GOA : The Bambolim Stadium, a few kilometres from Goa’s capital of Panaji, is packed, the crowd vocal. On the field are the home team, clad in yellow, needing only a draw to keep their Santosh Trophy campaign alive. They are trailing Services by a goal, but there’s time to find an equaliser. Serving as a backdrop to every attack on the opposition goal is a beautiful mural that screams ‘Viva Goa’.
Anyone dropped right into the middle of this scene will struggle to comprehend that Goan football is in trouble, but it is. For decades, Goa and West Bengal were the two powerhouses of Indian football. They dominated the national team and the I-League and split All India Football Federation posts among themselves. But in the space of a few months, Goan football has been cast among the also-rans.
Off the pitch, their biggest blow came when the AIFF reorganised their executive body in December. Absent was the customary vice-presidency for the Goans, which meant they wouldn’t be involved in the decision-making process after more than three decades.
A few months before that, three Goan clubs — Salgaocar, Dempo and Sporting Clube — had pulled out of the I-League citing a lack of clarity over the future. That meant that Churchill was the state’s lone representatives in the league — the lowest number for Goa since league football was started in India.
“What the AIFF does, it is up to them,” says Goa Football Association secretary Welvin Menezes. “We do not want to fight with anyone and have always tried to cooperate with them. Since the elections, we bid for and are now successfully hosting the Santosh Trophy.”
But what has Menezes worried is the pulling out of the three Goan clubs. “This year, a lot of established Goans have managed to find clubs to play. But these names are established only because they were plucked from obscurity by Goan I-League clubs. So the number of Goan players in the league will come down in future,” he says.
Backing up Menezes’ worries is the composition of Stephen Constantine’s recent national squad. Of the 24-member squad, only two are Goan.
But for the GFA, these are factors beyond their control. They can only get their head down and continue what they were doing. “We’ll be hosting a thousand matches this year. We’ll have leagues from the U-14 level and upwards. We are expanding the Goa Premier League this year, to run for at least eight months. Few know this but before the I-League had the U-22 player rule, the Goa Premier League had it,” says Menezes.
Back on the field, the crowd is tense with a few minutes left. Just when it looked Goa were on their way out, a long ball from the midfield finds Akeraj Martins in the clear.
The angle seems acute, but the 18-year-old pulls a beautiful lob out of the bag. The goalkeeper can only look on as the ball trickles into the net. Before the decibel levels subside, Cajetan Fernandes scores another and the home team are on their way to the semifinals. Viva Goa, indeed!