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FC GOA: THE REFRESHING TROUPE OF THE INDIAN SUPER LEAGUE

FC Goa, one of the most vibrant clubs in the Indian Super League, who have captured the hearts of the local people in more ways than just their football.

For a state that is as passionate about football as Goa is, it is only right that they host, arguably, the Indian Super League’s (ISL) most vibrant franchise. FC Goa, who play their home games at the Fatorda Stadium, have a vivid history and are looking to add to that in the near future by winning their first-ever ISL title. In the short time they have existed, however, they have captured the hearts of the local population, attracting their attention from the often-mismanaged I-League and their clubs from Goa: Dempo, Salgaocar, Vasco da Gama and Sporting Clube de Goa.

The smallest of all 29 states in India by size and fourth smallest in terms of population, Goa is vastly popular for its tourism. Upon arriving, the terms ‘North Goa’ and ‘South Goa’ are often seen and heard, because that is the way it is. This tiny state is split in two parts and is easy to get around both sides in a short space of time. But on both sides of the state, one thing is clear: they both love their football and they both back FC Goa to the fullest – even if the prospect of backing a European club is more attractive. On matchdays, the club’s colours of white, orange and blue are widely evident and on non-matchdays, there are immense preparations for the next time the team plays.

Restaurants and bars are draped in the club’s banners and flags, while it isn’t a rare occurrence to see people use face and body paint to show their support. All of this is common in European and South American nations where football is more of a religion, but in India, where this sort of support is mostly aimed towards to the country’s cricket team, seeing this sort of fan culture, in a nation that desperately needs it, is refreshing. Perhaps the only other state that can provide this sort of off-pitch value is Kolkata, where the supporters of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal – two of India’s most iconic clubs – take their support to the next level.

However, the way of life in Goa is represented in the support for their only ISL franchise. Goans and the entire state of Goa is different from the rest of India – they’re always high on music and entertainment and combine that with an incredibly outgoing nature. And that hunt for sparkle and dazzle has resonated in the club as well. Right from the off, they’ve made appointments and signings that have the potential to attract any fan’s attention and this effervescent football club is always striving to be amongst the upper echelons of the ISL ladder.

Formed in 2014 by a group of people with strong links to football in the region, it was conspicuous that they would immediately become a huge hit. The Indian Super League was the brainchild of IMG, Reliance Industries and Star Sports – three of India’s biggest conglomerates – with the aim of enhancing football in the nation and it just had to be that Goa, the only state in India where football is an official sport, would be one of the participating teams.

Just like its cricketing variant, the Indian Premier League, a host of Indian stars, ranging from businessmen and women to Bollywood stars to cricket heroes, were keen on being a part of the hysteria, and FC Goa attracted one of the country’s big fish. The current captain of the Indian cricket team, Virat Kohli, was part of the group that owns the club, called the Goan Football Club Pvt Ltd, and it also consists of Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, Ashish Kapadia and Akshay Tandon – all respectable figures in Indian commerce. However, there is also credit due to some of Goan football’s most influential figures for bringing and ISL franchise to the state.

It was a partnership between Dattaraj Salgaocar, Srinivas Dempo and Videocon that won the bidding rights to have one franchise in Goa. Salgaocar and Dempo are key figures in the I-League and hold high positions in two of Goa’s most successful clubs, who go by the same name. Meanwhile, Videocon, represented by Venugopal Dhoot, is one of India’s largest conglomerates. The team required for the foundation of the club is strong and stable, and they’ve brought a fair share of flair onto their ranks to show off on the pitch. They made it clear that they were here to live up to the Goan way of entertaining, and an excerpt from their mission statement proves just that.

“The FC Goa brand stands for strength, integrity and pride. A single club united and resolute in its pursuit for glory. The team embodies the spirit of Joga Bonito, playing the beautiful game the way it should be played – with pace, power and passion.”

Goa, a place with strong Portuguese links, has often incorporated the sense of their colonizers in their football – even with their I-League clubs. So, when it came to FC Goa, things were no different. Chants of “Força Goa”, the club’s official motto are often heard ringing around the grounds or on matchdays, while when it comes to the club’s playing and coaching staff, they have maintained strong Brazilian connections – proving that their ambition of integrating the joga bonito spirit was rock-solid.

For their first season, the club appointed Brazilian legend, Zico, as their head coach while also adding ex-Arsenal player Robert Pires as their marquee player. The two quickly picked up a legendary status in Goa, as they impressively recovered from a slow start, where they lost four out of their first six matches, but recovered to make it to the play-offs. At the play-offs itself, they lost to eventual winners Atlético de Kolkata on a penalty shoot-out, but it was clear that the progress they made was excellent.

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Amongst one of the stars of the team was Romeo Fernandes, a local wide player who excelled on the ISL scene. Prior to FC Goa, he was trained at the famed Dempo SC academy, and has always been touted to be amongst India’s finest players. Still only 22-years-old at the time, his impressive form throughout the 2014 campaign saw him gain international recognition and in February of the following year, he moved to Brazilian side Athletico Paranaense, thus becoming the first Indian to play professionally in South America. Perhaps, it was the influence of Zico that helped him gain such an honour, but his skill cannot be doubted.

