Out of Africa and straight into Bangalore

For the Nigerian footballers plying their trade in Bangalore’s football clubs, the city offers a mix of the elevating and the absurd.

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Joseph Femi Adeola and Fredrick Okwagbe are often asked about ‘Indian culture’ — and they’re fine with all that, but they just can’t reconcile themselves to one thing. Why is it, Okwagbe asks, that it’s so difficult to say ‘hi’ to a girl on the street? The apparent coyness of Indian girls troubles him deeply.

That’s just one of the many complexities of Indian life for the Nigerians in conservative Bangalore. As professional footballers with HAL, they generally brush off all inconvenience, but sometimes all of it – the long stay away from home, the years away from friends and family in a different culture — gets to them. “I’m just waiting to go home, man,” says Femi, “I’m counting the days.”

Bangalore is an unlikely destination for a professional footballer. To be sure, there aren’t too many from other countries who arrive here to pursue their career. By either coincidence or design, Nigerians seem to be the most favoured foreigners on the Indian circuit, and Bangalore’s clubs have followed the same pattern.
There are many reasons for this, the most compelling of which is the currency exchange rate (one Indian rupee equals 3.28 Nigerian Naira). In fact, the country’s highest paid footballer, Odafe Onyeka Okolie, is Nigerian. Last season, HAL had Adeola and Okwagbe, while BEML had contracted Alesh Shamaki and Hamza Abdulla.

Given the high standard of the game in Nigeria and their dream destinations in Europe, those who arrive in India are either out of favour or out of luck with European clubs, or those who have reconciled themselves to aiming for the bigger Indian clubs. HAL and BEML are but temporary stops along the way – possibly a way to try and impress scouts from Kolkata or Goa.

The life of a pro footballer — even with a team like HAL — can be demanding, and it leaves them with little time or energy to socialise. With both Adeola and Okwagbe, one senses a desperation with the restrictions on nightlife and other strange rules in a city claiming to have global aspirations.

The players are left with fleeting experiences of the city and its reaction to them — people staring at them in a mall; autorickshaw drivers recognising them; teammates and their families inviting them over for dinner. In some parts of town, like the football-loving areas of Austin Town or Ulsoor, they are instantly recognised, and asked to pose for pictures.

Food obviously is a big factor in their relationship with Bangalore. Adeola and Okwagbe, who stay together at the HAL quarters, prepare their own food, but Shamaki is more comfortable with Indian cuisine.

“Where I come from, the northern part of Nigeria, the culture and cuisine are very similar to Bangalore’s,” he says. “I’m more of a vegetarian, and we have boiled rice and something that’s similar to your chutney.”

Of the four, Shamaki has been here the longest. Having come to India as a sign-up with Dempo Sports Club of Goa while just 16, he found himself in Bangalore two seasons later following a mix-up. He’d been promised by his agent of a chance in Europe, but that hadn’t worked out, and when he returned to Goa he found all the three slots for foreigners had been filled. So he was given to HAL on loan. Even though it was a bit of an accident, he has grown comfortable with life here.

“It’s a wonderful experience,” he says. “Here you are in a new culture. For me, it’s all about living – every day you learn some thing new. My teammates have been warm and very nice…they take care of us. Their parents call us home and cook for us. They take us out to restaurants. It’s like home away from home.”

Still, there are some aspects of Indian life that they can never understand. The outsider’s perspective holds a mirror to society, and Okwagbe’s despondent remark on the relationship between the sexes in India does give room for thought. “In our place, we mix with anybody,” Okwagbe had said. “There’s no pretence. I can say hi to any girl on the street, and it’s not taken as a bad thing. But here it can’t happen. Here, people cosy up in a corner but then they pretend it’s strange to want to talk to a girl. I’d say that’s hypocritical.”

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