Goan football’s slow death due to lure of dollars and intrusion of Premier League

Goa football died a slow death because of the lure of dollars, development drive, intrusion of European football and ISL.

Written by Shivani Naik , Bharat Sundaresan | Goa | Updated: November 7, 2017 9:03 am
FIFA Under-17 World Cup, EPL, sports news, football, Indian Express Local grounds have turned into gated fields — like one of the many used for practice during the Under-17 World Cup — which old-timers say have restricted playing hours across the state. (Source: Express Photo by Kevin D’Souza)

Salu Sawant turned out for Seza FC by day, and took to the stage for Zagor — Goa’s traditional colourful, musical folk theatre — by night. ‘Feast in the morning, football in the afternoon, drama in the evening’ was the Goan way of life. Paddy fields that form the state’s bordering landscape when the sea doesn’t, along either side of the NH17, used to make way for small clearings which were used to kick around a ball made by rolling a cloth into a sphere. Goa was a giant gymnasium in some recent-ancient past. And when it started to rain to turn the scenery lusher than it already was, the Goan gymnasium would move indoors—carrom, badminton, scrabble.

It was a state of toddy tappers, bakers and farmers—all of whom loved the kickabout. Once the fields were harvested – everyone formed a team, the churches, the temples, the clubs and the inter-village tournaments sang a stirring, soulful backdrop to everyday life.

Now it hurts the seasoned Goan eyes to watch Housie games take over Sundays—with entire swathes sitting around chairs with pens in their right and chits with random numbers in their right. It pains the Goans to watch young boys in pirate pants immersed in phones and slouching over two-wheelers instead of running about on open fields and playing tricks with the ball. It’s said with a distinct lament how Goan youngsters traded their love for the dribble with the dazzle of the dollar.

It’s almost always in past tense that Goa and football get romanticised —harking back to the good old days when the tiny state was a concentration of the country’s best football clubs, with Vasco and Salgaocar and Dempo giving the famed Kolkatan giants a serious run for their money. When the final of the Philips League—that preceded the I League and even National Football League of the 90s— attracted 22,000 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium of Fatorda. Even Churchill, which was said to not pull crowds, was quietly adored and any Calcutta-Goa game drew a full-house.

The erstwhile People’s Sports Club that became Vasco was an institution. A baleful ‘shiii’ would echo after missed attempts on open goal as crowds made their displeasure evident. And every inter-school, inter-college, inter-village score from Mapusa to Vasco and Colava made it to the local newspaper. Sports pages in these dailies looked utterly self-sufficient and content with football tales of their hamlets splashed across, unmindful of the world beyond. Football ran in their veins, and then it suddenly stopped.

The U-17 World Cup boasted some terrifically scenic practice grounds in Goa – Utorda, Trinity, Bambolim and Nagoa. While the prim grass, neat bleachers and straight demarcated meshed borders might have impressed the visitors, it is these very facilities, the locals feel, that spelled doom for Goans and their village football. They talk about how the builders converted panchayat grounds into gated football enclosures. Just as toddy tappers became taxi drivers with the painful passage of time, the panchayat grounds—while retaining their quaint names—turned into soulless stadiums.

“Where’s the football ground at Baga gone?” thunders Marius Fernandes, a church figure, immensely and emotionally invested in the sport to the extent he started an academy to train young teens with a pal Fabian D’Souza. “Go find it. You won’t. It’s now a car-park,” he adds. Every ground from the north, he stresses, every paddy field, would be taken over in elections by politicians under the guise of “development” and be converted into a gated facility with a fat lock.

“EPL killed our football. As soon as boys started watching the English league, they wanted all the same things—jerseys and scarves and most importantly the structured grounds. They thought they ‘needed’ stadiums and stands. Developers stepped us to say: “We’ll build you a beautiful stadium.” Panchayat grounds were lost,” he adds.

The Poriat ground, right in the centre of Calangute, became a gated football community overnight. “Come at 4 O’clock they say. Goans didn’t start playing football based on the clock. We played whenever we felt like. Football was timeless for us,” he says.

