Odafa Okolie - Never doubt his abilities
Odafa Okolie has been one of the most consistent strikers in Indian club football. He finished thrice, in the past five years, as the highest goal scorer in the I-League. His move to Churchill Brothers in 2006 saw him return to India after a highly unsuccessful first stint in the country with Mohammedan Sporting.
Odafa returned to Kolkata football after he signed for McDowell Mohun Bagan in 2011. From not making any appearance with his first Kolkata team to returning to the Mecca of Indian football as the highest paid footballer in the country, Odafa's second coming in the City of Joy became the most scrutinized topic in football circles. The high profile transfers of Sunil Chhetri and Syed Rahim Nabi were virtually unspoken off as Odafa remained the biggest off-season attraction.
With AFC Cup qualification at stake, expectations were high as the team left to Pune for their Federation Cup group encounters. Royal Wahingdong, Shillong Lajong and Churchill Brothers were the Mariners' opponents in the group stage. With the top team set to go through to the semifinals, the Mariners' title aspirations crashed after successive losses to Royal Wahingdong and Shillong Lajong. The team finished last in their group with only the draw against Churchill to show for. Despite playing the duration of every game, Odafa failed to have any decisive impact on the team's fortunes. His only goal of the tournament came in the 3-1 loss to Lajong.
Back in Kolkata, fans singled out Odafa's patchy form in front of goal as the reason for failure. Questions were raised over his ability and the salary he was drawing.
With the I-League and the Calcutta Football League kicking off, the Nigerian knew that every missed opportunity would see him answering more uncomfortable questions. In his very first match after the Federation Cup, Odafa scored a hattrick against Pailan Arrows. The fans adored him by the time the final whistle was blown. A striker's best answer to criticism is goals and Odafa was scoring many.
The renewed confidence did Odafa good as he left defenders breathless and goalkeepers gaping. By the time of the Kolkata derby, the Mariners looked like a formidable opposition with a hit man whose reputation was ever rising. Odafa, no stranger to Kolkata football, knew how much this game meant to the fans. He scored the only goal of the game which was also his first derby goal. Hattricks were also coming by for the striker and he netted his second of the season against his former team Churchill Brothers.
A striker's credibility can be safely measured by seeing his performance against quality oppositions. Against the top 5 league teams, Odafa scored an impressive 9 goals in 6 matches, scoring in every match. His mammoth season was recognized by the Calcutta Sports Journalists Club as they honoured him with the Bengal Footballer of the Year award.
Odafa maintains great camaraderie with teammates and officials. In an interview to www.mohunbaganac.com, Odafa said, "Nobody puts any pressure on me, here. Even if we lose 1-2 matches, the Mohun Bagan officials have always been there beside us." The leverage officials chose to give Odafa paid off in the end as the Nigerian scored 36 goals in the season. Odafa's monstrous season saw him score nearly 50% of McDowell Mohun Bagan's goals.
With club icon Jose Ramirez Barreto announcing his retirement, the onus will be on Odafa to become the next leader of McDowell Mohun Bagan. At his final press conference, Barreto told Odafa that it was now his responsibility to look after the team and "help Mohun Bagan win matches and more trophies."
Odafa will be pairing up with Australian striker Tolgay Ozbey in the coming season. Tolgay himself is a natural goal scorer and scored 18 goals in this season's I-League. The Tolgay-Odafa combination holds the firepower to make a formidable defense look paltry.
Whether Odafa can improve on this season's numbers remains to be seen but there is no doubting the ability of the man.
Arnab Ghosh, a Ph. D. student of the Department of Mathematics, IIT Guwahati, is...