NFL was under his heels

DUDU OMAGBEMI was shopping in Kozhikode when The Sportstar broke the news to him that he had just been named the best player of the National Football League (NFL).

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

Dudu Omagbemi crowned himself with glory by winning two awards.-S. RAMESH KURUP

DUDU OMAGBEMI was shopping in Kozhikode when The Sportstar broke the news to him that he had just been named the best player of the National Football League (NFL). "Really? That's great," said the amiable Nigerian, who was also named the best striker of the NFL. And, with 21 goals for Sporting Clube de Goa, he was also the top scorer.

The 20-year-old said he was happy to receive the two awards. I am also happy that I could become the top scorer; that was something I wanted to be at the start of the season. Excerpts from an interview before he left for New Delhi to make arrangements for his visit to Malaysia, where he will play this season:

Question: How do you look back at the NFL this season?

Answer: Personally, things couldn't have been better, as I scored many goals and won these awards. But I'm very disappointed that I couldn't lead my team to the NFL title this year. Its even more disappointing when you fail at the last hurdle. You know, I badly wanted to win the title for my team; and I thought we could do it this year.

It was a great team I played with at Dempo. There are many quality players, and more importantly, all of us care for each other. The bond between us became closer after that road accident in Kolkata at the beginning of the season. Of course, we were lucky to escape just with minor injuries.

I enjoyed my tenure with Dempo and would only be too happy to play for it again, though my ambition is to play in Europe one day. The team management takes good care of the players and I get along well with our coach and my fellow-countryman Clifford Chukwuma, used to play for the team till a year ago.

Nigerian footballers have always done well in India.

Yes, I know that players like Chima Okerie were very popular in India. I think the main reason why the Nigerians succeed here is that they are very hard-working. Maybe we could adapt to the Indian conditions better than players from other countries. And of course, I guess we produce some of the best players in Africa.

The Nigerian striker emerged as the top scorer of the league.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

There has been a lot of debate about the presence of foreign players in India. What are your thoughts on the issue?

I think Indian football has only gained by allowing foreigners to play. The Indian footballers can only improve when they play along with, or against, talented foreigners. Of course it wouldn't be a good idea to pack a team with too many foreign players. But a couple of foreign players could make a huge difference to a team. Look at SBT. I think it will become the No. 1 team in India if it could recruit just two good foreign players.

The quality of the NFL has certainly improved and I think the foreigners have played a crucial role in that. And, remember, India isn't the only country where foreigners play in the domestic league.

You have been playing in India for five years now. Why do you think India is rated so low in international football?

I honestly feel India could do a lot better. There is a good support for the game in this country; and in places like Goa, Kolkata and Kerala, people really love football. There are big crowds even for local tournaments. I remember my days in Kerala when I played for Alukkas in the sevens tournament.

It was in fact after playing in the sevens that I started getting noticed by the professional clubs. When I came to India, I had no intention of playing; I had come to see my uncle, who was playing in a sevens tournament somewhere near Kozhikode. So I have seen the passion for football in India from close quarters. And I have come across many talented players in different places. I've seen fine players even in smaller teams, like Asif Saheer in SBT. I think there is plenty of talent in Indian football.

But they need exposure; they have to play against good teams overseas on a regular basis. I believe the Indians start late; you have to catch them young if you want to have good players. And the game has to be marketed aggressively. They could begin that by improving the television coverage of the NFL. I know cricket is more popular, but I believe football has the potential to change that, and I feel India has the base, talent and tradition to do a lot better in this sport.

How do you look back at your time in India?

I've enjoyed my stay in India. And I've enjoyed scoring all those goals. I'm happy that I've been able to score heavily in all the seasons I've played in India.

And it felt great when I was made captain of my team. I see it as an honour. I also see it as acceptance — letting your team be led by a foreigner.

Do people back home in Nigeria know that you are a big star in India?

Yes, they do and they are happy that I'm doing well here. Sometimes the NFL games from India are shown on television in Nigeria, so they get to see how I perform.

How did you get interested in football?

I was born in a family that loved football. My father and brothers were players so it was only natural that I followed their footsteps. I began playing when I was five.

What are your ambitions?

I want to play for Nigeria. To play in Europe is another ambition.

What do you do when you are not playing football?

I like to watch films. And I must admit I like watching Indian films. I loved `Bhagban'; I think it was a very good film and very moving. I watched its CD with English sub-titles, so I could enjoy it fully. Amitabh Bachchan was very good in that film.