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Getting to know NorthEast's new hero, Bartholomew Ogbeche

With Ogbeche at ISL Media Day

Not only is he his team’s current top goal scorer, Bartholomew Ogbeche has already scored more goals than any other player in NorthEast United FC’s history in a single season, and we aren’t even half way through yet. He also scored the season’s first and only hattrick so far (against Chennaiyin FC), and as captain, he has truly been leading the Highlanders from the front in what has been their best ever start to a Hero ISL campaign. 

But what do we know about the man behind all the impressive stats and numbers? I spoke with Bart after the match in Delhi last week to get a sense of his childhood, his PSG days, why he chose to come to India, and his life off the pitch.

Ogbeche hugs the ball post match

When you meet Bartholomew Ogbeche, you’re struck by how self-assured and at ease he always seems. He’s a man who smiles easily, with a sparkle in his eyes, and a spring in his step. You get the sense that he’s someone who isn’t easily flustered. Someone who always sees the glass half full. 

But beyond his infectious light-heartedness and confidence, he also possesses an eloquence and humility you don’t often associate with footballers. 

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that despite seeing exceptional success as a sportsperson as early as his teenage years, his parents never stopped emphasizing the importance of education. Perhaps it’s because he’s had to teach himself to negotiate the diverse social dynamics of so many different cultures, playing across Africa, Europe, the Middle East and now Asia. Or perhaps it has to do with the lessons he’s learned more recently, from being a father himself. Most likely, it is a combination of all of it.

Ogbeche celebrates a goal

His childhood in Nigeria

“Football is like a religion in Nigeria. Like most kids there, I grew up obsessed with the game,” Bart says. “I lost my dad 12 years ago but throughout my childhood his rule was that as long as I was good at school, I could do anything I loved alongside. So, I studied hard and got to play football for my school and for an amateur local team— but I never imagined that I would soon be playing for my country and a top European club!”

When Bart was just shy of fourteen years old, in a very happy coincidence, the Nigerian U-17 national team happened to hold a camp in his hometown right when his school had a holiday break. Somehow the coach got word of him and invited him to spend three days at the camp. The rest is history. “If school had been on, there’s no way I could have attended. The timing was divine,” Bart reminisced.

He may have started out as the youngest and most inexperienced player on the squad, but he quickly became a vital part of the team. “The coach decided to use me as a real number 10. I was the play maker, and I quickly got better and better.” 

Soon after he joined the squad, the Nigeria U-17 team were headed to Cape Town for the UEFA-CAF Meridian Cup where many of the best teams from African nations as well as several European teams compete. “Scouts from all the best clubs in Europe were attending to recruit for their youth teams,” Bart recalls. “I was very lucky—among the clubs that made a bid for me were Barcelona, PSG, Inter Milan, Bologna, and Nantes! I could hardly believe this was all happening!” He ended up choosing PSG.

Ogbeche in action 

Life at PSG and beyond

Adjusting to a new country and lifestyle wasn’t easy though. “When I first got to Paris it was so tough, I wanted to go back home. I was barely fourteen and I had to figure out a new country, a new culture, and make new friends, without my family around. I couldn’t speak a word of French, and it was so cold there compared to the weather in Nigeria! There were lots of nights of crying.”

But his love for the game saw him through these challenges. He spent the first year and a half playing for the PSG youth teams, and then the next four years with the first team. “I was 16 when I played my first big game for PSG - against Montpellier,” he recalls.

Soon enough, Paris started to feel like home, and Bart was living his dream. “I was playing on the same field as my heroes, it was surreal!” he laughs. “My idol from Nigeria, Jay Jay Okocha, one of the greatest African players of all time, was my roommate! Since I was too young to drive, he or Ronaldinho would pick me up for practice. Mauricio Pochettino, Nicolas Anelka, Mikel Arteta- all these legends were my teammates, it was crazy!”

Among his most cherished memories was the opportunity to represent his country in the 2002 World Cup. “We were in the ‘group of death’—up against Zlatan’s Sweden, Beckham’s England, and Batistuta’s Argentina,” he recalls. “Nigeria didn’t make it past the group stages, but it will always be one of my proudest moments.”

After playing in France, Bart went on to play for clubs in more than five countries including Spain, the UAE, Greece, England, and the Netherlands. It’s no surprise then, that he can speak French, Spanish, and Dutch fluently, alongside English and his native language, Yala. “It’s been such a privilege to experience living in so many different parts of the world, getting to understand so many different cultures,” he says. 

Ogbeche and his team warm up at practice

The decision to come to India

When offers to play in India came his way, Bart was immediately excited by the prospect: “I had heard a lot of good things about the Hero ISL, and I was glad to learn that it had grown into a full-fledged six-month long league, that it was not just a short tournament anymore,” he explained. 

Hearing from his former Valladolid teammate Rafa Lopez who played for FC Pune City last year helped him make his decision. “Rafa is like a brother to me and he recommended India highly. So, when NorthEast United approached me, I was intrigued. I could see how passionate the owners and management are, and I knew that they hadn’t yet had a really great season. I love a challenge and I hoped I could help change their fortunes.”

Bart is pleased with his team’s start to the season and is eager to keep the momentum going. He has also enjoyed discovering the country. “My wife and children were here recently, and we went to the Taj Mahal which was magical,” he shares. “Indian food has always been one of our favorite cuisines- my son’s favorite restaurants in Spain and France where we’ve lived, are Indian restaurants. They loved it here so much, they didn’t want to go back!” 

Bart has certainly grown fond of his new home- the Northeast. Alongside bringing a much-needed vitality to the Highlanders on the pitch, he has also put in an effort to experience the natural beauty and culture of Assam. On days off, he tries to see something new, to learn a bit more about the place. He recently made a trip to Pobitora wildlife sanctuary to see the rhinos, and also visited a tea estate. “You can never predict what the future holds but I knew in my heart that India would be a memorable experience,” he says, as our interview comes to an end.

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