Goa has always been devoted to the beautiful game. Aniruddha Sen Gupta traces the history of football in the state and its evolving culture
It was the 1950s, and the world seemed to be starting anew. The depredations and deprivations of the war were fresh in the memory, but past. In many parts of the world—Asia and Africa, in particular—the colonisers had left or been driven out. In that context, Portugal was a peculiar hold-out. Antonio Salazar, who had become prime minister in 1936, and clearly had no intention of giving way unless made to by force, was obstinately holding on to the country’s colonies under the Estado Novo, the Portuguese Second Republic.
Like many other nations, India was in the first flush of its independence. A motivating force behind the Non-Aligned Movement, it wished to be seen internationally as an apostle of peace, a beacon of neutrality. The dust of Partition had largely settled, and the aggressive muscling that had brought some of the more recalcitrant princely states to accession was passed off as teething problems in a diverse but unified country. In this scenario, the Estado do India remained, like Asterix and his indomitable village of Gauls surrounded by the Roman Empire, a thorn in the flesh.
In another theatre of war—football—a former Portuguese colony had gained recognition as the home of o jogo bonito, the beautiful game. Brazil were yet to be crowned kings, but would be, late in the decade, with the arrival on the scene of the Crown Prince, Pele. Though by then it had a half-century of footballing behind it, Portugal itself was not a force in international football. Its club teams, however, were flourishing, and the game had seeped into the pores of its colonies.
In that crucial decade, with pressure building for it to relinquish its hold over lands far removed from the mother country, the Salazar regime had to throw everything it could at the idea of Lusotropicalism, and a football, it found, was a handy thing to throw, never mind kick. The game became a useful way to bind the peoples of the Estado Novo together. Teams from the colonies started being sent out to play in other colonies, on tours that generated a great deal of excitement.
In 1955, the Clube Ferroviário de Lourenço-Marques landed in Goa, the first wave in a flood of football diplomacy. They would be followed by the Port Trust of Karachi, where many Goan expats worked and played and, ultimately, in 1959, by Benfica, which had
already established its reputation as one of the world’s great club sides.
“The Salazar government probably wanted to establish a connect with the locals, trying to score their own points, but it did give Goa a whiff of the greats of football,” says Marcus Mergulhao, sports editor at the Times of India in Goa, and something of an encyclopedia of football in the state. This exposure threw into high gear a passion among locals that had already been motoring along at some speed.
In 1956, Vasudev Mahadev Salgaocar—a man who had clawed his way up from selling vegetables as a child to becoming a mining magnate in the port city of Vasco da Gama—had set up a football club called Vimson, a compression of ‘VM Salgaocar & Sons’. Vimson changed over the years into Clube Desportivo Salgaocar, then Salgaocar Sports Club, before finally becoming Salgaocar Football Club (FC). The Vimson name is now that of the part of the divided business empire run by Vasudev’s middle son Shivanand, who controls Salgaocar FC.
It wasn’t the first football club in Goa—fierce city rivals Vasco Sports Club had come into being in 1951, and there had been others peopled largely by the Portuguese prior to that—but it was the first that had an industrialist’s weight behind it. Vasudev Salgaocar was known for his interest in football, but there was more than just that to his establishing a football club. “The original philosophy under which my father VM Salgaocar started the club,” says Shivanand Salgaocar, “was to show that our local boys were every bit as good as the Portuguese. We may have been under their rule, but football gave our people the opportunity to beat them at their own game. We also gave the boys employment—they worked in the company and played part-time.”
The boys in question were village lads who had grown up kicking a ball around in the local grounds. The game was not new to Goa’s villages. It had, from all available evidence, been introduced to Goa by a Briton. William Robert Lyons, a priest from Udupi, came to Siolim in Goa in 1883 to recuperate from an illness. The salubrious atmosphere suited Father William, and he decided to stay on and work with the local church. In time, he started a school called St Joseph’s, where—like all good Victorian educators—he laid particular emphasis on sport, football in particular.
From that genesis, it was largely the church that spread the gospel of football statewide. Clerics in training at the Rachol Seminary played it to let off steam and, once they became priests, took the game to village parishes.
“Every church has a playground in front of it,” says Brahmanand Sankhwalkar. “Because of the early involvement of the church, Catholic boys tended to get into football more. Hindu houses had only a handful of players.” Brahmanand is one of the country’s footballing greats. He became, in his own words, “a goalkeeper by accident”. But it was a role he was to play for club, state and country over a long and distinguished career in the 1970s and ’80s. He grew up in the shadow of St Michael’s Church in Taleigao, a suburb of Goa’s capital, Panjim. He happened to come from one of the handful of Hindu houses he spoke of and his father, uncles, brothers and cousins were all footballers. “My father, Sagun Kamat Sankhwalkar, played as a goalkeeper in dhoti and topi,” he says. “My elder brother Vitthal played for local clubs. I was attracted to the game at the age of three or four, and learnt to kick the ball around while I was still in nappies.” Brahmanand was picked for the Goa state team for the Santosh Trophy at the age of 19 (“I didn’t play a single game, but it was a valuable experience”), and went on to a storied career. In 1974, he signed for Salgaocar FC, and played for them for 17 years.
