How FIFA World Cup rekindles Goa’s football fandom
The FIFA World Cup has triggered a rekindling of football fandom in Goa, once a powerhouse of Indian soccer talent
The noisy street leading up to the Panjim market in Goa is only a muffled rumble inside the thick walls of the six-decade-old Olivant Marchon building that houses the Marietta Café and Bar. Its owner, 53-year-old Estevao Steven Rodrigues proudly pointed to a frame poster occupying the centre space at the hallway that leads to the seating area of his restaurant.
“Para Rodrigues, Com cem abraços de Eusébio (For Rodrigues, with a hundred hugs from Eusébio),” reads the scribbled inscription autographed with a thick marker by one of the world’s greatest footballers of all time, Eusebio da Silva Ferreira of Portuguese.
To be in possession of a personally signed autograph of Eusebio, who took the 1960s and 70s by storm earning him the moniker, the Black Panther, is something that is very dear to the Rodrigues family that has been running the Marietta Café and Bar for close to six decades now.
“It was given to my father by a friend who specially requested Eusebio to autograph his picture. It has been hanging on our wall ever since,” said Steven Rodrigues, recalling his father Ambrosio’s love for the game.
Ambrosio was such a fan of Eusebio that he named his eldest son after him. “Ironically, he wasn’t a fan of the Portugal national team. Though he loved Eusebio, during every world cup he would cheer for Italy. This year, sadly, Italy hasn’t qualified for the World Cup,” said Estevao, who now runs the cafe after his father and brother passed away.
With the FIFA World Cup having kicked off with a gala opening ceremony in Qatar on Sunday, the Marietta restaurant is decked up with the flags of all the 32 teams participating in the World Cup. It has also changed its menu to include names of players of yore. For example, one can get Creme Pele Chop and Maradona Beef among others.
“Our love for football is pure and we do not do this for commercial reasons. When I’m watching football I’m so engrossed in the game that I forget everything else,” he said.
Marietta would regularly host managers and staff of visiting football clubs. It has hosted the team members of the local football club Dempo, who used to drop in for breakfast, and of Vazas Isso, a Hungarian football club, when they visited Goa in 1979.
Fading fan spirit
Goa today has better maintained and a larger number of football patches than in the years gone by. However, the fan spirit is fading.
“Today Panjim doesn’t have a football ground, a place where we would gather, meet and greet and where we learnt to love the game we now all adore. Matches are held in large stadiums that lack the character and feel of the game. We need to get our stadium back,” Estevao said, referring to the Dayanand Bandodkar Football Ground that once hosted international matches but is today a parking lot and exhibition venue.
In Goa’s picturesque lanes, once a powerhouse of Indian football talent, there had been an inescapable sense of a sport that had regressed over the past decade. There is only one football franchise ‘FC Goa’ that now represents the state at the top tier Indian Super League, while only one Goan club- Churchill Brothers- play for the “I-League”. Other powerhouses like Dempo, Sagaocar and Sporting Clube all withdrew from the latter in 2016 when the ISL was introduced and made the top tier tournament in 2014, claiming there was no roadmap for football at the highest level.
“Football in Goa took a huge step back when the Goan clubs withdrew from the I-league,” Francisco Bruto da Costa who was the technical director at Salgaocar FC, youth development programmes said.
Since its inception in 1996, Goan clubs regularly competed for top honours winning the National Football League or emerging runners up in eight of the 11 years between 1996 and 2007. Similarly, for the revamped I-league that succeeded the NFL, a club from Goa won the league every year between 2007 and 2013, the year the ISL was announced.
Having withdrawn from the I-league, Goa’s top football clubs only have the Goa Pro League, and the Federation Cup that offer them a vastly reduced fixture list, prompting cutbacks on the amounts they are investing in training the youth.
“When they all competed in the I League, there was a very competitive environment. Players would work hard to try and break into the first team which was playing at the highest level,” Francisco said.
“The clubs continued with the youth programmes but since there were no competitive leagues to play in there was dwindling interest among the players and their parents. The age group tournaments have now been restarted at the national level and we hope to drum up interest once again,” Anthony Francis Vaz, the president of Panjim Footballers and executive member of the Goa Football Association, said.
“The Goa fan base was considered to be too small to support two teams. In the current format, it is only West Bengal which can claim two teams at the top tier -- East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. The current first 23 for the Indian National Football team is made up of just two lads from Goa -- Brandon Fernandes and Liston Colaço,” Vaz added.
World Cup brings cheers
The FIFA World Cup 2022 has triggered a rekindling of Goa’s relationship with football. Over the past month, young children have populated the open rice fields and beaches with makeshift goal posts again, besides the floodlit artificial arenas in urban areas.
“We currently have 36 centres operational across the state and there are more than 2,000 children– both boys and girls – who are attending training sessions six days a week. This year we expect increasing numbers because of the World Cup,” the GFDC said in a statement to HT.
“This year’s World Cup may not yet have the hype like in previous years but the tournament inspires a lot of youngsters as they try to watch every game where they see new talent. Seeing various goals and skills generates interest into every player’s mind to play football, and try and replicate them,” said Jonas Fernandes, a licensed coach who coaches youngsters at the GFDC training programmes.
“We are planning to have daily screenings at two venues throughout the duration of the tournament which will offer the real fan experience and not just a cosmetic screening where the real purpose is to finish your dinner,” said Conrad Barreto, one of the founders of the Football Dugout -- Goa’s largest football fan community.
“At the end of the day, football is in our blood, all we need is the right environment to let it flourish once again,” Bruto da Costa said.