When Portugal won the European Championships in 2016, beating France via a solitary Eder goal deep in extra-time, it wasn’t just the Portuguese in Paris that rejoiced. The ones watching from the capital in Lisbon, the city of Porto and the island of Madeira were united in one voice with the rest of the nation as the national team, usually underachievers on the international scene, won their first major competition. But, far and away, there was another state that celebrated just as much. This was a place over 8,200 kilometres east of the Iberian country, but a place with strong links to them, and they love football just as much.

India truly is a sleeping giant in international football, but in Goa, football is the heartbeat of the city. It was here that Portugal’s historic win was greatly celebrated, for the state’s Portuguese roots and heritage is still held in high regard. But while the good folks of Goa passionately celebrated the success of their colonisers, the local people keep strong tabs on their own football. The sport is given a different view in this state. In a country where cricket still does and will continue to comfortably rest in the hearts and minds of the majority population for decades to come, football is a way of life in Goa, and will perennially be in the drivers’ seat.

Goa is different from the rest of India. Although much of the core elements remain the same: colour, celebration, art and culture, the place has a different feel about it. The style, clothing, language, food and attitudes around give a significant sense that this is different, and that has been resonated in the sport they love. Many locals think of Goa as a separate country of its own, but it is very much Indian, no matter how much uniqueness they bring to the table. However, much of their daily lives are closely linked to the influence and mark left by their colonizers, and that is no different when it comes to football.

“What above all needs to be noted in Portuguese India is the mentality, the outlook on life, the spiritual atmosphere. No qualified traveller passing into Goa from the Indian Union can fail to get an impression that he is entering an entirely different land” – Football in Goa: Sport, Politics and the Portuguese in India, by James Mills

To understand why Goa is so incredibly fond of football, we must go back several centuries. It was in 1510 that Goa was undertaken as a Portuguese colony, after Afonso de Albuquerque took over as the Governor of the Portuguese State of India. Their first base was set up in Cochin (a city south of Goa, now in the state of Kerala), however, Albuquerque saw a great opportunity to implement his traditions in Goa, which wasn’t initially in their plans, and he made a first conquest of the region in February of 1510, before making a sustained, indefinite capture in November of that year. There was fighting, violence and bloodshed, but in the end, Goa was under Portuguese rule.

From here, the locals adopted Portuguese values and traditions, changed the way they did things and most importantly, alternated religions, with a strong majority shifting to Christianity. For centuries to follow, this was the way things were and in 1883, they were introduced to the beautiful game. The arrival of football is also linked to colonisation, and its popularisation, too, is strongly linked to religion. It was in that year that a British priest, Father William Robert Lyons, arrived in the Siolim area from nearby state, Karnataka, to recover from a bout of illness. He liked Goa enough to settle there and founded St Joseph’s School, where sport was a key part of the curriculum.

For many of the local Goans and Indians, sport was a way of linking with their colonisers and was played fairly and with respect. People, no matter their background, got along well when it came to sport and that was no different in Goa, although, it was here that religion played a huge part. With many adopting Catholic values and ideologies, sport, specifically football, was seen as an essential part of Christian education. Father Lyons, who introduced Goa to football, believed that, ‘Christianity is a life that has to be lived…and to be a Christian, one has to strive after perfect manliness, strength of body, strength of intellect, strength of soul’, hence why sport was taken so seriously.

According to many sources, Goa kicked a ball before Brazil. While the South American nation went on to become the game’s most successful international outfit, they were introduced to football almost a decade after the Indian state. This is a matter of great pride for the locals. And around the time football became more and more popular in South America, its appreciation grew in Goa as well. More schools, churches and priests got involved in the game and with Goa having a Christian majority in terms of population, this was the region’s favourite hobby. The locals accepted it, and so did the small number of Hindus that were living in Goa – this was now everyone’s game.

At the turn of the 19th century, clubs were formed, and matches were played more frequently. The first match on record in Goa was held in its capital of Panaji, or Panjim, as it’s known locally, in 1900. Five years later, the Boys Social Club was formed, and they were joined soon after by Clube Coutinho Cabral, Goa Hindu Club, Clube Sportivo and Clube de Recreioe Letras de Porvorim, amongst others. These clubs competed against each other in exhibition matches, enhancing the status of the sport in the state. Away from the capital of Panjim, the sport moved to other areas in Goa such as Calangute, Porvorim, Margao and Saligao.

