The major talking points of past few I Leagues have been the increasing role of foreign footballers in Indian football. The foreign recruits have been in the thick of action – some of the major issues being their goalscoring (or the lack of it), controversies, quality, increasing salaries, popularity, influence on other Indian players. Since last couple of seasons, some of the well off I League clubs are trying to rope in footballers with experience in better leagues. In past few years, we saw players from various countries like Costa Rica, Trinidad & Tobago, Spain, Japan, North Korea, Australia, Brazil, Nigeria, Scotland, South Africa, England, Lebanon, Nepal, Ghana, Namibia and few others. In 2011-12, Dempo got Trinidad & Tobago world cupper Densil Theobald, in 2012-13 Dempo brought Arsenal youth product Rohan Ricketts who was more in action with his off-field controversies. Shillong Lajong got Edinho Junior from Blackburn Rovers, Churchill Brothers got Lebanon national team duo of Bilal Najjarin and Akram Moghrabi, with their striker Henry Antchouet an regular in Gabon’s national squad. Costa Rican world Cupper, Carlos Hernandez joined Prayag United. Juanfri came from Malaga to SC Goa.
This season, Dempo has already roped in West Ham academy product Billy Mehmet and Australian national team player Simon Colosimo. Some of the other teams are in talks with high profile foreigners. With IMG’s IPL styled league coming up, names of some of the bigger stars are coming up.
With these above developments, its quite safe to say that we are approaching an era where some of the better reputed and quality foreigners will ply their trade in the I League and possibly in the IMG League. The Indian clubs are more and more dependent on foreigners to produce quality football. In this article, let’s take a short trip back to the different era’s of Indian football and check how the inflow of foreign players developed in the country.
The pioneers from the neighborhood
It is often noted that Abdul Hamid from Quetta, Pakistan was the first footballer to play in India, when we joined Kalighat club in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) during the 30s. Abdul Hamid later went on to play for Mohun Bagan. However, during 30s India was still under British Raj and India and Pakistan were the same country, thus, technically Hamid was not a foreigner. Hamid played as Centre – Half – Back and was one of the few players to wear boots.
Early in 40s, Anglo Burmese centre forward Fred Pugsley (sometimes referred as ‘Pagsley’) produced some sensational performances for East Bengal. Pugsley’s journey in Kolkata was not for football but to save his life! When the Japanese annexed Burma (modern day ‘Myanmmar’), Pugsley escaped by walking all the way from Rangoon to Calcutta. Fortunately, few of the East Bengal players knew him and the club officials brought him back to full health. Fred became a lethal goalscorer. He even scored 8 goals in a single game against B.B.C.I Railway. He was also allowed to play for Bengal in Santosh trophy, where his 7 goals in a single game is still a record.
In the next decades, Kolkata witnessed a few Pakistani players. Taj Mohammed played for East Bengal in 1949. Players like Masood Fakhri, Niyaz, Moosa, Hassan for East Bengal or Mohammedan SC. Moosa was highest scorer for East Bengal in 1956 and 1957. Fakhri also toured Romania and USSR in 1953 with East Bengal. However, Mohun Bagan used to field an all Indian team till the 80s.
Even now, a stroll in Kolkata’s ‘Maidan’ and a chance encounter with any grey haired gentlemen can enlighten you about the fame and popularity these early pioneers enjoyed. As the political situation between the two countries deteriorated in late 1960s and 1970s, the recruitment of Pakistani footballers came to an end.
David Williams, a Nigerian student in Chennai University during the 70s, used to play football for leisure. His footballing talents were soon spotted and he played for Tamil Nadu in 1977. East Bengal officials, who had eye for foreign talents, soon brought him to Kolkata. Probably, Williams is the first contracted foreign footballer in India. He later represented Mohammedan SC. Mohammedan SC themselves got hold of new foreign talents when they brought two Irani students from Aligarh Muslim University, Ahmed Sanjari (who played in Iran’s world cup squad) and Md. Khabaji (who later joined East Bengal).