“Brahmanand, to me, was one of the greatest ever,” says his long-time employer Shivanand Salgaocar. “Apart from his obvious skill, he was 100 per cent professional, and we value that over everything else.” Asked to list what of the Salgaocar club’s many achievements he is proudest of, Shivanand leads with the fact that “in the majority of tournaments, we have won the Fair Play trophy”. He attributes these victories to “the sense of discipline as a unit that we focus on in the company, [which] also reflects in our team.”
That sense of discipline, of course, needs to be instilled in the players. It’s not naturally on display at the village games that constitute the crucible in which many of these heroes are forged. These games are scrappy affairs splashed with mud, blood and beer. “Goa’s football is played in the villages,” says Shivanand Salgaocar. “The biggest crowds, you will find, is in the village tournaments. They come to watch the local players, who are often people they know personally, and they take pride in their exploits.”
There is a plethora of seven-a-side and five-a-side tournaments in Goa’s villages. The St Thomas’s Church in Aldona’s five-a-side tournament even tried mixed male-female teams. It didn’t work, so in subsequent years they tried more obscure strictures: in one year, teams had to feature two married men and three bachelors; in another, teams were allowed to include two players of different religions. But the quirkiest—and most uniquely Goan—format is surely the tie-breaker tournaments that periodically spring up on a whim. These are competitions where teams of two or three will go up against each other in a series of penalty shoot-outs until there’s a single winning team. Naturally, this is more a game of chance than skill. Macbeth da Rocha, Sports Secretary of the Aldona Institute, which has on occasion organised these, puts it succinctly and colourfully: “It’s more of a gamble than a game. Teams shell out an entry fee, and hope to win the main prize, which can be quite substantial. At the end of the day, though, even a shit-all player can be a winner.”
The Aldona Institute is an example of a typical Goan institution—the village club. Members elect a governing body, which is responsible for managing the bar, and for organising club activities such as dances, functions and sports events. The current President of the Aldona Institute is Jonathan Coelho, a strapping young man who is a footballer himself. He has participated in many of these tie-breaker tournaments, and even won a few. “The game is just a part of it,” he explains. “They are always held at night, under floodlights. Hours before they are scheduled to begin, people get busy setting up loudspeakers, music and small stalls selling food and drinks. Ros omelette [a typical Goan roadside midnight snack of an omelette swimming in a pool of chicken xacuti gravy eaten with a wholewheat bread called a poie] has to be there! The actual tournament will begin three or four hours after the announced time, and can go on till early morning. I once played in a tie-breaker tournament that finished at 10.30 the following morning!” Sounds suspiciously like a party.
“And a fight,” chimes in da Rocha. “There has to be a fight.” The indomitable Gauls again come to mind.
The 1960s began with a bang for Goa, as the Indian government, tired of waiting for the Portuguese to leave of their own accord, sent in the Army and Navy, and ‘liberated’ Goa on December 19, 1961. Less than a year later, the Salgaocar team ventured to Delhi to play in the DCM Trophy. They made headlines off rather than on the field when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru hosted a reception for the team at his residence. In Soccer in South Asia: Empire, Nation, Diaspora (2001), edited by Paul Dimeo and James Mills, the episode is described thus: “…Nehru was careful to have himself photographed with [the Goan team] on the lawns of his residence. At a time when the Indian Union still had occupying troops in Goa and the Goans were appealing to the United Nations for Independence, this was an important image of incorporation and reconciliation…”
Salgaocar and Goa’s initial forays into national competition were tentative and unproductive in terms of titles, but their style of play—likened widely to that of their Lusophone cousins in South America—won them fans across India. By the mid-1960s, other forces were forming in Goan football. Mining firm SESA Goa, then still in Italian hands, launched a club of its own in 1965, which quickly rose to the top, winning its first Goan league title in 1968. The Dempo Souza industrial house, led by the patriarch Vasantrao Dempo, took over the Bicholim Football Club in 1967, and transformed it into the Dempo Sporting Club (SC). In a Golden Jubilee commemorative publication brought out a couple of years ago by the house of Dempo, current chairman of the industrial group and of Dempo SC, Shrinivas Dempo, wrote, “Grandfather was a demanding man, always asking questions… With football, no questions were asked. His instructions were clear: buy the best, but win trophies.”
In 1975, Dempo beat Tata Sports Club of Bombay in a fractious contest to bring home the Rovers Cup. That was Goan football’s first precarious step onto the top rung. But gradually, the state’s hold on that bar began to strengthen. In 1979, Goa made it to the finals of the Santosh Trophy, but lost to West Bengal in Srinagar. Four years later, the two teams faced off once again, this time in the lion’s den. They played a gruelling 210 minutes over two match days—the second a replay after the first had ended goalless—but it remained a stalemate. As per the rules of that year’s contest, the two states were declared joint winners.