And from here, Goan football started going beyond Goa itself. They played their first inter-state match in 1905, when the Panjim Boys team hosted Mumbai’s St Mary’s College and 18 years after that, they hosted their first international match: the British Army and Sergeants against a team of Portuguese Sports Amateurs, once again played in Panjim. As time went on and recreational activities continued to grow, not just in Goa, but around India as well, football saw the best of it. Local tournaments were organised more frequently and more professionally in Goa and it allowed teams from all over the state to participate.

It was in 1939 that the sport’s status was taken more seriously. Football had been declared as the national sport of Portugal in 1893, and 46 years later, the Associação de Futebol da India Portuguesa (AFIP) was formed, making it, unofficially, the main sport of Goa. Now, strict rules, more funding and better clarity was to be given to the sport in this region and if there was any doubt as to what the local people loved playing here, it was all cleared up. While India was still under British rule, mostly participating in cricket and secondarily hockey, in Goa, things were different and its been that way ever since.

Soon after, however, people started to move away from Goa in the hope of finding employment and better pay. After India’s independence from the British rule in 1947, Mumbai and Delhi provided better opportunities for work and pay, proving to be an attractive prospect for people all around the country. That didn’t deter the spirit of sport in Goa. The ones that stayed behind, although constantly dwindling in number, didn’t stop playing the game they loved, and the sport continued to grow. More teams from outside the state and country came to play, as the Goans were amongst the best, while the state’s tourist-friendly atmosphere and surroundings only helped football further.

In 1959 and 1960, two significant factors improved football’s standing even further. First, May of 1959, due to Portugal’s strong links with Goa, one of the European nation’s greatest teams, Benfica, visited the state for an eight-day, three-match tour. They played two matches in Margao and the final one in Vasco da Gama, winning all three with relative ease. The first match was against a military selection side, which they won 2-1, the next was against a Goan selection side – a team comprising only of locals – which they won 4-0 and the final game was a 1-0 success over a mixed side. This provided a big boost for Goan football and a good warm-up for the Lisbon side.

“Football had become a language by which the Portuguese attempted to communicate the benefits of their rule to the Goan population” – Soccer in South Asia: Empire, Nation, Diaspora, by James Mills

Due to the tour’s success, the Goa Football Association (GFA) was formed, with aid from the Portuguese and a man from the Iberian country – João Luiz Aranha – was the association’s first president. The GFA, to date, is undeniably the best state association for football in India, with many believing that if the rest of the country were as competent as them, India would be much better at the sport than they currently are. It is a testament to them for keeping the spirit of the sport alive for generations and the fact that the local leagues and tournaments are still running smoothly only highlights how successful they have been over the course of time.

And it was around the 1950s too that club football became more prominent in Goa. The region’s first club was Vasco da Gama – named after the area in Goa, which was, quite clearly, named after the man that discovered it. They were formed in 1951. Soon after them came Salagaocar, a club formed by business tycoon, VM Salgaocar, to give local youth a chance to showcase their talents. Around a decade later, Dempo Sports Club were formed with similar ambitions and ownership coming from another tycoon. And around twenty years after that, Churchill Brothers came to the fray. These are Goa’s most popular clubs and dominated the domestic league scene for several years.

After the Portuguese de-colonization of Goa, the GFA faced its first big test in 1967. In 1961, Goa’s first Chief Minister, Dayanand Bandhodkar, wanted Goa to merge with Maharashtra as one state and adopt Marathi as its official language. Bandhodkar was also the vice-president of the GFA and a keen supporter of football, organising major tournaments such as the All India Bandhodkar Trophy. However, as a man of the people, he also kept the interests of the Goans in mind and understood how their lifestyles would change. So, when the time came in 1967, the idea for a merger was rejected in a referendum, and Goa would remain a separate state, proving to be a success.

After the idea of a merger was rejected, Goan football, their institutions and their clubs grew from strength to strength. The likes of Dempo and Salgaocar competed with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan from Kolkata for national supremacy. Kolkata, just like Goa, is highly passionate about football and play host to one of the sport’s oldest, fiercest rivalries. Apart from that, there was Air India in Mumbai, JCT Mills from Punjab and Kerala Police from Kerala that competed for the national title, but it was the Goan sides that often came out on top. Locally, as well, Goa didn’t rest on their laurels and continued to nurture athletes from a young age.

