Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I-League in the eyes of an ex-Heartland man

The I-League is the elite division of the Indian football league. Though it was known as the National Football League until 2007, the Indian top tier is becoming a hub for Nigerian players. In the past three seasons, Odafe Onyeka Okolie has been the leading goal scorer and he is also the all-time leading scorer in the I-League. Ranti Martins, Felix Chimaokwu, Chidi Edeh, Junior Obagbemiro and Muritala Ali are the other Nigerians in the top 10 of the all-time leading scorers of the I-League.
But the number of Nigerian footballers in the Indian top-flight has continued to swell with former Heartland Football Club captain, Kelechi Okoye, teaming up with Shillong Lajong Football Club on February 1 this year.
Choice of India
The 26-year-old midfielder, who played for four professional clubs in Nigeria before deciding to move abroad points out that the first motivation that attracted him to the Indian league is the offer. “Yes, that was the first thing and also to get out of the Nigerian league,” he opened in an interview with from his base in India.
He said having played in the 2002 qualifiers for the Africa Cup of Nations and Fifa World Cup, he had hoped for improvement in his career by heading to Europe. After a string of trials at a number of European clubs and also impressing them, Okoye said the football managers behind the deals muddled up the whole situation leaving him stuck with playing in Nigeria hence his decision to head to India earlier this year.
“I have played for the Super Eagles in the past but things did not improve. After going for trials in many places and the managers keep messing things up for me I just decided to come to India since I heard the pay is good here,” he said.
Why I dumped Nigerian league
On his reason for dumping the Nigeria Premier League for India’s league, Okoye had a ready-made answer. “I left because of promises not fulfilled in Nigerian clubs,” he responded. And when asked what those promises are, he simply said: “Salaries not being paid and sign-on fees too. You make name for yourself but nothing for you and your family.  People think you’re rich but your money is not being paid year in, year out.”
I-League, longer a part-timer’s championship
Though Okoye has joined the legion of Nigerian footballers playing in the I-League, he still holds the view that the NPL is a stronger championship in terms of talents when compared to that India. He added that the Indian league is evolving and should no longer be regarded as a championship for part-timers since there are now influx of Brazilians, Ghanaians, Nigerians and other African countries.
“Nigeria is higher in talents but these Indians are putting machinery in place to be one of the best in years to come. Now players from Brazil, Nigeria, Ghana, Japan and Australia are coming to give the league a new face,” he said.
Initial doubts about the I-League
With his perception about the Indian league having changed after spending nine months there, Okoye confessed that when the idea of moving to India was first sold to him, he was skeptical about it. “Yes I had my doubts about coming here. But I must say on getting here I was surprised on what I saw. The people are coming up and trying to develop their game. Everything is done on time and according to plan. They are better organised with good sponsors for the clubs and for the league itself,” remarked the former Mighty Jets’ man.
With the welfare package in the I-League quite better than what obtains in Nigeria along with virtually all the clubs in the top-flight of the Asian country having Nigerians on their payroll, Okoye still yearns to showcase his talent in Europe before he calls it quit from football.
“I will not end my career here though the (Indian) league has offered me so much in a short time. I still believe I will move to Europe,” Okoye summed up to