The Shillong Lajong striker spoke about the recent developments in Indian football, the quality of the I-league and a possible merger.
The Indian football season is nearing a conclusion and to be honest, the fans across the country will remember this one for some time to come. Maybe not for all the right reasons, but, India’s first FIFA U-17 World Cup and the most awaited Super Cup together in one season, who will not brag about it?
One thing is for sure, the 2017-18 season was an unexpected season where foreign influence brought the best out of Indian football. Abdoulaye Koffi, was one such overseas player, who made Shillong Lajong hard-hitting opposition as the Ivorian was one of the most influential figures in the I-League.
As we initiated our conversation in a cozy evening, the striker opened up about the quality and development of Indian football, the Super Cup and his side’s campaign in the inaugural tournament.
Far from his usual self when on the field, I found Koffi to be a calm and composed person off the field as we greeted each other and sat down for a chat. The Ivorian, as generous as he gets on the field for his side was equally warm and was a bit emotional when talking about his side.
“Life is perfect here. Only a little bit hot as you can see,” he started. I wondered how that humidity of Bhubaneswar in April did not seem to have had an effect on him in his first game in the Super Cup against FC Pune City? In that fixture, the 26-year-old striker scored the first goal for his side, giving hopes to many fans for a possible win, which was achieved by the end of the game.
“It is because I am a professional and whenever I go to a club, I try to work hard to make my team and fans happy,” he smiled as he went on pouring his heart out. “I love Shillong. I love the weather and the environment and the people there are very nice. They make me feel at home at all times.”
A distant traveller from the land of Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers and Eric Bailly, Koffi’s gameplay also includes a distinct physical element which enables him to open up deadlocks in the final third. It is a style of play which has been observed for years players hailing from the Ivory Coast, what Koffi offers more is a clever sense of positioning which has helped Shillong Lajong to put up a valiant display against many I-League big boys.
Koffi has scored five goals for Shillong Lajong across all competitions this season
“I was not serious at first,” he recollected from his younger days of playing football. “But after I saw my brother in the national team I became more serious. My brother was my inspiration behind my growth to become a professional footballer,” he revealed.
Much like the renowned siblings in football like the Toure brothers or the Boateng brothers, the Koffi brothers have grown to become respected players in their countries, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast respectively. While luck favoured his brother Mohamed, Abdoulaye was limited to club football despite his impressive string of performances in Egyptian and Omani leagues. However, his love for his country has not gone down even a little bit as he exclaimed, “My country is my country! There is no place like home and it is the best place in the world.”
Talking about national team call-ups, I felt curious about Koffi’s prior experience in the leagues of Egypt and Oman. While Mohamed Salah, the King of Egypt is taking Europe by storm and single-handedly led the Egyptian National Football Team to the FIFA World Cup 2018 and Oman, a country against whom the Blue Tigers have won just once in their last six outings despite being placed higher than Oman in the FIFA rankings.
However, the curiosity was soon realized by the ever-smiling ace striker as he revealed, “Football is the same everywhere. But, Indians play from their heart and that makes the league very competitive.” He also went on to add, “I underrated Indian football before coming here, but now I can say that Indian football is very, very good.”
With a population of 2.37 crore, the Ivory Coast has managed to participate in the World Cup three times in the last 12 years and seen rapid progress in their FIFA rankings. Although India consists of 65 times more population than that of the African nation, the Blue Tigers have failed to reach the FIFA World Cup.
However, The Ivorian disagreed and revealed something entirely different while talking about the development of Indian football. “Personally, I am really surprised. Before I came here, I thought the football was not like I see now. I’m also surprised by the performances of the local players. They’re top notch.”
In recent years, the Indian Super League (ISL) has brought many players into the fold from its counterpart, the I-League. While talks about a possible merger are ongoing, players still get goosebumps at the thought of joining the cash-rich league. Koffi, as emotional as he can be, is no exception as he admitted that he is open to a move to an ISL side while he also thinks that a merger of the leagues will be a ‘very nice’ step by the authorities.
“Bengaluru is my favourite team,” the Ivorian revealed. “For me, they are the best. They have good quality players and their first touch is priceless,” he added. The Lajong striker also revealed that he is fond of India captain Sunil Chhetri and watches the Blues’ skipper play on a regular basis.
Talking about captains, Lajong handed Samuel Lalmuanpuia the armband this season, who went to become the youngest captain in the history of the I-League. “What do you think about Samuela?” I could not hide my excitement while asking Koffi the question about his skipper. Being a teenager and holding the baton of leadership over senior players in no easy job, and, the I-League makes the job even harder, to say the least.
The Ivorian has been an influential figure on the pitch for the Shillong-based side
“He is really a fantastic player and I was impressed by him too,” the experienced striker opined. “Samuela is a good player with a bright future. I think his level is more than that of the I-League,” he said, suggesting a move away from the top flight, or even the country subtly- something like what Gurpreet Singh Sandhu did a couple of years back.
However, when asked about it, Koffi did not seem very interested in the popular belief of leaving domestic shores for foreign leagues to get better training and limelight. “It is not really important for him to go outside India when you have ISL teams with players like Chhetri and many others. He can learn from them,” he suggested.
Since Bobby Nongbet’s departure and the appointment of Alison Kharsyntiew, the Lajong-based side has enjoyed a period of success, unlike under their former coach. The striker was also praiseful of the new gaffer as he revealed in a single breath, “He is a young coach with a young team. For me, he is really good.”
While the Meghalaya side is gearing up for their quarterfinal hurdle against Mohun Bagan. It is safe to say that all eyes will be on Koffi. A leader upfront, the Reds’ fans will be expecting him to break Mariners’ hearts in the game, as has been Kharsyntiew’s strategy this season.
Koffi is excited, that much I know. But, will he score? I don’t. I have found a decent human being in him. I didn’t find an instrument. But, I believe this, that for god and family, for his side and his teammates and for himself, he will not disappoint.