Bartholomew Ogbeche — Four different teams, same consistent scoring

Ogbeche is currently playing for Hyderabad FC — his fourth club in as many seasons. The 37-year-old has been central to Hyderabad’s fortunes in attack and has 17 goals from as many games.

On song: Bartholomew Ogbeche of Hyderabad FC celebrates after scoring a goal against his former club Kerala Blasters FC.   -  Focus Sports/ ISL

When you think of Bartholomew Ogbeche, you think of goals. Many, many goals. The Nigerian World-Cupper descended on Indian shores for the 2018-19 Indian Super League season where he donned NorthEast United FC’s colours. After netting 12 goals, the most any Highlander has scored in a season, he went on to emerge as Kerala Blasters’ top-scorer with 15 goals the following season.

The Golden Boot award escaped him on both occasions. Ogbeche, a product of the Paris Saint-Germain youth academy, then took his goal-scoring boots to Mumbai City FC where he would score eight goals and play a pivotal role in the club’s League Winner’s Shield and ISL title triumph. Mumbai chose to not retain the stocky striker and off he went to Hyderabad FC — his fourth club in as many seasons, but the goals did not dry up.

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Ogbeche has been thriving at Hyderabad’s youth-infused setup and has 17 goals from as many games. The 37-year-old has been central to Hyderabad’s fortunes in attack and his ability to muscle out defenders, create room on the pitch and bury the ball into the back of the net have made him a “weapon” for his team.

In a chat with Sportstar, Ogbeche talks about how he joined the Nigerian national youth team at the age of 13, his time at PSG and what drew him to Hyderabad FC.

Hyderabad has had a very promising campaign so far and is the first team to qualify for the playoffs. What are your thoughts on the season?

It’s been a very good season for us, I must say. I don’t think many people saw us, you know, as a football club, that was going to be where we are now at this stage of the league, but I think it comes down to hard work and believing in ourselves more than anything. We have to keep going because, like they say, trophies don’t go to the ones who have a good beginning or are doing well, the end is what is going to count.

What inspired you to join Manolo Marquez’s Hyderabad?

What sort of inspired me, you just called it, Manolo Marquez the coach. In all honesty, it was him. When I realised that I wasn’t going to stay with Mumbai City, he was one of the first to approach me. I think it’s safe to say that we all admired the way Hyderabad played last season.

It’s true that they missed the playoffs but apart from that their style of play and the way the young players performed was impressive. I think we all were fans whenever we watched Hyderabad play.

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I’ve known Manolo from afar as a coach, but not personally. When I had the opportunity to work with him, I spoke to one of my teammates Hernan Santana (now with NorthEast United), who had him as a coach at Las Palmas in the La Liga. He only told me good things about him as a coach and as a person, which for me, is a crucial part of my decision. I’m happy and proud to have made the choice.

Talk us through your upbringing. Was there a footballing culture back at home? How did you get into the sport?

The fact is I grew up in a country where football is like a religion. It’s similar to what I see around, you know, the fields in India about cricket. Football is like a religion in Nigeria. I grew up watching football and naturally, I took that on board. I think it was also meant to be for me, it’s also destiny. Otherwise, you might love it and see it around you but it’s not a guarantee that you can make a career out of it. But thankfully, I did.

As you said, not everybody can make a career out of the sport. How did your family react when you said you wanted to pursue football as a career? Was it that you had to study and get a degree first and then pursue a career in football?

In my family, it’s always been education first before anything else. You’d be kidding if you came up and said ‘I want to play football and I want it to be a career.’ I didn’t personally think it was going to become my profession. To be honest, I think I was extremely lucky to have gotten a call-up to the Nigerian national team when I was 13. So I played through all the youth ranks of the Nigerian national team. That was where things changed for me. I got a call up to the Nigerian U-17 team and went on international tournaments and then got scouted. And then your life literally changes and that’s what happened to me.

If you get a call-up to the national team in Nigeria, you’re looked upon differently. That changes your life in the country. And then when you get scouted, to be able to go play for one of the big teams in Europe, then it’s pretty much like a dream come true for you. That was how mine happened, from getting called up for the national team to getting scouted and before I knew what was happening, I was already at Paris Saint-Germain.

Were you playing for your school team or club when you got selected into the national team?

I wasn’t actually a part of any club. That’s what was interesting and special in my case. I played mostly at school and when I was back home on vacation I’d play in tournaments with my local football club. So word spread around town that I was somebody that needed to be looked upon. The rumours were spreading like wildfire that there was this kid that everyone needed to see. And, fortunately for me, the Under-17 national team had a camp in my state at the time and the national team coach had heard so much about me that he sent me an invitation. I got an invite to join the national team camp not because I was playing for a club, but for the fact that word was just too strong for him to turn down. I couldn’t believe my ears when I received the invitation.

You were groomed at the PSG Academy from a very young age. How important was that foundation for you to build a successful football career?

I was able to showcase my talent and grow in that because one of the best things to happen to any youngster is to get into a proper youth setup. And I can tell you at my age today, it’s thanks to the way I was groomed at the PSG academy…95% of skills that I was taught over there I still have them with me. I was lucky that I was able to play for a world-class club and have the opportunity to learn the basics right from scratch.

On record, you’re still PSG’s youngest scorer!

When I speak to people at the club now and then, they do remind me of that, you know. It’s surprising to see the number of youth talent that has come through the ranks of PSG and for that record to still be there... So yeah, I’m just happy.

I’m thankful that I was able to go through the youth ranks, and I’m sure that record is going to be broken someday. I’m just grateful to be the one holding the record.