Football, Foreign footballers

African footballers in Calcutta Football: A tale of exploitation and hope

Growing up in Calcutta in the ’80s reminds me of sepia themed memories permanently etched in my mind. One such memory was getting introduced to football commentary on the radio we had, one out of the only two channels to the outer world. Amongst many stalwarts of the then Calcutta football like Krishanu-Bikash, Shishir-Subroto, there surfaced a new name Cheema Okorie.

His imposing stature and ability to score in almost every match gave him a legendary status in Calcutta football. Many years later, I started to wonder how he was first spotted, and how a large number of footballers of African descent came to Calcutta during the years to come. My intrigue rekindled when I recently read an article of Christopher – of the much-daunted troika Chhema-Chibu-Christo (how maidan knows them) has passed away last year and nobody had any more details.

I came across this article whilst searching for Christopher, and I must suggest this to anyone interested in the history of Calcutta football of recent times. I know now how that supply chain works, but this article is an eye-opener for many other reasons. On one side, this article is a tale of exploitation of foreign footballers in a then unregulated market, and the still-existent mean rivalry amongst different local team owners dating back from the colonial era. However, on the other side, it’s also a story of hope, of people in far-flung countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya packed their bags, with very less or no money and set for this alien city, to become professional footballers, in the leagues almost surely unheard of in the world press. Not many made it to the top, but their struggle and success teaches you never to lose faith in our human existence, and be humble at what we have got or done with our life.

Two extremes of then Calcutta football – diminutive Krishanu Dey, known as a magical ball-charmer, next to Cheema Okorie, one of the famous African trio, with large build and strength unknown to Calcutta maidan


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