His diminutive figure masks the colossal impact that, Ilo Emmanuel Olukunle has had in the lives of soccer players in his neighbourhood in Mumbai’s suburb of Naigaon. Standing tall at 5’8” with <g data-gr-id="41">humble</g> demeanour, you wouldn’t guess he is an <g data-gr-id="42">ex professional</g> footballer. Having served with the Oasis Football Club in Nigeria’s Lagos State prior to 2004, Emmanuel came to India in search of greener pastures. Ilo, who hails from a lineage of royal chiefs of the Ibo Community, left his native country like many other talented Nigerian footballers.
“It is easier to get recognised by the top Nigerian clubs’ scouts if you make a mark abroad and that is why you see many of us playing in teams all across the world”, the <g data-gr-id="51">soft spoken</g> athlete explains. He came to India in 2004 on the advice of an agent. But after landing in Mumbai, he soon realised that he had fallen prey to unscrupulous touts and had been abandoned after investing a fortune in his dream. There were no teams to go for trials with no accommodation and no income. But luckily, a relative came to his aid, providing him with basic needs while he tried to get on his feet. The rough welcome to <g data-gr-id="57">India</g> however, did not dampen his spirits and Ilo decided to make it work with what he had. He began coaching young boys at Don Bosco, an academic institution in his new neighbourhood of Naigaon. It was something he enjoyed <g data-gr-id="55">doing</g> but that <g data-gr-id="52">couldn</g> not sustain him financially, so eventually he decided to return to Nigeria. When the principal announced at the school assembly that their football coach Ilo was leaving for his native country, an eight year old boy from the team came up to him,shedding tears and <g data-gr-id="53">pleadedhim</g> to not leave. Ilo was so touched that he promised to return to India.
In 2006, he kept his promise and came back to Mumbai as an official employee of Don Bosco. He immediately set about his passion, sharing whatever he had. He coached Don Bosco students and a local team comprising of youths from Naigaon and the adjacent Vasai localities. While the school’s soccer rankings rapidly rose, he got his first major recognition when the Vasai-Naigaon team won Mumbai’s MSSA Bipin Under seventeen Tournament Trophy. The local media immediately took note of the fact that his squad had mostly <g data-gr-id="47">fourteen year olds</g> and yet they had triumphed over their older opponents. The <g data-gr-id="46">victories however</g> didn’t end there. The team rose up in the rankings and was eventually promoted to the 2nd division of the I- League.
This success did not go unnoticed as he got other coaching opportunities, including one from the Celebration Sports Club in the city’s Lokhandwala suburb. Just like his other commitments, he has remained with the club till date, still coaching the kids soccer team.
When asked about the state of football in the country today compared to the earlier times when he first arrived, Ilo opines that the game has undergone massive developments. It used to be mostly just a recreational activity for kids in the rainy season but now they are serious about training and parents are taking a keen interest in their children’s progress in football despite the cricket craze in this country. Ilo harbours no regrets about the turn his career and dreams took and detached him from professional soccer.Witnessing the success of his students is equally fulfilling, he says. Many have joined the local district teams and he still expects them to progress much further.
Now married to a local woman and with a son, Ilo says he has the time to wait and watch his students reach the zenith of their careers in football as he is not leaving India anytime soon.