Everything is ‘multipurpose’ now, he laments. “Can you imagine Wembley ever allowing cricket to be played?” The Goa Football Association brought an astro-turf – sacrilege, he reckons. “The ball bounces like an idiot! Who plays football on those artificial blades?” he roars.

The duo’s training academy coached kids in u-14, u-16 after which the semi-ready products were poached by the clubs. “Why did the clubs here never think of developing their own youth systems?” says the man who helped host Goa’s first flood-lit tournament. “Well it was just giant lamps— but people loved it because everyone could enter the ground,” he says, dripping sarcasm.

Marius now busies himself in promoting cultural remnants—the World Cup has coincided with the Baker’s Day festival at Succor church a day before Germany plays Costa Rica, and there are stalls for the organic produce to go with the wafting aroma of buns and breads— rosemary and thyme.

‘Today’s fans’ in Goa are the FC Goa regulars, who turn up for the ISL games. It is debatable if the new team gets a better crowd than what the traditional clubs used to. But there are murmurs that the pushing of the I-League to the background of the glitzy ISL did kill interest in football among the Goans. The village tournaments are thriving, but club fandom is in disarray. “Hardly anyone goes,” says a local football official wishing to remain unnamed. “Dempo, Salgaocar could’ve continued, but you have to understand there has to be some return for the teams too. The charm is gone,” he says, recalling days when the Fatorda boasted chairs only in the West stand.

Inflated salaries of foreign strikers had been tugging at the survivability of clubs, bleeding them dry, though the final nail in the coffin was an end to the mining. While environmentalists rejoiced the ban, and it generally was welcomed by the citizens of the state, football fans could sense an end to the golden days when the mining money—routed through CSR into football—went missing, affecting the biggest names in Goan football.

The two top clubs might’ve joined hands to stay afloat in ISL —but ownership would soon extend to the biggest casino brand, bringing alongside it unanticipated complications.

“There is moral judging of the casino industry— justified or otherwise. It’s wrecked a few families, and generally Goa is taking time to come to terms with this new cultural dynamic, and source of employment as well as recreation. Word travels fast on the unfortunate stories, and some older Goans distanced themselves from this, in the process dumped their love for football,” says the official, adding that the love affair with the sport will struggle to be rekindled in its current form of one unified team.

“Even Manchester United, despite its name doesn’t monopolise support in Manchester, ceding half the fans to City. You can’t just put one unified team and win over traditional fans,” he adds.

As scandalous as it sounds— and people shudder to utter it—cricket has made some serious inroads into the coastal state, football’s former hallowed hub. The Goan government might have propped up 70 odd centres for their own development programme under the name GFDC — but youngsters are gravitating towards the riches of mainstream cricket. “There’re a 1,000 options now, but cricket has taken root here, and it spreads fast like a virus,” the official concedes.

While there was controversy over the absence of any Goan in the Indian team — made all the more visible given the Indian U17s were based here in Goa for their two-year-long training—there are murmurs that it wasn’t wholly unexpected. “There are versions of what happened. But maybe the coach needed bulked-up, strong guys for the global events. And our boys didn’t really set gyms on fire or warm up to that aspect of the game. Maybe, the coaches didn’t wholly like what was on offer,” an AIFF official explains, though the state body through its boycott maintained that the coach had been discriminatory in not giving the Goans a chance.

THE AVERAGE pay for a car wash attendant in London is eight pounds an hour — that’s 80 pounds for a 10-hour shift daily. And if you avoid taking a day off like most do, you end up with 2400 pounds or Rs 2 lakh every month. It’s nearly two-and-a-half times of what an average footballer in Goa would earn from pursuing his sport at the highest level in India, according to Joshua Vaz. It’s also the reason why he reveals most of the boys who grew up playing football, are making a living in England doing odd jobs, mainly washing cars.

