The story of Chima Okorie, the Nigerian architecture student who became the hero of Indian football

He never played for the Super Eagles, but in India there’s only one Nigerian footballer everybody knows: Chima Okorie.

Here are some excerpts from a new piece by Kanishk Tharoor (some readers may also know his brother Ishaan Tharoor) on football in India. He reflects on the lure of glitzy Champions League footballers to Indian fans, in particular the extraordinary appeal of Lionel Messi, who came with Argentina to play a meaningless but nonetheless “prestigious” international friendly in 2011, and the wider question of what all this means for the domestic game in India.

The whole piece is well worth reading, but here are some juicy extracts on Chima Okorie.

There was a time when India’s domestic game kept international stars of its own. Indian leagues have long boasted a smattering of foreign players, mostly from the Middle East, Africa and, unsurprisingly, Brazil, which exports its surplus of talent to the remotest provinces of the game. Most of these players lead itinerant careers, drifting from club to club, country to country, rarely putting down roots in India. Some, however, do manage to form closer bonds with Indian football. I fondly remember a Kolkata talisman from an earlier period, the muscular Nigerian forward Chima Okorie. An architecture student turned bulldozing striker, he made a name for himself in the 1980s and 1990s, winning titles with a number of clubs across the country. Okorie rose to prominence at a time when the lights of the outside football world did not burn so brightly in India, when the local game was not so obscured by their glare.

Watching Messi scamper about the artificial pitch of Salt Like Stadium, I found myself thinking of my first visit to the hulking arena in the late 1990s, a time when India’s pretensions of grandeur were far more circumspect and the summer rains still made puddles out of the center circle. Despite the mud, there was something utterly glorious about the place. A full house of 120,000 people (far more than the number that came to watch Leo Messi) crammed its three tiers of terraces. Most of them had come down the jangling airport road that binds Kolkata to its eastern outskirts, packed in buses and the backs of trucks, clinging to the rumps of motorcycles, all the while flying their colors—the vegetal green and aubergine of Mohun Bagan, and the yellow and red of archrivals East Bengal. The colors streamed across the stadium in the thickening din. Men sat squeezed together on the terrace steps, hugging their knees, chatting and laughing, passing around cigarettes and bidis, occasionally catapulting great bursts of betel leaf juice against the pillars, their bases stained red by years of spitting.

I stood with the supporters in green and maroon, those of Mohun Bagan, the traditional team of Kolkata and of my family, followed by my grandfather since the 1930s. For decades, their clashes with East Bengal (founded by men from the eponymous region, now known as the country of Bangladesh) have been the biggest fixtures on Kolkata’s and India’s footballing calendar. Rather than in the team’s rickety ground inside the city, these matches are played in the giant Salt Lake Stadium, a colossal venue appropriate for the occasion. By any measure, the Kolkata derby is a big deal. It has been the subject of numerous books, films and plays. It divides families, friends and neighbourhoods. And it even helps determine the local prices of seafood, with each team’s fans spending prodigiously on rival species of fish should they win. Here, footballing faultlines run deep as the sea.

As the teams came out, the roar of the crowd rolled back and forth across the stadium. I have no idea what the other half chanted, but the Mohun Bagan end was swallowed in the repetition of a single name, over and over again, rising in pitch and fervor as a tall dark man waved in our direction. “Chima, Chima, Chima, Cheeeeeeeema,” we yelled.

Chima Okorie was one of Kolkata’s original international football icons. Like many of India’s conquerors, his path to greatness was accidental. He arrived from Nigeria in 1984 not as an athlete but as an architecture student. Success with his university team somehow magicked him into the chaotic realm of Indian professional football. A burly striker with a powerful shot, Okorie spent most of the next ten years with Kolkata’s three biggest teams. His last move within the city saw him swap East Bengal for Mohun Bagan (the first transfer in the Indian game to surpass Rs. 500,000), where for many years he continued to top the scoring charts and pile up the trophies. Those were his glory days.

Greatness in Kolkata convinced Okorie that Europe beckoned, a silly idea in retrospect. Failed trials at Leeds and Notts County were followed by desultory spells with Peterborough, Grimsby and Torquay, and two bumbling seasons in Scandinavian football. In the end, Okorie packed his bags and returned to where he was loved. He rejoined Mohun Bagan in 1997, very much in the dusk of his career.

That day was the first and last time I saw Okorie play (he would eventually be suspended in 1999 for two years for assaulting a referee, a ban that effectively ushered him into retirement). But even then, when visibly labored and clumsy in his passing, his every touch drew cheers from the crowd. A blistering free kick, invariably over the bar, still won applause. The fans weren’t stupid; they cheered for their memory of him as much as for the creaking man before them. Thousands of better footballers scratch about the low and high leagues of the world, never knowing a fraction of this adoration, nor hearing their names intoned by so many in the fleeting, magical chorus of real faith.

* Full disclosure: several AIAC contributors are involved in some way with the series that Kanishk’s piece appeared in, The Far Post, a co-production of Roads and Kingdoms and Sports Illustrated.

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