Footballers of all shades have played in India. From those on the run, painters looking for an alternative profession and students have been welcomed by clubs in the past. But there have been some real winners too, those who proved themselves on the biggest stage of them all.
Convincing them wasn’t easy, though. Diego Forlan, the Uruguayan who won the Fifa Golden Ball as the outstanding player at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, wanted guaranteed access to a golf course before joining Mumbai City FC.
Another man who would go on to win top individual honours at a World Cup, however, arrived in India to prove himself. Remember Salvatore Schillaci? Goa had heard this name, and even seen him, much before he won the Golden Boot as the leading goal scorer at Italia 1990 and Golden Ball as the best player.
In 1984, Schillaci played at a 4,000-capacity stadium in Goa which was later razed down to make way for parking space. He was part of an Italian under-23 reserves, and never looked like the man who would surprise the world with his six goals in a World Cup six years later.
Then there was Paolo Maldini, who lazed around on the Calangute beach in North Goa, and attracted attention only when he visited a famous night club in the vicinity. “I took him to the night club and next day the Italian press reported that Maldini was enjoying in Goa rather than focus on his recuperation. He was here with his physio,” said Fabian Fernandes, a local panch and founder of Goa United Sports Club.
After his IFA Shield final visit in the 1980s, in 1993, Bobby Moore, England’s only World Cup winning captain of 1966, was once again convinced to be the chief guest, of all events, for an inter-Village football tournament in Goa. “He was disgusted with the football but sat through the match and gave away the prizes,” said one of the organisers.
The advent of the Indian Super League has opened the doors for superstars to consider India as an option at the fag end of their careers. Italian Alessandro del Piero received Rs 10.8 crore for a four-month stint with Delhi Dynamos that yielded just one goal in 10 matches. Del Piero, however, was undoubtedly a star, roaming around with a personal photographer, physio and a posse of bodyguards.
Most others had no airs about themselves and mingled freely with everyone. Arsenal legend Robert Pires went out of his way to make it comfortable for everyone at FC Goa, often driving for several kilometres to have lunch with his teammates. The Frenchman only lost his cool when he was involved in a fist-fight with Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) coach Antonio Habas and, when relegated to the bench, was involved in a war of words with his coach Zico, another legend of the game.
Top Brazilians have been here in plenty. Lucio, a World Cup winner with Brazil in 2002, can easily be counted among the humblest of footballers who helped his driver buy a luxury four-wheeler and start a business of his own.
His Brazil teammate and World Cup winner, Roberto Carlos, was famous for smoking wherever he could find some privacy, and, some players suspect, it included toilets in the dressing room.
Before the ISL, there were World Cuppers playing for in Indian clubs too. Iran’s Majid Bhiskar was the first among all, and then there was Nigerian striker Emeka Ezeugo, who was detained for unlawful possession of a firearm. The Nigerian is the only player to first have a career in India before playing at the World Cup.
Many have struggled, none more than Michael Rodriguez. The Costa Rican who was part of the national squad for the 2006 World Cup in Germany landed at United Sikkim FC – owned by Bhaichung Bhutia – and soon discovered life wasn’t going to be easy. “Nobody could understand Spanish in Sikkim, and he had no clue about English,” said a former teammate.
It was frustrating for Rodriguez but he soon found a way: sign language. He survived the entire season without speaking a word!
OTHER LEGENDS WHO PARADED THEIR SKILLS IN INDIA
Diego Forlan (Mumbai City)
Golden Ball winner at the 2010 World Cup with five goals that took Uruguay to the semifinals, Forlan was the marquee player for Mumbai City FC in ISL 2016 and took them to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Oliver Kahn (Bayern Munich)
Voted best player of the 2002 World Cup and three times world goalkeeper of the year, Oliver Kahn played his farewell game for Bayern Munich as the Bundesliga champions defeated Mohun Bagan 3-0 in 2008.
Thomas Mueller (Bayern Munich)
The German hero, who won the Golden Boot during the 2010 World Cup, has played twice in India, first with Bayern reserves at the IFA Shield in 2005 and then for Oliver Kahn’s Bayern farewell in 2008 and in Bhutia’s farewell game in 2012.
Gianluca Zambrotta (Italy, 2006)
Among the better coaches to grace the ISL, Zambrotta guided Dynamos to a place in the semifinals. His tactics and playermanagement saw Delhi play their best football and they were unlucky to lose against Blasters on penalties.
Alessandro Del Piero (Italy, 2006)
The most expensive player in Indian football, Del Piero never really lived up to his billing. Just one goal through Dynamos’ campaign in the ISL seemed poor returns for the Rs 10.8 crore that they invested in the Italian goal machine.
David Trezeguet (France, 1998)
David Trezeguet has scored more than 300 goals in his career but the French striker struggled to replicate the same form for FC Pune City. In the eight matches, he scored two goals, and warmed the bench for some matches.
Freddie Ljungberg (Sweden, Arsenal)
Injury never really allowed him to excel as marquee player for Mumbai City FC but whenever he took the field, there were glimpses of the style that made him an Invincible and fan favourite at Highbury and Emirates.
Alessandro Nesta (Italy, 2006)
The elegant defender was preparing to play a legends match in Bangkok when he got a call from Materazzi to join him at Chennaiyin as a replacement for Stiven Mendoza. He spent less than a month in Chennai.
Laszlo Kiss (Hungary)
A blend of handsome looks and silky skills, Laszlo Kiss played for Hungary in the 1982 World Cup. Was the first substitute to score three goals in a World Cup match against El Savador. Played in the Nehru Cup in 1984.
Roger Milla (Diamond Club)
The Cameroon striker caught the world’s attention with his goal celebrations at Italia ’90. A few months later, he toured India and played a match for Diamond Club as part of Mohun Bagan’s centenary celebrations.