High Five: Best Foreigners in Indian Football

Vasco SC, a Goan football club, changed Indian football in 2001. In a NFL match, they fielded three Brazilians in the starting line-up – Rui Wanderley, Marcos Pereira and Rogerio Ramos. Other clubs soon followed suit. When National Football League was started in 1996, a handful of foreigners played in the league; in five years, the numbers had inflated. Even newly promoted clubs with modest finances, like Tollygunge Agragami, depended on foreign imports to survive in the top flight. The role of foreigners in Indian football has been long debated. While some of the foreign imports are quality players, a considerably high percentage are sub-standard. We will profile five of the greatest foreigners to play in India.

The list is in no particular order

1. Majid Baskar (Early 1980s)

The Iranian is still the yardstick for foreign imports in Indian football. Whenever a new player joins a club, coaches or former players comment whether he “is as good as Majid” or not. He completely mesmerized the snobbish Kolkata critics. Playing primarily as a “schemer” or an attacking midfielder, Majid was a player with sublime skills. His pace with the ball, dribbling skills and trickery was something unseen in Indian football. Most importantly he was a thinker – a player who could change a match with a perfectly played pass.

Baskar was a member of the Iran team that played in 1978 World Cup. He came to India as a student of Aligarh Muslim University. One of his friends from University days – Jamshid Nasiri – would go on to form a deadly combo with him for both East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. Majid stayed in East Bengal for just one season. Later he moved on to Mohammedan, playing there for two seasons. Overall he played just three seasons in Kolkata. Yet, he is regarded as the best foreigner to play football for both of these heavy weight clubs.

Troubles in his homeland after the Iranian Revolution eventually took a toll on Majid, as he got addicted to narcotics. After a few unsuccessful stints in other parts of India, he returned to his homeland. His bohemian lifestyle added to the cult status that Majid Baskar eventually attained.

2. Chima Okorie (1984-1993, 1997-1998)

In 1984, a 21 year old Nigerian came to Vishakhapatnam University to study architecture. He used to play football to pass time; little did he know that he would go on to become a pioneer in Indian football. He was soon spotted by scouts of Mohammedan Sporting, and joined the club in 1985/86 season. His form would see him move to East Bengal in 1987. Mohun Bagan would break the bank in 1991, making him the club’s first ever foreign recruit. Chima always delivered; he top scored an incredible seven times in the twelve seasons he played in Calcutta Football League, a record which is still untouched.

Chima was famous for his strength and stamina. He was not very skillful, but had the ability to bulldoze his way through defenders, and was a clinical finisher. He opened the flood gates for thousands of African footballers who are plying their trade in India now.

One of his most famous performances was for East Bengal in the 1988 Durand Cup semi-final. EB were underdogs for this match. Chima put on a virtuoso performance and scored 2 wonderful goals, as the Red and Golds marched to the final. Another one of his infamous exploits was against Churchill Brothers in 1997 Federation Cup. Mohun Bagan was playing the offensive Diamond system under Amal Dutta, and Chima was the tip of the Diamond. Rarely has a Goan team been outclassed in such manner by a Kolkata team. Chima tore apart the opponent defence, scoring 4 goals as Bagan thumped Churchill 6-0.

Chima had disciplinary problems throughout his career in India. His temper boiled over in a crucial KFL derby match in 1999. An enraged Chima assaulted the referee. He was slapped with a lengthy ban and fine, ending his career as a footballer.

Unlike many other foreign imports, Chima has come back to India after leaving the game. He has tried his hand in coaching – with unsuccessful stints at Bagan, Bengal Mumbai Club and New Delhi Heroes. He aims to work for betterment of Indian football – the fans can only wish him good luck in that venture.

3. Jose Ramirez Barreto (1999-2004, 2006-present)

If Chima is credited with the influx of African players in Indian football, Barreto can be given the same credit for Brazilian players. He joined the Green and Maroon brigade in 1999, eventually becoming an iconic player. During his first five year stint with Bagan, the “Green Parakeet”, as he is nicknamed, won every trophy in Indian football. He was the top-scorer in NFL in 2000/01 season. In his first four seasons, Barreto scored 126 goals. He left Bagan amidst administrative trouble in 2004.

