Meet BallGai, the four-legged star ‘holding midfielder’ of Goa’s Mardol villagehttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/in-football-mad-goa-a-cow-is-new-star-holding-midfielder-in-mardol-village-5811715/

Meet BallGai, the four-legged star ‘holding midfielder’ of Goa’s Mardol village

“She was donated to the temple a few years ago and strays across the village. I see this as a sign. Maybe she is trying to tell the boys to stop playing with their mobile phones and come to the ground and play."

Many football buffs online praised the cow’s defence tactics online.

A video of a cow playing “holding midfielder” went viral on Monday morning, with United Sports Club in Mardol, north Goa — where she played a ten-minute game — wondering if she should be felicitated. But the game was not her first run, “and definitely not her last”, with players insisting she is “stubborn”, a “natural” and a “very very pushy player”.

Sahil Naik, 18, the club’s “original midfielder” seen in the video trying hard to dodge her attention, says the video makes it look exciting, but getting her to “leave the ball and the football ground” is a task.

WATCH | Meet ‘BallGai’ the four-legged football star

In Goa, the first state to ban cow slaughter in 1978 and introduce prohibitions under the Goa Animal Preservation Act 1995, this video of a cow holding on to the ball, and playing the state’s favourite sport won thousands of hearts. In Mardol’s Ponda Taluka, known for its temples, the “village’s most famous footballer” sniffed the ground as early as 2018 when the cow started to “practice” with the boys. The town’s football ground, the lone, open play space shared by several adjoining villages in the taluka, hosts two tournaments across the year and has boys from across the temple town, practicing six months prior, with drills scheduled around sunset as  most are in schools or employed in jobs during the day.

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The video of a cow holding on to the ball, and playing the state’s favourite sport won thousands of hearts.

On Sunday, their first practice in days, the players’ WhatsApp group was buzzing since morning about the 6.30 pm session. “When we started reaching the grounds, she was standing there, waiting for the game, waiting for us, waiting for the ball,” says Sahil. “We saw her and instantly knew how the game would progress.”

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Sahil is confident — he is the only one to have “managed to estimate the cow’s moves”, after playing against her for over six months. “Besides, she plays. Whether one likes it or not,” he adds.

In the village everyone has a story of their “footballer”. At the Mahalasa Narayani Temple, which also happens to be the family deity of Vijay Mallya, the flower vendors have an affectionate story to share of their new celebrity “thi videotli gai” (that cow from the video). Santosh Naik, who sells flowers at the gate, says she is the “most distinguised cow in the village with a handsome built” and a “stride that wins everyone”. Since morning he says the villagers have been busy making Marathi and Konkani one liners on the video — for every time someone forwards it in any of the groups.

The village’s taxi driver Salim Sheikh, also Santosh’s friend, remarks he saw her around 5 in the morning on way to the mosque. “She was walking oblivious to her new celebrityhood. “I was happy to have spotted her before anyone in the morning,” he tells Naik, both discussing her height (“tall cow”) and other physical characteristics (“very white”). The police outpost which faces the football ground has policemen who are amused at the video, but admit that they wait for her to start “rolling the ball”. Rohidas Bhomkar, who does rounds of police outposts from Ponda Taluka, is informed by his constables on the poses she regularly makes, as she holds the ball, something that the world of Twitter noticed too. The boys are happy that “specific poses also made it to Goa memes”. The policemen wonder if the video will be saved in internet forever.

Sahil Naik (midfielder), Pankaj Gaude (Defender), and Rohit Gaude (Forward).

Traffic Police Constable Vijay Mardolkar, who was on ground Sunday when the video was shot and was the loudest to cheer, says: “She goes crazy when she sees the ball. Not any sports ball. Only the big football. We feel she understands the game. Besides no one likes cricket much in Goa.”

At the village square everyone has seen the video and are happy taking phone queries about “their cow”. With monsoons delayed this year, paddy cultivation has been hit and the mood of the village has been “otherwise low”. But the ‘cow video’ has brought a brief moment of joy.