By that time, Brahmanand was captain not only of Goa, but also of the Indian national team. A story he tells of an encounter 20 years later gives an idea of how he was regarded: “In Kolkata in 2003, I had gone to Gariahat to buy sarees. When I got there, the shops were just opening. A man setting up a small stall of banians, shorts, etc, recognised me. An old man in kurta-pyjama joined us, and the first guy introduced me as Brahmanand. The old man asked me if I knew the goalkeeper from Goa with the same name, whom he remembered from the 1983 Santosh Trophy. ‘Is he still there?’ he asked. I told him I was the same man, but he wouldn’t believe me at first. I had to convince him that I was indeed the same Brahmanand. He then shook my hand heartily and asked me many questions about the players from Goa of that time.”
The 1983 Santosh Trophy result had got Goa close to the top, but a shared trophy is still not quite the real thing. Brahmanand recalled in an interview. “It’s true the Cup had landed in Goa but we never had the exclusive right to call ourselves champions.” This time, playing Punjab, Goa made sure they won that right, becoming national champions for the first time. Since then, three more national titles have come Goa’s way. And Goan clubs have reeled in trophy after trophy at the highest levels of Indian football. Churchill Brothers and then Sporting Clube de Goa were formed, and there was, by the time the new millennium rolled in, a quartet of Goan clubs playing in—and periodically winning—what was first the National Football League, and later the I-League.
But it is a truth universally acknowledged across India that the biggest stumbling block in the path of sports glory is sports administration. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is a case in point. In the last decade, the AIFF has embarked on a misadventure that has deformed the face of football in India. In December, 2010, it signed a deal with Reliance Industries and the American International Management Group (IMG), having ended their 10-year deal with Zee Sports five years early. The new 15-year, Rs 700-crore deal gave IMG-Reliance exclusive commercial rights to sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, video and franchising, as well as the rights to create a new football league. Over the next few years, the powerful conglomerate and the compromised AIFF chipped away together at the existing league structure in India, the I-League in particular, conducting in-camera meetings and backroom palavers whose contents were never revealed to the press or the public.
In 2013, IMG-Reliance and Star Sports announced the ISL, which was launched as a standalone two-month competition outside the Indian league system. The first season, which ran from October to December, generated huge excitement due to the newness of the concept, the snazzy marketing of the tournament, the famous (albeit well past their sell-by date) international players it managed to bring to India, and the parochial fervour the geographically focused teams engendered.
“The ISL coming in was a positive thing,” insists Brahmanand Sankhwalkar. “It raised the standards of football. Great names came to India from all over the world. Our players got to practise in much superior conditions, with players of international class. It also lifted the price of footballers. Every player is now an industry by himself.” Marcus Mergulhao also makes a case for the ISL: “Take my own case. If ISL had not started, I would never have dreamt of sitting across the table from Zico, or Robert Pires, or Roberto Carlos. That was the great thing about the initial years.” Still, season by season, the quality of the foreign players slipped, and by the 2016 season hardly any of the names were instantly recognisable. The novelty of the experience had worn off; crowds were thinning.
And then the AIFF dropped the bombshell that they had secretly been working towards with IMG-Reliance. Against all precedent and reason, they announced that the ISL—a privately run competition that had to be bought into with huge sums of money—was going to replace the I-League as India’s top league. Not only that, there would be no system of relegation and promotion, which meant that despite effectively being reduced to second division teams, the I-League clubs, some of the most renowned in India, would have no first division to aspire to.
Club owners like Shivanand Salgaocar were incensed. And once it became clear that the AIFF was not about to change its mind, three of the four Goan clubs in the I-League pulled out of the competition in a display of pique but also self-worth. Churchill Brothers is the only Goan club that still plays in the I-League. “The clubs had a legitimate reason to pull out of the I-League in 2016,” Mergulhao believes. “I wrote a piece about the situation titled ‘The Beginning of the End of Goan Football’.” The corporatisation of football is a manifestation of a similar trend in other aspects of Indian society—the process of dissolution of public institutions, and their handover to private interests. The fact that the Ambanis are beneficiaries of both the larger general process, and this more specific case, only serves to underline this parallel.
The question now is, whither Goan football? The ISL brought with it FC Goa, which has what Mergulhao refers to as “the strongest grassroots programme today”, led by Nathaniel da Costa at the Forca Goa Foundation. The new-look Goan football has nurtured players like Sahil Tavora, who has played in successive seasons for FC Goa, then Mumbai City FC, and a third division Portuguese club. It has fostered entrepreneurs like Conrad Barreto, who is moving fan culture from the relaxed, fun-loving Goan mould into more intense European-style (or even Bengali-style) support through ‘tifosi’ like The Football Dugout and the Gaur Army. These 20- and 30-somethings supporters are the new drivers of Goan football. As for the beautiful game of the villages—it’s still there, a nostalgic echo of Goa Dourado, that almost mythical golden state of fish, feni and football.
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was ‘Sport’.