Churchill Brothers, the sole Indian challengers in the AFC Champions League, are not ashamed to admit that they are a one-man team. Fans of the club from Varca, a district south of India's tourist haven Goa, will tell you that without Odafe Onyeka Okolie, their striker, the going gets tough. Luckily for them, the Nigerian will be in the team when they travel to the UAE for their Asian Champions League play-off against Al Wahda, with the winners of tomorrow's one-off match qualifying for the group stage.
Okolie's importance to his team is backed up by facts. Last season, as the club won the I-League, India's top division, the Nigerian accounted for 24 of the 54 goals his side scored. Add the 22 goals of the 40 that Churchill Brothers scored in the 2007-2008 season and nine from 13 games played in the campaign and the verdict is quite clear that Okolie is Churchill's inspiration. "He's been the club's pillar of success," says club president Joachim Alemao.
It is obvious that the player who turned Churchill Brothers from contenders to champions justifies his yearly wage of Rs12million (Dh953,000), which makes him by far India's best-paid footballer. The 25-year-old has a strike-rate that would be the envy of Europe's top forwards: 115 goals in just 103 games for the club. Asked about the importance of his striker, Carlos Pereira, the club's Brazilian coach, said: "All that matters is winning. Okolie is doing his job and knows the expectation. Two titles [the Durand Cup and the IFA Shield] of the three decided this year were courtesy of Okolie. So I guess that's it.
"Okolie is an inspiration to have on any team," added Pereira, who was coach at Al Ain for four years in the 1980s. "But then, the test is performing when it comes to superior opponents like Al Wahda. "He's got the brain, strength and hunger for goals," continued Pereira. "Tough it should be but then remember there are ten others too who have helped him grow in stature as well." "He is a dangerous player," said Josef Hickersberger, the Wahda coach.
Despite being based in Goa, the former Portuguese colony on India's west coast, the aptly-named Churchill Brothers squad is dominated by a host of north-east Indian talent. In fact, there are no Goans in the team, but as Alemao points out, "we mean business and that does not rob us from being Goan at heart, which we are that's what matters most." The club are not, as one might assume, named after Winston Churchill, the former British prime minister, but after the their founder, Churchill Alemao. They have gone from a village team to a formidable giant of Indian football in the space of two decades .
After being forced to give up his own footballing career in order to provide for his family, Churchill, now a member of parliament, decided to give something back to his local community in Goa by creating a football team in 1988. With the backing of the Madras Rubber Factory, the village team were turned into an official club by Churchill and the rest of the Alemao family. Beginning life in the third division of the Goa league, the club were in the first division within three years.
Their rapid progress gave them a spot in India's top division, which was renamed the I-League in 2007. Last season's triumph was their first title after years of near misses. History is not on their side - the 2008-09 champions Dempo were thrashed by the Pro League's Sharjah 3-0 at the same stage of the Champions League last year. But with a bit of luck and some inspiration from Okolie, they might just have a chance.