The rise and rise of Goan football

March 1st, 2008 - 11:11 am ICT by admin  

By K. Datta
It said in the “Roll of Honour” on the opening page of the meticulously compiled statistics distributed at the Super Cup match on Wednesday that Mahesh Gawli of Dempo Sports Club was adjudged best defender of the ONGC I-League 2007-2008. But his name was missing in the line-up list for the match, and indeed the Dempo star was nowhere to be found on the refreshingly green pitch of the Devilal Sports Complex at Gurgaon. That Dempo won the Rs.10 lakh (Rs.1 million) winner-take-all Super Cup in spite of his absence emphasised the champion status of the Goan club. Impressed by the way Gawli marshalled the Bob Houghton-coached Indian team’s defence in the memorable Nehru Cup victory at Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium barely six months ago, this old scribe, like many others, had braved the risk of traffic snarls to go all the way to the booming new neighbouring “Millineum City” only to be disappointed by his unexplained absence. So, somehow managing to find the telephone number of his Goa home, I discovered that he was recovering from an ankle injury.

“Nothing serious,” the young man reassuringly said, adding, “it will take me a week or so to recover.”

Gawli has been adjudged best defender for an amazing fourth successive year, a feat even the late Jarnail Singh, the Asian All Star captain, in whose memory the trophy for this special category has been named, would applaud. The more sturdily built Jarnail Singh might in his day have been Asia’s best tackler, but even he may not have been able to read the game better than the more wirily structured Gawli.

But Gawli is quite modest about his status as the country’s best defender on a football field. The former Mahindra Club player who accepted a lucrative transfer offer by Dempo to be able to be at home in Goa with his wife and two little daughters would like to share the credit for his success with his mates in the defence “without whose help I would not be able to be effective.”

“Dempo are the champions” the players joyfully cried as they received their trophies. Besides the Super Cup and the best defender trophy, they had more than one reason to be pleased with themselves. For Dempo also won the fairplay trophy, the best halfline player award (Climax Lawrence) and S.A.Rahim Trophy for the best coach.

But, unfortunately, coach Armando Colaco could not be present to receive the trophy. Injured in a road accident, he shared his team’s joy as he lay in bed at home. “I am happy for my players and I hope they will bring even more credit to the club in future,” he said from his sick bed. Surgeons who operated on Colaco think it will take three months for the fractures to mend, the coach said.

Colaco has built the team on the right lines. Only recently, Houghton reportedly reiterated that it would be ideal if 20 per cent of the players in the Indian team were taller men (180-182 cm), the way most Middle East Asian teams and even the Japanese, Korean and Chinese are. Nothing like it if Indian footballers are endowed with greater height. But Colaco’s Dempo, as one noticed at Gurgaon on Wednesday, are not deficient in height. More often than not the Dempo defenders had the better of their opponents when it came to aerial duels.

Dempo deserved the Rs.50 lakh cheque that went with the ONGC I-League title and the additional Rs.10 lakh for the Super Cup victory even if they were lucky that the East Bengal strikers failed to put their scoring opportunities to better use.

Dempo’s twin triumph emphasizes the shift of power in Indian football from Kolkata to Goa. Of the 10 clubs in the elite professional ONGC I-League as many as four belonged to Goa, namely Dempo, Churchill Brothers, Sporting Club de Goa and Salgaocar. Churchill Brothers were worthy runners-up, Sporting Clube were number seven and Salgaocar ended tenth. Barely 10 days ago before Dempo beat East Bengal, the Federation Cup winners, Goa had retained the under-21 Dutta Ray Trophy beating Tamil Nadu in the final at Madurai.

The rise of Goan football teams, comparative late comers to the national fold because they became a part of the Indian state after liberation from Portuguese rule in 1961, can be attributed to the fact that they have been quick to adopt a professional approach and the growth and popularity of the sport at the grassroot level. Goa has a well organised professional league, with clubs having their own junior age group teams. If Goan clubs are now increasing their national presence, a large part of the credit should also go to their coaches. In times when Indian football is in the process of going professional, Goa has already stolen a march.

(K. Datta is a former sports editor of the Times of India. He can be contacted at

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