“Even if she is at a distance, she jumps to reach us. She knows the sound of the game, the sound of the boys on the ground, and at times even reacts to the thud of the ball touching the ground if someone is practising alone. We know she is going to reach us any minute if any of these situations arises. This has been going for a year now. We sometimes have to time the match to avoid her disrupting the game’s flow. We haven’t managed it yet,” says Vijay, adding the video doesn’t tell her full story.

“There are days when she just sits by the playground and watches us,” Vijay says.

Her other favourite, Vijay adds, is the gas cylinder. “She is unstoppable then. She will go near the cylinder and make sure no one touches it. Luckily, she sits next to a cylinder guarding it, till everyone around is tired waiting for her to leave. Now gas cylinders are ferried only after checking where she is,” says Vijay.

Rohit Gaude, 21, who works as a clerk in the village bank and plays forward, is the boy against whom she is seen charging in the video. “I was very nervous watching her run towards me. I have had this experience with her in the past too and I know better not to be in her way. She will not stand losing the ball.”

Defender Pankaj Gaude is not amused. He is the one who eventually manages to kick the ball. Gaude says he is “not always happy with her”. He has watched from a distance many afternoons trying to gauge her. “My practices are going waste. I am also scared of her. She is a cow and I do not see why she should play football,” says Gaude, who trains for a monsoon tournament after school hours.

Sahil, who is now learning to be an electrician, says the video also got the Mardol boys noticed. The temple town otherwise has very few opportunities for the youth with “parents not having enough income to pay fees to three years of college”. Most boys seen or heard in the video have chosen instead to take small irregular errands that are skill based. The cow though got them “world attention”, Sahil feels, wondering if anyone from his favourite club Manchester United might have seen it. He is pretty sure they do not have a cow playing football “every day” anywhere else in the world.

“When we see her on the ground with our ball, we never react harshly. After all, she is like a mother. At least we see her so. Besides, it’s tough to get her to give up. And she can kick us all four ways, so we don’t know how to put defence.” So practice sessions are now kept for an hour and a half — “an hour for the actual play and another half for her disruptions”.

The players — all Ronaldo worshippers too — though are happy that they have been watched by millions. Since Monday “friends of friends” have alerted of the video being shared in “Dubai and the US through Goan communities”. Between them –the boys have a list of footballers who they hope will see the video.

The Club’s President Kishore Dattaram Naik, 59, says they are now wondering if they should felicitate her. “Personally, I will suggest a few kilograms of grass,” he says. The boys want a separate ball to be gifted to her. With two tournaments expected to shape this year — with the first seeing 40 teams competing for a prize money of Rs 30,000 and the second All Goa Tournament between 12 main teams for prize money of Rs 50,000, Kishore feels the grass will “be too simple for the cow”.

“She was donated to the temple a few years ago and strays across the village. I see this as a sign. Maybe she is trying to tell the boys to stop playing with their mobile phones and come to the ground and play. She is telling them what the club has been trying to tell them for years. Till a long time the ground was not used and now that she wants the ball, the boys want it too,” chuckles Kishore. “We have been watching her for months. She would come and sit patiently earlier, observing everything. Now she plays a game, and also ensured she always stands in the middle of the ground,” says Kishore. The rest of the cows assemble to watch her too, he adds.

At the traffic junction outside the village, traffic constable Anil Naik is happy that the stray cattle has found a good game to play and is “on a playground and not open highways”. Stray cattle have resulted in at least 18 accidents across the state in 2018, with four humans losing their lives. “In 2000, the government had introduced an order saying stray cattle should be accommodated in yards behind police stations. It was done for a while. We see a lot of them at sites of road accidents in recent years. As long as they are playing football, it’s good. This news involving a cow is good,” he smiles.

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On Monday, the boys say she went “underground” as “celebrities whose videos go viral often do” and didn’t show up at the grounds, but on Tuesday at 6:30 pm she was back at her position. The boys have since decided to give her a name. “We will be calling her BallGai (ballcow). Nothing else will do,” says Rohit.