In addition to that, FC Goa also had a strong Portuguese contingent representing them. Defender Bruno Pinheiro was brought in from Greek side Niki Volos, while Miguel Herlin and Edgar Marcelino came in from Vilaverdense, in the third tier of Portuguese football, and Al-Seeb of Oman respectively. Furthermore, to add to their Portuguese influence, French defender Grégory Arnolin signed from Paços de Ferreira. The end to their season was strong, and this led to high expectations for the future as the club continued to grow on and off the field.

Much of the club’s support at this time was praised. The FC Goa fanbase was amongst the most vocal in the Indian Super League, with fans frequently filling up grounds and creating a raucous atmosphere. When speaking to Goal.com about their preparations, the official FC Goa fan group had this to say:

“During the first edition of the ISL, our members would have arrived some two hours before kick-off to reserve seating at the East Stand. During the second ISL, a large number of members had purchased the season pass and would cheer the team sitting together. We have a huge banner which is put up on the East stand, and when FC Goa looked like they could, or rather would, go all the way, we even made a replica trophy.”

And in the second season, they did exceed expectations and were a delight to watch. Zico’s football was always unsurprisingly fluid, making them, by far, the most entertaining side in the ISL, and they went on to top the league. They had a squad largely made of Indian and Brazilian players and it was Reinaldo, the former Flamengo and Paris Saint-Germain forward, who finished as the club’s highest goal scorer that season. Unfortunately for them, finishing top of the league wasn’t enough to win the whole tournament. The club went one step further than the previous season by reaching the final but lost the ultimate match at home to Chennaiyin FC in a thrilling 3-2 encounter.

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The year after that saw a major slump in form. The club were troubled by off-pitch issues which saw a massive change in ownership as Dataraj Salgaocar and Srinivas Dempo withdrew their ownership from the club. That led to poor preparations in the build-up to the 2016 season, and Goa would end the campaign as the bottom club. Zico cited the uncertainty at the top as one of the main factors for his team’s slump, and he even left them at the end of the season. Despite the sour ending, he was still regarded highly amongst the Goans. Having already developed a legendary reputation for his playing career, he only enhanced it in Goa with his team’s impressive style.

The departure of Zico resulted in the arrival of a new boss and a new philosophy altogether. Gone were the days of the Brazilian’s free-flowing champagne football and in came a more controlled, composed system as new manager Sergio Lobera came in at the helm. Now with an extended season following the expansion of the ISL, they were better prepared heading into this campaign and the changes under Lobera were drastic. The club’s transfer activity involved bringing in more Spanish players – four in total arrived – while none of the Brazilians were retained.

There were huge changes the club was set to go through, and none were more apparent than in the playing style. Goa were more clinical in front of goal, finishing as the league’s highest goal scorers with 42 as Ferran Corominas, commonly known as Coro, one of their new arrivals from Spain, ending with a league-high 18. However, just like previous seasons, there was disappointment at the play-off stage. After finishing third in the league, they would lose to their perennial nemesis Chennaiyin FC 4-1 on aggregate and would have to wait another year to have a charge at the title.

This season, they’ve started strongly again and sit third in the league, behind the extremely well-run Bengaluru FC as well as Mumbai City FC. Another finish in the play-off spots seem likely, but it is the final stages that always get the better of them. Only time will tell if they can shake the ‘underachievers’ tag following the resumption of regular league football after the Asian Cup is completed, but there are big challenges awaiting them.

Despite never winning the Indian Super League, the club are still one of the most vibrant in India. Matchdays at the Fatorda Stadium are packed, and they are one of the most well-supported teams in the country. Since the inception of the ISL, the league has seen dwindling attendance figures each season, but that does not apply to FC Goa, who are almost always sold out. It is a testament to the atmosphere and homeliness that the club brings, while it also says a lot about the passion the local people carry for their football team.

“For those who aren’t able to get tickets, they always have live screenings. The atmosphere here is crazy. Fans shouting, screaming, chanting and jumping around pretty much creates a stadium-like atmosphere.” – Savio Pereira, event manager for FC Goa screenings, speaking to the Goa Herald in 2015

The Delhi Dynamos and Mumbai City FC, two teams from two of India’s most populated cities can hardly rival FC Goa when it comes to support and that has been one of the criticisms of the ISL: stadiums are often too empty. For each of the past five seasons, FC Goa has managed to sell out at least 68% of their seats, with the highest being 74.1% in the 2014 season. The two clubs from the metropolitan cities are nowhere near that. They are mostly amongst the bottom side of this table, with the percentages ranging from 10%-40% for both clubs.

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It could be said that this drastic contrast is mostly because of Goa’s history with football and the fact that they’ve never truly adopted any other sport, but the likes of Pune and Jamshedpur, who are in similar echelons to Goa have managed to create a friendly, match-going atmosphere as well, despite football being the secondary sport there. The ISL and fan culture in the ISL still has a long way to go, but if there is an example to be followed, then FC Goa is the perfect club for it.

Silverware has never arrived at the club, but there seems to be little doubt that it isn’t too far away. Bar that one season where ownership issues held the team back, the club as a whole has done extraordinarily well and the team, under both Zico and Sergio Lobera, have continuously excelled. Bengaluru FC have set the bar for how a football club should be run in India, and if FC Goa can continue on the trajectory they are in, they can be another positive in a country that is seriously in need of more positives in footballing terms.

BY KARAN TEJWANI