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Why foreign footballers are big in Calcutta

Edeh Chidi may not be known in his native Nigeria, but in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta, he is a hero.

Calcutta loves football, and it adores its foreign players.

Recently Chidi, who plays for East Bengal, tasted fans' adulation after scoring a brace against arch rivals Mohun Bagan.

"The feeling's incredible. You receive a lot of gifts, chanting of names and autograph requests," says the Lagos-born striker.

But what brought him to Calcutta from football-rich Nigeria?

"I knew nothing about Calcutta football. I came here when I was 15 straight from the Pepsi Academy in Nigeria."

Chidi, 25, has never played professional football in Nigeria. "You play wherever you can. My agent approached me just when I graduated from the academy and I came here."

India, ranked 150 in the world by football's governing body Fifa, is not exactly the first choice for Nigerian players. But Calcutta fans love them for their skills and their physical dominance on the pitch.

For Chidi, adjusting to life in the city was difficult initially "with people, food and language being different", but now he feels "completely at home".

Nigerians dominate the 19-club Calcutta premier league, which began in 1898 and is the oldest in Asia.

Ranti Martins of Prayag United and Odafa Okolie of Mohun Bagan have been the two top scorers this year. 

There are about 40 foreign players in the top league, many of whom have come from South Sudan, Australia, Brazil, Portugal and Japan.

Foreign players are also to be found in the seven-tier league's lower divisions.

'Amazing'

Australian Andrew Barisi - Chidi's team-mate - came to Calcutta in January after playing in Indonesia for two years. Like many other foreign players, he knew nothing about the 115-year-old history of Calcutta football.

So why did he choose Calcutta?

"You can say football might be better in Indonesia in terms of quality but everything off the field is shocking over there. There's so much politics. So the plan was to move forward, and with Indian football there's a lot to move forward to," he says.

"As a foreigner I thought it would be a lot harder here than all the places I have been to, such as Germany, Indonesia and Croatia. But from the first week everyone's been amazing to me," he adds.

For years, Calcutta was the place to earn fame and fortune for those foreign players who failed to break into their national teams or those who came here very young.

Brazilian Jose Ramirez Barreto was barely out of his teens when he was cajoled into joining Mohun Bagan in 1999. "I learned Mohun Bagan needed a forward and a Calcutta player from my country recommended me to them," he says. "Over the years, I have realised how big the club is and how old the city football culture is."

Football hub

He left the club briefly but the fans' adoration and "love for Calcutta" was a big pull that brought him back to the city. Talking about his status in the club history, he says modestly: "They loved me and I loved them. It was an exchange."

Barreto says foreign players come to Calcutta because it is a football hub, and the fans have a great passion for the game.

But in recent years, clubs from Goa, Mumbai and Pune have caught up with Calcutta and today these clubs have players and coaches from Australia, Japan, Gabon, Lebanon and Sudan, as well as Nigeria and Brazil.

Barreto believes that football has become a level playing field. "In the past, Calcutta could buy the best home-grown talent from across the country and buy odd foreign players. Now, all clubs are buying good domestic and foreign players."

This broke Calcutta football's dominance in terms of winning trophies and tournaments. Since its inception in 2007, the 15-team I-League - the Indian equivalent of the English Premier League - has never been won by a Calcutta club.

There are currently five teams from Calcutta, competing with sides from all over India, as well as in their local league.

The I-League teams together have more than 40 foreigners; but teams from Goa - with players and coaches from Brazil, Portugal, Morocco and Nigeria - have dominated, winning the league every year.

The All India Football Federation allows a club to register up to four foreign players (including one Asian) and today, a foreign player can command up to $400,000 (£255,000) - a sum affordable for most football clubs.

Clubs from Calcutta may have lost their supremacy in Indian football. But the city's passion for football and love for players, especially foreigners, remains undiminished.

Iranians Majid Baskar and Jamshed Nasiri and Nigerian Chima Okerie are some of the legends still revered in the city. Swapan Ball, who has been the East Bengal manager since 1998, calls Baskar "the best ever foreign import in India".

Baskar went back to Iran, but Nasiri made the city home. He and Okerie, who divides his time between England and Calcutta, married locally and have developed deep roots here.

Nasiri's love for Calcutta is well-known in the city: "This is my home now. People here are cultured. They love sport and have great sportsmanship spirit."

But has the Calcutta fan's love for football helped improve the quality of the game in India? Football writer with the Hindustan Times newspaper Dhiman Sarkar does not think so.

"The standard has stayed pretty much the same. Yes, in the 1970s we had more football heroes, but then we didn't get to see Arsenal play Liverpool. The only benchmark that I see is how we did internationally then, and how we do it now, and I think the answer is pretty much the same. We are as good - or bad - now as we were then."

Source BBC

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