In the 1990s, the GFA, along with assistance from the All India Football Federation (AIFF), initiated a Youth Development Programme to cater to the needs of the state’s youngsters. With assistance from the Tata Tea Company giving them a strong investment, they set up 13 training centres across Goa for boys that fell in the U12 and U14 categories. Prior to this, there was no official structure for the training of young athletes, and this was a huge milestone not only for the GFA, but for Indian football as well. The move was urged by the Governor of Goa, General J.F.R Jacob, who spoke passionately about it in 1999.

“Football is the game Goans excel in. Goans love football. We must do something to encourage the game at grassroots level, in the villages by providing proper football grounds. We have a proposal to set up an academy to train youngsters”

All good players need good coaches and the GFA was the first association in India, and to this day, the only association, to fully sponsor candidates to undergo AFC coaching courses. In addition to that, they also invest in the training and development of referees, while off the field, they actively take part in planning and recording of data. The GFA was the first state association to get their domestic league sponsored and digitize all records from that league. While football’s progress has stalled for several decades in India, Goa has continuously improved from the 1980s and that has been seen on a local and national scale.

Development and professionalisation of local footballers has been the norm for Goans. The state has provided several footballers that have gone on to represent India. Neville D’Souza was the first, representing his nation at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, where he scored a hat-trick against the hosts. He was followed by Franco, who represented India at the games in Rome in 1960 as well as the gold medal-winning team at the Asian Games two years later. Several other icons have followed in their footsteps. The likes of Derrick D’Souza, Roy Barretto, Climax Lawrence and Clifford Miranda, amongst many others, have come and gone.

But while the sport is the undisputed favourite in the state, like all good things, this too has faced problems in recent years. The FGA, despite so much good work in recent years, has reportedly faced problems with finances in recent years, while the interest amongst the locals has seemingly reduced. That has been due to several reasons. Firstly, the lure of higher quality football in the European leagues, mainly in England, has captured the attention. Secondly, increased migration has seen younger people move away to major cities in the hope of finding jobs and thirdly, local playing areas have been taken away for redevelopment and/or other usage.

Amazingly, a part of the blame has also gone on FC Goa, members of the glamourous Indian Super League (ISL). Many believe the glitz provided by the ISL meant that fewer fans attended local games and that has reduced the power historical clubs such as Dempo and Salgaocar had in the region. No matter the issue, the consequences have been clear. The U17 FIFA World Cup in 2017, hosted by India – the first time the country hosted a major football tournament – there was no representation from Goa for the national team. Although, this story, too has its fair share of drama behind the scenes.

Embed from Getty Images

At the time of selections, it is believed by the Goan Chief Minister, Manohar Parrikar, that the GFA had issues with the AIFF which led to the former boycotting the trials. This mismanagement has held India back for several years in football and in a country of nearly 1.8 billion people, where football is desperate to improve, it is a shame that inflated egos hold back the dreams of so many. After decades of progress made by the GFA and the state itself, minor issues like that only tarnish the glorious work of their predecessors and takes them two steps back, to a spot where it takes even more time to recover from.

Another issue seen by emerging footballers is the lack of future after they hang up their boots. In a Times of India report in 2017, it was recorded how Milagres Gonsalves, the man that once represented FC Goa in the Indian Super League moved to England to work in a courier company. He noted poor pay in India as one of the main reasons and he isn’t the only ones. Players that are currently playing struggle to make ends meet if they aren’t picked up by an ISL club and have to resort to politics or other utility jobs in case their football career fails to sparkle. There is hardly any initiative for youngsters to take the risk and opt for a career in football.

“I was in Goa last month and inquired with clubs if there was an opening. The clubs need players, but they are offering a pittance” – Milagres Gonsalves to the Times of India, 2017

Goan football today is a far cry from what is was barely a decade ago, but for the decades to come, it can’t be denied that it was the heartbeat of the state. In a place where the beaches, tattoos and bars are prominent, football is Goa’s favourite pass time. Cricket and hockey have captured the rest of India’s hearts, but in typical Goan fashion – where everything is different from the rest of India, the people here love football. And while problems persist, based on the history of the people and the GFA, there can be optimism that matters can be resolved not just for the good of the state, but for the good of the entire nation.