complaining. For once, the African players say, they can compete without being under extreme pressure. Omagbemi recalls how he had to give much more than the rest of his teammates, just to stay employed at an Indian club, despite the extreme efforts he had to put in just to get a club. “The mentality here is that if you are a foreigner, you are the best. So I just had to make sure I gave 120 per cent,” he says.
With pressure there was also pampering. In some cases, the African players in the I-League are paid double than their Indian counterparts. A couple of seasons ago, Nigerian Odafa became the highest paid I-League footballer after he accepted an Rs.2.5 crore contract from Mohun Bagan to leave Churchill Brothers. Apart from the money, the players are also offered a luxury car, a membership in country clubs and a plush apartment at a prestigious address.
Yet Odafa was not even considered by the ISL clubs despite being I-League’s top scorer for multiple seasons. “It is true they have contributed a lot to Indian football but let’s be honest, there are a lot of African footballers who are substandard. One of the objectives of the ISL is to improve the quality of football and they do not fit in the picture,” says a club owner.
Omagbemi’s shift from the spotlight isn’t a solitary case. His compatriot Martins, who too is one of the few players to breach the crore-mark when he made the switch from Rangdajied United to East Bengal, too is playing under the shadows of Robert Pires and Andre Santos for FC Goa. The Nigerian has scored 210 times in 209 appearances for various Indian top flight clubs.
Martins received a huge ovation when he came on as a substitute in Goa’s first match against Chennaiyin, a testament to his popularity. Interestingly, the popular star is relishing his time away from spotlight. With the increase in the number of foreigners in each team, the pressure of expectation is shared and not burdened on an individual.
Kerala Blasters’ Nigerian captain Penn Orji, on loan from East Bengal, says his ISL stint will make him a better player. “There are many more foreigners here. And they’re all big names in football, so people look to them to perform well. Now there is a little peace of mind for us and we can concentrate on improving our game,” he says.
Martins seconds the view. “This is the quality of players I need. Sometimes you need support and that doesn’t come. There is less pressure, and so that gives me a better chance to learn,” says the 28-year-old Nigerian.
‘From teachers, we Africans have become students’
The general perception is that it’s easy for a foreign player to play in India. But trust me, it never is easy. I’ve played here for nearly a decade and I’ve also been abroad. I feel it’s easy to play outside India because there is no pressure there.
In India, the football is different. Every team wants to win and if they don’t, the blame is on the foreign players. You have to do better than the Indians all the time. Obviously, the quality is much higher in Europe but the competitive level in India is on par with them. It takes a toll on you but it’s also a unique challenge.
The Indian Super League, though, is slightly different in that sense from an African players’ point of view. Suddenly, we aren’t the stars of the team. There are guys better than us. From teachers, we’re now the learners. It has taken some pressure off but at the same time, we still have to perform our duty.
Coming back to India was a very hard decision. I mean, there are some big teams in Europe. I went to trials in Malta. I heard about the team and the situation. They didn’t have much money and they started giving me excuses. So I told my agent, ‘I have someone with a contract waiting for me, why am I wasting my time here? Just give me my ticket and I’ll leave.’
I went home, sat with my girlfriend and we started thinking. So she said that it’s better to go back to India. I said give me a day to think. I slept over it, thought about it. And the next day the team (East Bengal) sent me contract and I signed it. They were in third or fourth position in the Kolkata league. I just went there to score as many goals as I could.
Playing in India is special. You feel wanted and you are the key man. One of the most important guys on the team. The fans, teammates, manager, management everyone is expecting something from you every time you are on the field.
With the ISL, people always ask me if the scenario is different; if the spotlight has shifted from the Africans, who have contributed so much to Indian football. Yes, things have changed. But is the change sudden and affecting us? No.
We are all playing in a competitive atmosphere. This is where you have to show if you are good or not. I think for the last decade, when I was here, it was deep competition with the Indians. The likes of Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chettri. You had good strikers then. And now when this league came up, so many retired foreign players come to the ISL it improves the competition. It becomes more competitive with the Indians, Europeans and Africans all in the fray.
In the I-League sometimes, the game-plans are formed keeping our strengths in mind. Of course, it isn’t the same in ISL. But I’ve been abroad for a long time. So it’s easy to adjust. That’s what life abroad does. And coming here to play with a legend like Trezeguet is something unimaginable. And there are also good Indian players here.
The ISL is a learning curve for us too. In I-League, people are learning from us. Now we are learning from people bigger than us. Playing alongside players like David Trezeguet and Kostas is a dream for me. The set-up too is more professional and much better. These are the things I-League clubs can learn from ISL.
In terms of expectations, I don’t think there is any difference. Many of us are here on loan. If given a chance, I know I can do well because I know the soil and the system. But once the ISL is over, we will go back to our I-League clubs. That’s where we earned our fame. That’s where we belong.
(Dudu plays for Pune City as a striker in the ISL. Earlier, he played for Sporting Clube de Goa, Dempo and Salgaocar in the I-League and now plays for East Bengal. He spoke to Shahid Judge)