The Iranian duo informed that there are some better Iranian players in AMU campus, and East Bengal officials, without any delay brought two more Iranians in Kolkata, Majid Biskhar (another Iranian world cupper) and Jamshid Nassiri. Majid was popularly known as Majid Baskar and became a huge fan favorite. Even now he is the yardstick for the quality of foreigners and new foreign recruits are often compared to him. Majid played only 3 seasons in India, for East Bengal and Mohammedan SC, but his stint of mesmerizing performances will be remembered forever.
The love of Africa
Although Williams was the first African to play for an Indian club, the real inflow of Africans started during the 90s, and one player has been most influential in this regard – Chima Okorie. In the mid of 1980s, some of the stars in Kolkata, like Subhas Bhowmick, Subrata Bhattacharya, Surajit Sengupta had hung their boots. Some players like Krishanu Dey and Bikash Panji started to make their presence felt, but the popularity of football was going down. Kolkata needed a crowd puller. Chima Okorie was a student in Vishakhapatnam University, studying architecture. Mohammedan SC spotted and signed him. Chima arrived with all his power football, wild personality and hunger for goals and what a crowd puller he proved. He opened the floodgate for African footballers in India.
In 90s, Mohun Bagan changed its 100 year old tradition. Until now they always recruited Indian footballers, as they prided themselves as the ‘National club of India’. However, times were changing, and much against the will of some officials, they signed Chima in 1991. Chima quickly became one of the most popular player among the fans.
As the influx of African footballers increased, clubs seem to be in a race to sign them, no one took extra care to check their credentials and many mediocre signings were made.
There were exceptions too. World cuppers like Argentinian Julian Camino (EB), Nigerian Emeka Ezeugo (MSC) played in Kolkata. Other notable players include Irish John Devine (EB) who played for Arsenal, Latvian football Sergei Kutov (EB) who left after few matches due to heat of Kolkata.
The impact of National football league / I- League on foreign recruit:
Since the beginning of the National League, the foreign players started coming to play for various clubs in India. The quality of foreign players was always questionable but still we witnessed few really good players like Jose Ramirez Barreto (Brazil), Igor Shkvyrin (Uzbekistan), Dusit Chalermsan (Thailand), Cristiano Junior, Douglas Da Silva, Rosario Ramos, Gilmer (Brazil), Emmanuel Opoku, Stefan Abarowei (Nigeria). We have also seen Liberian players like Eugene Gray and Sunday Seah. But the recruitment procedure was never transparent. Most of the times the money shown on documents was different from the actual transactions made. The so called agents, officials and even coaches made lot of undeclared money. These practices, at the end of the day only deteriorated Indian football.
As mentioned at the beginning, some real high profile players are coming to try their luck in India. Many feel that a recruit policy must be made by AIFF limiting the influx of poor quality foreigners in India, who take away Indian players’ slots without offering anything substantial. However, it is important to keep in mind that profile is not always the true representation of a player. We have seen few of them like MacDonald Mukansi (‘The scooter’) or recently Rohan Rickets. But some high profile players like Carlos Hernandez, Henry Antchouet, Quinton Jacobs sustained their name. At the same time, some of the best foreigners in India, like Odafa Okolie or Ranti Martins, are relatively lesser known in international arena. So, it is really hard to implement a robust recruitment policy for foreign recruits.
Where are we heading?
The trend looks good. There have been some good players around, and more seem to be coming. IMG is about to start an IPL style football league which opens up the possibilities of having cluster of retired or ageing high profile foreign players in Indian football. It is also encouraging to see some of the young foreigners, like Edinho Junior, Sho Kamimura, coming in India, who are players with potential and are hunger for success, something not expected from ageing players. India needs quality foreigner from reputed football playing countries who can help us improve the overall quality of the game. The Indian football fans are hope to see some real good players in coming years who will enrich the quality of football in India.
Photo Credits :
Published images have been taken from AIFF media, Goal.com, BBC, footballpakistan.com