By Nandakumar Marar
SC East Bengal have a signed a potential crowd-puller in
Bright Enobakhare, wearing 10 number jersey. Lanky and languid, the 22-year-old centre-forward muscled and manoeuvred his way past four opponents, side-stepped the goalkeeper, to score a delightful solo goal against FC Goa in ISL 2020-2021. Responding to a post-match query about describing a wonderful piece of body balance, ball control and footwork, the Hero of the Match awardee replied: “To be honest, I
don’t know what I did.”
Bright may be telling the truth about one of the best ISL solo strikes
so far. Instinctive goals happen without planned thought, like the one
scored in SCEB’s 1-1 draw with FCG at Vasco’s Tilak Maidan stadium.
Unlike goals planned in training and executed by players from
set-piece situations… a corner kick or free-kick… the Nigerian tried
to find his way through a maze of defenders, kept ball possession all
the time in a zig-zag run towards the goal post. Finding himself alone
and the rival goalkeeper beaten, he capped the solo effort with a cool
tap into the net.
The striker’s instinctive effort also switched the spotlight on
Nigerian impact on Indian club football. Muscular players from the
African nation have hustled their way into the goalmouth over decades
and won the hearts of fans with their brilliance and bravery. Names
which stand out are Chima Okorie, Emeka Ezuego, Chibuzor Nwakanma,
Christopher Kem, Bernard Oparanozie, Ranti Martins, Odafa Okolie, Ogba
Kalu to name a handful of crowd-pullers from the past. ISL 2020-2021
is only Bright’s first season here and has a long way to go before
coming close to be taken in the same breath as these former
Bartholomev Ogbeche, also jersey no 10, is another countryman with a
reputation to maintain and better equipped to make an impact amongst
Nigerians involved in ISL action this season. This 2002 FIFA World
Cupper had a high of 15 goals last ISL season for Kerala Blasters FC
(KBFC), switched clubs to join Mumbai City FC this season in search of
greener pastures, fresher challenges. A free-kick specialist, strong
in aerial duels and sharp finisher, the burly striker is a valuable
option upfront for Sergei Lobera-coached MCFC.
Interestingly, he moved to France at 15 after getting into the Paris
Saint Germain youth squad, at 17 was in PSG’s first team during the
2001-2002 season. Injuries led to spells with French clubs SC Bastia,
FC Metz on loan before leaving PSG for UAE club Al Jazira in 2005. He
accumulated European experience in Spain, Greece, England, Netherlands
before the arrival in India in 2018-19 season. North East United FC
was his ISL entry point, Kerala Blasters his second club.
It did not take long for the towering 35-year-old to hit the headlines
with assists and goals. A stunning finish high into the net off a
backheeled pass by Hugo Boumous against ATK Mohun Bagan proves his
credentials as a leader in the forwardline. Centre-forwards Ogbeche,
Bright will lock horns with a Nigerian talent in defender and current
international Stephen Eze (Jamshedpur FC) in the ongoing ISL. The
latter was among the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia probables, but did not
make the cut.
Indian football is familiar with Nigerian sensations, especially
Kolkata (East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting) and Goa (Dempo SC, Churchill Brothers, Sporting Clube de Goa) in the National
Football League (renamed as I-League) and before ISL came into
existence. Chandigarh’s DAV College’s foreign student, defensive
midfielder Emeka, was the highest qualified player from there, a
member of the national squad at 1994 FIFA World Cup (Nigeria’s World
Cup debut) alongside well-known Stephen Keshi, Jay Jay Okocha, Rashid
Yekini, Daniel Amokachi.
Contracted to BK Fremad Amager club in Denmark that year, Emeka played
in Spain (RC Deportivo in 1995) before signing up for Churchill
Brothers in 1997, his second foray into India long after debut season
in 1986 with East Bengal. Recruited by the Kolkata club after
performances for Punjab University in the Inter-University tournament,
he played the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games for Nigeria. He returned to
play for Bagan (1997), retired in 2002 and moved into coaching.
Ogbeche is another World Cupper from the African superpower to play in
India, though in a different era.
Dudu Omagbemi (FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC in earlier ISL seasons), Ranti
(FCG) are examples of the imposing physique, athletic ability which
make Nigerians stand out on the pitch, ever since Chima’s arrival as a
student at Vishakhapatnam University. Chibuzor, Christopher, Bernard
also represented Punjab University as foreign student-players. Bernard
(Goa’s Sesa SC, Phagwara’s JCT, Mumbai’s Mahindra United and Bagan)
made an impact in every team whose colours he donned. Ogba Kalu is
another familiar face for Goan and Kolkata football followers.
Goan followers watching the ongoing ISL on television will relish
comparisons with the exploits of athletic Ranti (Dempo SC, East
Bengal, FC Goa) in the NFL, the I-League and ISL. Odafa (Churchill
Brothers, Mohun Bagan), Dudu (Sporting Clube de Goa, FCG, CFC) were
other Nigerians whose physical play and technical quality made local
players aware of the demands of international football.
Mohammedan Sporting club scouts got word of a muscular footballer
bulldozing his way past opponents for Chandigarh FC, convinced Chima
to choose club football in Kolkata over scholarly pursuits. Two
seasons after the Kolkata league entry in 1985, he switched to EB and
then Bagan. The inter-club rivalry between teams in Kolkata, Goa
sparked interest in more African players, among whom Nigerians formed
a major chunk.
Kolkata league’s poster boy, Chima Okorie, was in a class of his own
as a battering ram in the rival half, feeding off passes to score
match-winning goals. He inspired Indian teammates like I M Vijayan to
raise their fitness, technical levels and sparked interest in club
football by winning titles for MS, EB, MB. The aspiring architecture
student ended up delighting fans with football lessons in powerplay
and goal-getting the Nigerian way from 1985-1993.
He opened the doors for fellow countrymen to make a living in India
using football as a passport to a lucrative career.