Football: A global melting pot

Spotlight

BIG GOALS: Hamza Abullahi (left) of Lonestar Kashmir in action against Ozone FC in the Second Division League. Hamza has played for many clubs in India and even has a home in Bengaluru. DH photo/ B H Shivakumar

Hamza Auta Abdullahi stands surrounded by laughter near the away dressing room, tucked in a corner at the Bangalore Football Stadium. The Lonestar Kashmir player had just finished his Second Division League game and his friends had come down to watch him play.

“Staying in Goa was lovely. But I prefer Bangalore,” says the footballer from Nigeria, taking the city’s former name. “I’ve a house here and wherever I go, wherever I play, I come back to Bangalore. It’s always been my home.”

Hamza has been in India for about seven years. In that time he has represented BEML, HAL, Salgaocar and Lonestar Kashmir among others. He has experienced the heat in Chennai, the pressures of playing in Kolkata and now, the uncertainties of India’s northernmost state.

How many Indians can claim to have done that?

“Bangalore is a multicultural place. It was the same in Chennai but Kolkata was a bit difficult and Kashmir is also hard because sometimes you find it hard to come out due to the things that are happening there. But I have really experienced culture, languages and people and I’ve really enjoyed it. It was an eye-opener,” says Hamza, complaining how the Garden City was never this hot ‘back in the old days’.

There are 211 countries in FIFA’s world ranking list. It’s by far the most widespread sport on the planet. And with that comes employment opportunities across the globe.

While the creme de la creme play at the elite levels across continents, just the sheer necessity for talent provides players, perhaps -- of slightly lesser calibre or whose career was waylaid by injuries, inconsistencies, bad luck or a combination of them all -- with a chance to live their dream.

And within those who choose to play football as a profession, they do so for a myriad of reasons. To be a star, to make money, travel the world, immerse in different cultures.

For Hamza, it started out of sheer curiosity. “I was playing in Nigeria and at that time, I’d heard about India and I thought it was Asia and I can experience the football there. Luckily I landed in Bangalore and I fell in love with the city,” he says matter-of-factly adding that he plans to work with an academy in the city once his playing days are done.

Nigeria’s Olariche Princewill Emeka, who played most of his career away from the top division in India, having turned up for NEROCA, Mohd Sporting and TRAU FC in the past few years, does it out of passion. Emeka met his future wife when he first came to Bengaluru to play for HAL. With the club falling to hard times as he came in, he was left at the deep end in a foreign country.

“I came to India with HAL, but when I came, they were already shutting. So I had to begin my journey on my own here,” he says about that time. It taught him a lesson, he quickly learned to make sure he managed to follow his passion. “To play here, you have to work hard. To keep finding teams. If you relax then no one will take you. So I’m always working hard to make sure I get a club,” he says throwing more light on the journey of a footballer.

“They are giving you more money because they expect more from you. So there is that pressure also. But you cannot stop what you love, it’s passion.”

A year ago, Alexandre Tabillon was one of the foreigners playing for Lonestar Kashmir. The Frenchman had different motivations. He was good enough to play in most countries and what that meant was he had an opportunity to see most countries while playing football.

“Yes, I have that adventurous streak in me. I love to travel to different countries because it gives immense pleasure. You can see all these cultures too. It’s not about money or becoming a star. I travel the world to play professionally and football helped me get financially balanced,” says the 28-year-old.  

His fellow countryman, Christophe Jonette -- who had a season with TRAU in the Second Division League in 2018 -- is cut from a similar cloth. The defender, born in Metz, started his journeyman career at 20 and had stints in Switzerland, Italy, Scotland, Germany, England and Luxembourg before finding his way to the Indian shores at the age of 30.

He remembers playing against a raw and young Dele Alli in the lower leagues of England, the walks through the beautiful city of Sicily and how he met his wife Lilia -- a Tunisian corporate and tax legal officer working at an MNC -- at a party during his stint in Luxembourg.

Memories of a lifetime scattered around the globe.

“To learn about different cultures is one thing, to actually experience it is totally different,” Jonette says in a text message, his wife helping him with the language. His English is not as good as his French or Italian, he apologises.

“I’ve learned patience because generally life abroad doesn’t always go according to plan. I also learned how to unplug from social media, spend time walking in the noisy but full-of-life streets of India. I played football with kids and I learned how to live in the moment,” he goes on. “I think the world isn’t as scary as we’ve been led to believe. Yes, (there is) danger out there but (there is) kindness too.” Jonette plans to head back home once his playing days are done, with an idea of opening a restaurant or a bakery. “I wanted to learn from life and become a man far from the family home. Thank god for giving me this chance to play football.”

For those with adventurous, passionate and curious souls, it is very much the beautiful game.

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