It is appropriate that in the year Goa Football Association turns 50, Dempo emerged best in a league played over eight months and in diverse climatic conditions. Regaining the title from Churchill Brothers at a time when Goa are the reigning Santosh Trophy champions also means something’s right with the state of football there.
Churchill Brothers’ qualification for the AFC Cup pre-quarterfinals this season, two years after Dempo became the first Indian team ever to reach the semifinals of that continental tournament, is more proof of the shift from east to west in Indian football’s power axis.
The first team to win four national leagues isn’t from Mohun Bagan and East Bengal’s Kolkata but Panaji. On Sunday Dempo also became the first club to win the I-League, re-christened in 2007-08 after 11 editions of the National Football League, twice. En route they beat East Bengal and humiliated Mohun Bagan in Kolkata.
Credit Armando Colaco for that and he deflects the praise to the players and “the management.” In Indian football lexicon “the management” usually means the team owner. As the club’s coach and general secretary, Colaco is in sync with “the management”: one which offered long-term contracts when clubs couldn’t see beyond an annual deal with players (some still can’t).
Continuity is an important reason why Dempo won so convincingly despite filling half their quota of four permissible imports and after letting Sunil Chhetri pursue his dream in the USA.
Nine days after Mahindra United said they were disbanding, Dempo’s triumph — and the bright start by Pune FC — is also a corporate boost domestic football needed. For 43 years and through three generations, the club has been backed by Goa’s largest business group (according to the All India Football Federation website). Even relegation from the top tier of Indian football didn’t force them into a rethink. Having rubber-stamped their superiority in Indian football, they are now keen to get a toehold in Asia complete with a professional set-up and proper age-group teams.
In an article Brahmanand, the ex-India skipper and goalkeeper, attributed Goa’s position of eminence to grooming juniors. Nearly 30 years ago, Salcette formed junior teams from where players graduated into the first team, he said. Barring Churchill Brothers, all I League teams from Goa focus on youth development, he said. Among those vindicating Brahmanand’s claim is Clifford Miranda, Dempo’s left-side midfielder, who’s come through the ranks.
Football is compulsory in a number of schools in Goa — no coincidence that it was Portuguese priests who brought the game to that state — and with the GFA encouraging the hugely successful inter-village tournaments, the available player pool is possibly bigger than other states. Perhaps that’s why five of Dempo’s six India regulars are locals. Let that be another reason to say cheers to football in Goa. Please pass the pheni.