A year later he returned to India, to join Mahindra United. He was the top scorer in Federation Cup in 2005, as Mahindra won the title. Combining with Yakubu, Barreto led Mahindra to their first and only NFL title that season. He rejoined Bagan a year later and hasn’t changed the club since then. Barreto holds many records – he is the first non-Indian footballer to score 200 goals for a single club. He has scored 16 goals in the EB-MB derby, a record for a Bagan footballer.

Barreto is a highly gifted footballer. Extremely skillful, he can score with either foot. His ability to hold the ball and eye for a killer pass makes him an ideal support striker. He is also very versatile, often playing as a play-maker. In Bagan he started out as a play-maker, feeding Uzbek hit man Igor Skiviryn. Barreto’s set-piece delivery is one of his big strengths. What makes him really special is his commitment to the team. He has been known to track back and defend when his team needed his to do it. He has often played in the midfield to accommodate younger strikers. Barreto is also a model professional, and was never prone to vices that are common among foreign footballers. A devout Christian and dedicated family man, he is respected by rival fans because of his modesty.

He has been entangled in controversies at times. He was arrested once by Customs officers when he failed to provide documents for foreign currency he was carrying. With age, he has slowed down, but still is the heart-beat of Mohun Bagan.

4. Yusif Yakubu (2000-present)

Starting his career in the same time as Barreto, Yakubu is one of the best goal poachers to have played the game in India. The Ghanaian first came into prominence when playing for Churchill Brothers. He scored 65 goals in 103 matches for the Goan outfit. He finished as top scorer in NFL in 2001/02 and 2002/03 seasons. Yakubu’s biggest strength is his positioning. He can score goals with both foot and is extremely dangerous in air.

During his stay in Churchill Brothers Yakubu missed out on the NFL title on the last day of the league. He got his prize when he joined Mahindra – winning the Fed Cup-NFL double in 2005/06 season. Yakubu is the all-time leading scorer in NFL, having notched up more than 100 goals in last 10 years.

The Ghanaian embodies professionalism. During his time in East Bengal, he learnt about the passing away of his mother, in the eve of a derby match. Yakubu stayed back to play the match. He not only played but scored 2 crucial goals as East Bengal triumphed 3-2. Yakubu dedicated each of the goals to his mother.

5. Odafa Okolie (2003, 2005-present)

The tale of Odafa Okalie is a curious one. It highlights the callousness of some officials of the Kolkata clubs. There was a time when scouts and officials of the three Kolkata giants used to unearth unheralded players and turn them into legends; those days are long gone. Odafa joined Mohammedan as a fresh faced eighteen years old in 2003. Despite being blessed with extraordinary goal scoring abilities, he was used as a centre-back. He suffered throughout his stay in Kolkata, making ends meet by playing pay-as-you-play matches (called “khep” locally). His football career could have ended at that time. Instead he moved to Bangladesh, to play for Muktijoddha.

The turning point of his career came in 2005. Mihir Bose, a veteran coach in Kolkata, recommended his name to Churchill Brothers. In the Goan club, Odafa would turn into an unstoppable goal machine. His strike-rate in India can only be compared to the strike-rate of legendary Gerd Muller for Germany.

Odafa is a goal scorer – his job is to score goals. He doesn’t get involved in set-up plays, he rarely tracks back. He hovers around the penalty box, give him half a chance and bang! He has top scored in each of last four editions of i-League, an unmatched record. In 113 matches for Churchill he has found the back of the net an unreal 105 times. Unsurprisingly, he is the highest paid footballer in India currently.

Odafa is thankful to the man who changed his life. He still calls up Mihir Bose. It is said that he hasn’t forgotten about the ill-treatment he got in Kolkata. He saves some his best performances against the Kolkata teams. This was evident when he completed an unbelievable hat trick in 10 minutes against Mohun Bagan in Durand Cup final of 2009.

Still only 25, Odafa can create unbreakable records in Indian football if he continues his incredible goal scoring form.

Honourable mentions: Jamshid Nasiri, Stephen A, C Junior, Igor Skiviryn, Samuel Omollo, Ranty Martins, Dudu and Edeh Chidi