An expression of ‘Where am I and what am I doing here’ is plastered on Santhi Devi’s face but that is understandable. The 23-year-old spiker was gearing up for her semester-end MBA projects at Osmania University in Hyderabad when a call to represent the Goan beach volleyball team for the Lusofonia Games took the Andhra girl by surprise.
“My initial reaction when coach (Surya Sawant) called me was, Luso-what?” Santhi says. She landed in Goa on Thursday with her partner Maheswari Jayaram of Tamil Nadu.
“Together, we won the national championship last year. Hopefully, we can win something for Goa too,” 24-year-old Jayaram says.
Strange as it may seem, athletes from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Maharashtra and Punjab form the core of the Goan contingent for these Games, which are meant to be strictly for the athletes with Portuguese roots.
The build-up to these Games have been, to put it euphemistically, rather shambolic. The general feeling one gets is that the only way to salvage pride is by topping the medal tally.
The Goan sports authorities, however, realised one ‘small’ hurdle they stumbled over in meeting that target — a shortage of quality sportspersons.
Goa’s record in the previous two Lusofonia Games in Macau and Lisbon has been dismal. They have managed a total of 10 medals (1 gold, 2 silver and 7 bronze), putting them eighth on the overall list, ahead of Sao Tome and Principe, East Timor and Guinea-Bissau. If they had sworn by local talent once again, the results would not have been any different.
To save themselves another embarrassment, it was decided to invite players from across India. So Goa, for the first time, will compete under the ‘Goa-India’ tag at the Lusofonia Games. Though the exact number isn’t available, it is believed that nearly 40 percent of the 200-strong Goa-India contingent belongs to states other than Goa.
In fact, the Basketball Federation of India initially named a team that did not include a single Goan player. The Games organisers were prompt to remind them of a clause which reserves spots for the local players in the squad.
“To ensure that Goan athletes are given an opportunity to participate and there is no injustice done to them, we have a clause wherein all the teams must have at least 25 percent of the players from Goa,” Games CEO Keshav Chandra says. “To boost our chances of winning medals, it was necessary to involve players from other states who have better experience.”
Reigning national table-tennis champion and Olympian Soumyajit Ghosh, Youth Commonwealth Games gold medal-winning athlete Dheeraj Mishra of Mumbai, national team volleyball captain M Ukkarapandian from Tamil Nadu and Olympian judoka Garima Choudhary are among the non-Lusophone athletes who will carry the weight of Goa’s burgeoning expectations. In fact, only two teams — men’s taekwondo and football — consist of players from the state or who play for the local clubs and academies here.
India’s basketball coach Scott Fleming, who will also be in-charge of the team here, said the biggest challenge has been to blend the four Goan players into the main team.
“Their attitude has been great, so that made things easy for me. They are not as good as the players from other states, they have been working really hard,” Fleming said. “We will have to strike a balance between the local hopes and the medal aspirations. The biggest challenge for me and other Indian coaches as well.”