African players in Indian football are now a frequent sight. Nigerian footballers in Kerala’s Golden Threads FC tell ESTHER ELIAS that football the world over is the same language

Every weekend at St. Albert’s College ground in Kaloor, hosts of children flock in a little after the sun has risen, to play the beautiful game. Sweat falls like rain, mud flies from football studs; there’s yelling, screaming, shouts of encouragement, grunts of dismay, someone shoots, scores, and there’s mutual back-patting going around. Amidst these children are four strapping, muscular Nigerian men, watching the game keenly, pitching in rarely and occasionally instructing and advising. They’re here relaxing just after their ritual morning game that prepares them for their matches ahead as players for reputed Kerala-based football club, Golden Threads FC.

Golden Threads’ owner, S.S. Naushad, isn’t alone in recruiting Africans for Indian football. The history of the trend dates back to the seventies when Nigerian David Williams played for Tamil Nadu during the Santosh Trophy. His countrymen Cheema Okerie and Emeka Ezugo became household names for Kolkata in the eighties. Earlier this year, Indo-Asian News Service reported that almost 400 players from various African countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Kenya play for clubs across the country, from Delhi to Kerala. Here, they’re concentrated more in Kasaragod and Kottayam, but Kochi currently has youngsters Felix Ighalo, Andrew Michael, Agabugu Chimezie, and Mohd Basheer.

“I was playing football before I was born! My mother says I used to kick her too much,” jokes Chimezie, who’s played in Kerala for three years now, coming at the start of every new season in either September or May. “In Nigeria, football is in our DNA. We play because of our passion for the sport,” he says. Felix can’t remember a time he wasn’t playing football either, but he completed a degree in business administration before turning professional, playing second division first in Ghana, then Namibia and Nigeria before coming to India in April 2013. He came here, like most other African players do, through his Nigerian managers who had Indian connections.

India draws them foremost for the steady money they earn, explains Coach Alphonse Josi. Nigerian footballer Odafe Onyeka Okolie, who plays for Mohan Bagan AC, a club in Kolkata, is the highest-paid Indian footballer at two crore per year. Golden Threads pays its players steady salaries here and provides them with food and accommodation in Kalamassery. “Most respected Nigerian players have played in countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. You are considered better experienced if you have played outside,” says Felix. “Every African footballer hopes to play in Europe someday. Training in different countries is a path to that goal,” adds Andrew.

Back in Nigeria, unless one plays for a professional club, good coaches and rigorous training are hard to come by, observes Chimezie, who is full of words of praise for Josi. “I don’t call him coach; I call him my father. He knows each player’s qualities inside out, and pushes us to our highest potential. You cannot fool him.” Football in India, for these players, has meant toning down their sheer power, and playing “with our brains”, says Basheer. Playing shoulder to shoulder with local talent has been an enriching experience, they say. “Football the world over is the same language. We learn something new each day,” adds Chimezie.

The move to India comes with its share of troubles. “There’s immense pressure on us,” says Chimezie, “If the team wins or loses, the responsibility is seen as ours, because we are foreigners.” Up ahead is the Kerala Premier League. Each season could see between 40 and 50 games for these players, nationwide. Their answer has been to combat the pressure with training hard. “Fitness is extremely important to us. We train every day, whether we have a game or not. That’s the life of a footballer till the day you hang up your boots,” says Felix

Kerala has become like home, says Andrew. “We like the food here, especially velleyappams! We cook our own curries here too.” Learning new cultures is one of the advantages of professional football, observes Felix. “It is every Nigerian parents’ dream that their children become footballers. Some day I too will tell my son of the different countries I’ve seen, and hope that he plays the beautiful game too.”