Earlier this year, a movie named ‘Sudani from Nigeria’ released in Kerala to great reviews and success. The makers of the movie had decided to use the influx of African footballers into the state in recent decades as the backdrop, intrigued by their popularity in football crazy Malappuram.
The movie was in some ways a nod towards Africa’s contribution to our footballing story. Players from that continent have been arriving on our shores for decades and have graced fields all over the country. Ranti Martins, Yusif Yakubu and Odafa Okolie scored more goals, but the greatest of them probably was Chima Okorie.
In the 1970s, David Williams, a Nigerian student at Madras University, would represent Tamil Nadu and Bengal in the Santosh Trophy. He is still the only foreign player since independence to have played in the tournament. He also turned up for East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. While the first African to play professionally in India, it was the arrival of Chima Okorie and then Emeka Ezeugo in the 1980s that opened the window for others to do so and the numbers have steadily increased since.
Chima came to India in 1984 to study architecture but his performances at university level caught the attention of Mohammedan Sporting and he signed on for the 1985-86 season. He would move to East Bengal in 1987 and complete the holy Kolkata trinity when Mohun Bagan signed him as their first ever overseas player in 1991. He was not the most skilful player but his strength and stamina added a dimension that few Indian players had contended with until then.
His holdup play was strong but those who observed football in the country at the time would remember him for the way he would bulldoze his way through flailing defenders on umpteen occasions before finding the net. His performances alerted other clubs to the possibilities that opened up if an African player or two with superior physicality played in the eleven and everyone started scouting foreign talent in earnest.
African players would arrive in India for various reasons. Some like Williams and Okorie were students whose university performances caught the eye. Most others were looking to escape crippling poverty back home and possibly use India as a gateway into richer leagues in Singapore and Malaysia. Not many fulfilled those dreams. Those who did not make it to the National Football League (NFL) and I-League would look for other opportunities and tapped into a demand for talent in small town tournaments across the country.
Indian football would spread the net in time and Brazilians became the flavour of the season for a while. Then players from the Middle East. Europeans are in vogue today, especially quality Spanish talent. For the upcoming season, all the talk is about attracting World Cuppers from the smaller teams.
In a lot of ways, the burly Nigerian who came to India to further his education 34 years ago paved the way. Like others with European dreams, Chima would leave India to try his luck there when his star was shining brightest. Unfortunately, it did not work out for him and after a few years, he would return to India and Mohun Bagan in 1997. He was not the same player anymore but whenever he played, cries of “Chima, Chima, Chima!,” would ring loud in the air.
Many others might have followed in his wake, but even today, the mention of his name lights up an Indian football fan’s face in a way no other import can. Chima Okorie in full flight was a sight to behold.