Footballers from West Africa have long left their mark on Indian club football. Now there is a threat of competition from Europe - because the clubs are increasingly looking for talent there.
When Christopher Chizoba thought of India as a teenager, only Bollywood films came to mind. He had never thought of football. At the age of 18, the Nigerian flew to the east of India, to the city of Calcutta. More than 13 years later, the attacker has found a new home there. Chizoba has now played for six Indian teams, including top team Mohun Bagan. Now the 31-year-old has returned to the place where his professional career began. "At first I didn't want to come because I had never heard of anyone going to India to play there," Chizoba recalled in an interview with DW.
"The Place That God Destined For Me"
India's football is evolving. The country has risen from 150th to 104th in the FIFA men's rankings over the past nine years. The India Super League (ISL) is growing. There are also numerous local tournaments, state leagues and a passionate fan base. And Chizoba is right in the middle. Kolkata, a coastal cultural capital and home of his current club Tollygunge Agragami FC, reminds him a little of Lagos, Nigeria's capital. The only thing missing is an African restaurant. "India is the place that God intended for me and that I have made my home," Chizoba said. "One way or another, I'll always come back."
Trailblazer Chima Okorie
Chizoba is one of the many West African footballers who have flocked to the Indian football scene over the past 50 years. It all started in the early 1980s. Back then, India opened its doors to African players. Young footballers from Nigeria had caught the attention of local clubs. One of them was Chima Okorie. The playmaker became a football star in India.
Okorie came to India as a student in 1984 and first played at university before being caught by football club Mohammedan Sporting. He played for four teams including big clubs Mohun Bagan and East Bengal until his retirement two decades later. In his career he scored more than 300 goals. Many believe that Okorie's performances were one of the reasons why Indian clubs increasingly sought out African talent at the time. Players like Ranti Martins and Dudu Omagbemi, both from Nigeria, or Yusif Yakubu from Ghana followed the call to India.
This first wave of West African players not only opened the door for other footballers from the region, but also set high standards for generations to come. The high expectations have remained until today and put the players under pressure. "You don't sleep the night before the game because the fans tell you they really want to win this game," Liberian Ansumana Kromah, who is under contract with club Tollygunge, told DW. "If we lose, the police have to escort us off the field."
Change is in the air
It's getting harder for African players to compete in Indian football. Because the desire of the clubs for qualitatively better players from Europe is growing.
Indian clubs are only allowed to sign a maximum of five foreign players per season. A correspondingly intense competition for these few places has broken out.
After Mohun Bagan recently signed Florentin Pogba from Guinea, a former player for French second division club FC Sochaux, players like Kromah fear the example will catch on and they will lose their jobs. Many West African players in India are in a similar situation and have reacted. They have turned to semi-professional 'seven-a-side' tournaments, which attract many Indian fans in the dry weather months.
Here the West African players still dominate. They earn around 60 dollars (60 euros) per game. However, these tournaments are still a long way from the status of the ISL or the I-League, the highest leagues in the country. "It's really sad for us," says Kromah. "They only want quality players. If I get the opportunity, I'll walk away."
Difficult situation for Indian soccer players
Domestic players are also affected by the increased competitive pressure from players from Europe. Shouvik Bhattacharjee, a former player for Kolkata club Southern Samity, said the increased focus on signing foreign players was neglecting grassroots football and the development of Indian players. "I wish there were only Indians in one or two leagues so that we can bring out more talent," says Bhattacharjee. "There are foreign players in every local tournament and even in the I-League and ISL they are in the spotlight. They are good but Indians have talent too."