Interview: Chima Okorie

There aren’t many people involved in football who can justify being called a pioneer. Arthur Wharton, world football’s first black professional is one, whilst Amy Fearn is another, after becoming the first woman to referee a match in The Football League last year. However in India, footballing pioneers don’t come much bigger than Chima Okorie.

Okorie made five substitute appearances for Grimsby Town in the 1993/94 season. Photo: Viewsonic03 via Flickr

Born in the Nigerian territory of Abia State, Okorie made his name in the 1980s as one of the first foreigners to play in the Indian leagues. His move into football, though, was, quite simply, inadvertent.

“In Nigeria, I was a very good footballer,” he explains with amicable boastfulness.

“I was a budding talent and all the clubs were after me, but in my family there’s a tradition for education, so when the time came I needed to leave football, and I actually did that by coming to India.”

In 1984, after having an application for an American university turned down, a 21-year-old Okorie enrolled at Visakhapatnam University in India, where he was expected to begin studying architecture. However, it was in his first year as a student that his footballing skills became apparent.

“I used to play badminton but the football field was always beckoning.

“One day we went to play football after a round of badminton and I got the ball, dribbled past every person and scored, and did the same again and again.”

Okorie’s performance in this unorganised kick-about drastically changed his career path, after the university’s physical education master asked him to play for Visakhapatnam’s student team.

A year later, whilst playing for a Visakhapatnam XI, he was spotted by scouts from Mohammedan Sporting Calcutta – a team who were historically one of India’s most successful clubs, but one who had fallen off the pace somewhat in the years leading up to Okorie’s arrival in 1985.

After two seasons with Mohammedan SC, the physically-commanding Okorie transferred to East Bengal in a move that would seal his status as one of the most menacing players to have played in the Indian leagues.

Whilst playing for the Red-and-Gold Brigade, Okorie was top scorer in the Indian top-flight in 1987, 1989 and 1990 and after a 500,000 rupees switch to Mohun Bagan, the Nigerian continued terrorising defences – topping the league’s goalscoring charts twice more, in 1991 and 1992.

Nine years after moving to India as a 21-year-old, Okorie came over to England to try to make a name for himself in the country.

“I had a successful trial at Notts County when Mick Jones and Neil Warnock were there.

“In the middle [of the deal], Leeds United got interested, and instead of going to [Notts County] to start my career, I had to change plans and leave them stranded.”

The proposed deal with Premier League side Leeds fell through, though, leaving Okorie without a club.

“I regret it a lot. It was the [biggest] mistake of my life,” he says, remorsefully.

“It took me to the path of desperation. I think looking back now I was just good enough for the Premiership but I needed somewhere to settle at that time, and Notts County offered me that platform, but I foolishly rejected it looking for immediate success.”

Okorie’s stuttering career in England did eventually find its way to a club, in the form of Division One strugglers Peterborough United – a deal with represented the “desperate times” the once high-flying Nigerian was experiencing.

After failing to impress the Posh’s staff enough to warrant a first-team appearance, Okorie transferred to Grimsby Town, where his career was to take a turn for the worst after just five substitute appearances for the Mariners.

“I really loved Grimsby and I thought my career could have taken off there, because the manager was very fond of me for my football, but it was not to be because I broke my leg at a very important time.

“That hampered my growth because there was a lot of expectation on me, and it was really painful just struggling to do the basic things that come so naturally for me.”

After a spell at Torquay United in the 1994/95 season, followed by two largely unsuccessful years in Norway, Okorie returned to Mohun Bagan in India, where despite being in his mid-30s by now, he topped the Indian goalscoring charts for the sixth and seventh times in his career, in 1998 and 1999, before retiring two years later.

“I don’t miss playing football. I know that that era has gone,” he reflects.

“I know that it’s a new era for me – time to start raising people to be stars in football.”

Since hanging up his lethal boots, Okorie has ventured into the coaching side of football. With his website, Sexy Football, he’s trying trying to teach an Indian audience how football should be played.

“Good technique is foundational – it depends on who taught you how to kick the ball in your formative years,” he explains.

“This is what I’m trying to get India to know – they can’t just suddenly start playing like English Premier League – they have to start building a foundation and teaching the kids the right way to kick a ball, then nurturing them.

“And then from there, they can have the supply to equate the demand for good players.”

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