“Washing cars in England or they have done what most Goans do — get a job on the ship,” says the Churchill Brothers midfielder. Vaz never contemplated the move. He has started the Youth Futsal Academy (YFA) with his father and brothers.

And it’s on the final day — after under-10 boys from schools around south Goa have battled each other on a league basis over nine straight weekends — of the YFA league at the Chowgule Sports Centre that we meet him. The matches are humid and noisy affairs-the noise exacerbated by the enclosed setting-as coaches and parents, especially shouting out loud and at times threatening instructions to the kids.

Almost every speech that follows from the guests of honour is centred on parenting, and how mothers and fathers should take it easy on their young ones and just let them play. But not many of the parents seem too chuffed. There are more rolling eyes than nodding heads.

“Life was a lot simpler here when I was growing up and football was something that just came naturally. You would see your father and all the neighbours playing it and you just started that way,” he recalls. “If you were good enough, you would end up playing for an I-League club and make enough money to sustain a good lifestyle,” Vaz says.

The new millennium brought with it the internet expansion and increased cost of living, according to Vaz, and increased the opportunities for spending on all fronts. Though players made it to the I-League, the changing pay-packets also widened the disparity between the haves and have nots in Goan football. Then the ISL happened a few years ago creating an even graver divide.

“It didn’t help that Goan clubs started looking outside the state for talent. In certain clubs, out of 30 players, you’ll find less than 10 from Goa,” he says.

“Even FC Goa is guilty of ignoring us. They seemed keen only on one Goan (Brandon Fernandes) during the drafts and picked maybe one or two more towards the end,” says another player. Brandon too had trials lined up at Leicester, Monaco and in South Africa but is said to have returned weary from the struggle. “The ISL has ensured that you’re either in the top bracket and making lots of money or you’re struggling to find a spot in the starting line-up regularly at some club or the other and barely making enough to manage a decent life,” adds Vaz. That, he says, explains the exodus of footballing talent to England or to the merchant navy industry.

OVER-INDULGENT parenting or parents could well have resulted in no Goan making it to the under-17 World Cup squad in some opinions around here. The team spent a good part of two years circumnavigating the world in the build-up to the big event. If not, they were part of various camps designed by former coach Nicolai Adam. The lengthy periods away from home is believed to have not sat too well with the parents of the four Goan kids, who were part the team at that point.

“Whenever I met them, they seemed upset with their kids’ constant travel and couldn’t fathom why it was required. The worst was when the camp was in Goa and they had to stay in the hotel. They would argue about why their sons couldn’t finish training and come home to sleep on their beds,” says one of the soccer moms at the YFA event.

They were also concerned with the food. “Goan parents are more indulgent than others. We like to ensure that our children are given the best food possible, and they were obviously concerned with them being away from home-cooked food for long,” she adds.

The four boys were eventually cut out with Adam insisting that they didn’t have the power or the physique to play at the highest level yet. Locals also talk about a specific case of a teenaged goalkeeper who was signed by FC Goa last year and opted out of the World Cup camp. The talk around the town is that his father didn’t see sense in him being away from his studies and still being paid a pittance.

“He makes 15 lakh per season with FC Goa, so perhaps it makes sense for his father to say that,” you’re told.

Savio Medeira, former India player, interim senior team manager and present AIFF technical director, is one of the chief guests on the youth futsal league finals’ day. And he puts the blame on the lack of Goan players on the state federation.

“Nicolai had announced trials at all major footballing centres when he was preparing the team for the World Cup. Two days before the trial was supposed to be held here, the Goa Football Association informed the AIFF that they couldn’t hold the trials since most of the kids were busy with their school examinations,” says Medeira.

It’s a kind of apathy that he never expected to be bestowed upon football in Goa. But it’s one that he fears isn’t going anywhere. Having no Goan players in the World Cup squad should be the alarm bell that Goan football needs to reawaken, but he sounds pessimistic enough to say that it might well fall on deaf ears. Those in power and with the power to change things unfortunately don’t seem to care enough if at all. You don’t need Medeira to say it. It’s that obvious.

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