The Indian Super League has little Indian in it when it is about finding the back of the net on the field. In the ongoing edition in Goa, the current list of leading goalscorers is invariably packed with foreigners; a trend that has remained the same since the inception of the ISL.
But hold on, please. There is hardly a reason to point a finger at the ISL. Long before the cash-rich tournament kicked off in 2014, the responsibility of scoring goals in Indian domestic football had virtually been taken over by foreign strikers. Since the start of National Football League in 1996-97, only twice has an Indian emerged at the top of the scoring charts in the NFL or the I-League.
Goalscorers are considered the most expensive and rare commodity in professional soccer. The clubs in the ISL are paying through the nose to find decent strikers from across the world. A true match-winner in the ISL easily takes away something between two to three hundred thousand dollars each season. And to get hold of someone like Coro or Miku, one has to shell out considerably more.
Interestingly, the trend had not always been the same. In the past, Indian fans had seen exceptional foreign strikers who were roaring success but didn’t leave the shores of India with much in the bank. Many of them nurtured little footballing ambition when they set foot in India. One came to study architecture, another to acquire a degree in commerce. One, in fact, came to India with his family to seek refuge.
A World War refugee who became a star
Fred Pugsley, an Anglo-Burmese footballer, was the first among the foreign strikers who truly set the stands on fire with his goalscoring ability. In 1942, when Japan invaded Burma (now Myanmar) during the Second World War, Pugsley, along with thousands of refugees walked hundreds of kilometres to cross over the India.
Holding the hands of his wife and daughter, Pugsley literally walked down to Calcutta (now Kolkata). He was a reputed player in Rangoon (now Yangon), but had no friends in India. All he knew were few officials in East Bengal Club since the red and yellow team had toured Burma a few years ago to play some exhibition matches. Extremely ill because of the inhuman exhaustion he suffered while running away from his country, a frail looking Pugsley requested East Bengal club officials to try him out for their team.
The club officials were hesitant. First, East Bengal had never included a foreigner before. And more importantly, Pugsley’s poor health was surely a cause of worry. They reluctantly fielded him in three matches and when Pugsley started vomiting midway through the third, he was withdrawn promptly for the season.
But it was only the beginning of an unbelievable success story. To cut the long story short, the Burmese striker recovered soon and went down in the history as one of East Bengal’s greatest strikers.
In the 1945 season, East Bengal won their first “double” in domestic football – they bagged both the Calcutta League and IFA Shield. In the Shield final, East Bengal beat their traditional rivals Mohun Bagan by a solitary goal. The second-half strike came from the boot of Pugsley. It was an epoch-making achievement in East Bengal history, something the club fans could never forget.
Indian football had rarely seen a goal-machine like Pugsley. In a Rovers Cup match, East Bengal struck 11 goals, Pugsley scored eight of them. While representing Bengal in Santosh Trophy (there was no rule those days against playing foreigners in state teams), he scored seven goals in the 7-0 rout of Rajputana. His thundering left footers left may goalkeepers spend sleepless nights before he decided to return to his country after the war.
Pakistan players making a mark in India
In the 1950s, several Pakistan footballers made a mark in India, while mostly playing for Mohammedan Sporting and East Bengal. One of them, Masood Fakhri, was so brilliant a scorer that he once was specially flown in from London at the initiative of film star Dilip Kumar when Mohammedan Sporting met Mohun Bagan in the Rovers Cup final in 1955.
Among the Pakistanis, Mohammed Omar and Moosa made huge impacts for around five to six seasons from mid-1950s. Moosa was a prolific scorer and struck more than 100 goals while playing in India. Mohammedan Sporting fans still fondly remember his hat-trick against mighty East Bengal in the 1959 Rovers Cup final at the Cooperage.
Moosa was the first among the foreign strikers to score a century of goals in India. But he was certainly not the last. The Pakistan striker came to India as a professional footballer, but Nigerian Chima Okorie entered India on a student visa. As fate would have it, he soon became the most sought-after footballer India, his sensational scoring ability filled up the stands wherever he went.
Chima Okorie and opening the floodgates
Chima was all about power and aggression, added with extremely powerful left footers. In 1985, he was recruited by Mohammedan Sporting, but was soon lured away by East Bengal and later Mohun Bagan, who, in 1990, discarded their century-old tradition of not recruiting a foreign footballer to include Chima.
The Nigerian did not disappoint. In his first three seasons for East Bengal from 1987, he struck more than 100 goals. Thereafter, Chima added another 100 plus to his tally while playing for Mohun Bagan. He then moved to Europe to try his luck for a few seasons but returned to Mohun Bagan again to play a major role in green and maroon side’s first NFL triumph in 1997-98 season.
Chima’s coming to India was like opening the floodgates. All Indian clubs soon realised the importance of having a big-bodied foreign striker in the team. Initially, the imports were mainly from African nations. Many were found mediocre, but few were absolute game changers.
Top Indian footballers from the 1980s vow to say they never experienced a better foreign footballer than Majid Bishkar, a member of Iran’s 1978 World Cup squad. He came to India to enroll at the Aligarh Muslim University, but took Indian football by storm when he joined East Bengal in 1979. He was more a schemer than striker, but his magical skills were too hot to handle for Indian defenders.
Sadly, Majid’s dazzling shows didn’t last beyond a few seasons. In 1982, he joined Mohammedan Sporting but slowly got into bad habits. Off the pitch, Majid was the town Casanova, but on it, his form declined steadily. He allegedly got into drugs and soon there were no takers for him at the Maidan.
Once the NFL was launched, Indian football became a favourite destination for foreign strikers. They came from far off places like Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil or Uzbekistan but made huge impacts here.
Stephen Abarowei came from Nigeria to help JCT win the inaugural NFL title. Ghana’s Yusif Yakubu was introduced to Indian football by Churchill Brothers. He soon proved himself a deadly striker, who scored more than 100 goals in India while playing for at least half a dozen clubs. So was Brazilian Jose Ramirez Barreto, whose exploits for Mohun Bagan have effectively eclipsed every other striker in the 132-year history of the club.
If Barreto was Kolkata’s hero with more than 200 goals to his credit, Nigerian Ranti Martins, who mainly played for Dempo Sports Club, was Goa’s answers to the Brazilian.
During Dempo’s golden days in the first decade of the century, a virtually unstoppable Martins helped the Goa side win the NFL and I-League titles at least five times. Having scored more than 200 goals in NFL and I-League, no one is better qualified than Martins if there is an award for all-time Golden Boot among foreign strikers in India.
It is now a well-known fact that Indian clubs these days hardly look for local strikers – they find it easier to recruit foreigners and achieve the target. The All India Football Federation, in a bid to encourage potential Indian players in key positions, has decided to restrict the number of foreigners for each team to four from the next season. A welcome move indeed, but qualitatively, it might take the local boys substantial time to truly fill the gap.