The football fever in Goa around the World Cup in Brazil is almost unreal. Okay, make it surreal, starting with the question uppermost on everybody's minds: Who do we support Brazil or Portugal? That is the question in India's very own Latino corner, Goa. But it's not the only question.
Youngsters play football in front of a mural of Argentina's Lionel Messi (L), Brazil's Neymar (C) and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo in Rio de Janeiro
To say that, of course, everybody here wants Brazil to win would be an understatement. Frankly, everybody is convinced Brazil is going to win. But there's always Portugal to fall back on if Brazil stumbles along the way, and vice-versa! In Euro competitions, most Goans, especially the Catholics, always root for Portugal.
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (C ) during training in Florham Park, New Jersey, USA
If Portugal loses an important match, people break down, tears well up in the eyes of even the strongest as they hit the bottle with a vengeance, and an air of mourning pervades for days as people shake their heads in disbelief and wonder how they could have lost.
After all, Goa was Portuguese India until a little over half a century ago. There are many whose mother tongue is still Portuguese, and that umbilical cord which binds them to the Lusofonia (Portuguese-speaking) fraternity is still very much there.
Ivory Coast's national football team goalkeeper Boubacar Barry stretches on the crossbar at a training session
In fact, Goa hosted the last edition of the Lusofonia Games earlier this year, the equivalent of the Commonwealth Games, but of countries from the former Portuguese possessions.
And Goa (India) won gold in the football competition, defeating the much-higher ranked Mozambique in the final, sending football fans delirious with joy. But the victory had come about because of the absence of strong football countries like Portugal and Brazil, which decided not to send their teams after the tournament was rescheduled twice.
A woman walks in front of a mural painting in Rio de Janeiro. Pics/AFP
So to support Brazil or Portugal is like supporting one of their own. It also helps that both are among the strongest football teams in the world. Something to be proud of and it's but natural to bask in their reflected glory.
Youngsters at a football training camp in Goa
"Everybody is waiting for the tournament to start!" says a visibly excited Joaquim 'Jack' Fernandes, who works as a master of ceremonies at weddings, parties and other events. "My friends and I have decided that we're going to watch the matches at my place and I'm going to be making coffee for all of them. Football is in our blood, no?"
Like many others he and his friends are going to watch the matches together because after all it is a team game, and what is a group of friends if not a team? Explaining the fever gripping Goans these days, Fernandes says it's the opportunity to watch some really top-class football.
His favourite, and the one team which he hopes is going to win is Brazil! "According to me it's Brazil who should be winning, and Portugal is also a strong team. But I'm also backing Argentina," he says.
Most Goans, specially the men, have all played football at some stage, usually while at school, and many continue to take part in local-level, inter-ward or inter-village tournaments, hundreds of which are held in Goa between October and May.
With professional football now a lucrative employment avenue, many academies have also sprung up, and football is now the 'Official Sport' of Goa. The government in 2012 set up the Goa Football Development Council (GFDC) to spot and nurture talent at the grass-roots level.
In what is probably the biggest such initiative undertaken in India, training camps are held in schools and villages, and in the last two years around 3,000 children boys and girls under 12 have been selected for intensive training, all in the hope that one day they will play in the World Cup.
"People say football is in the blood of Goans, but I feel it has become diluted. It needs to be strengthened once again," says Elvis Gomes, secretary of the Goa Football Association (GFA). "The World Cup in Brazil means the world to us.
The euphoria is so high that it has manifested in sales of television sets which have shot up. I dream of a day when the World Cup will be won by an African nation, because then it could also be an Asian nation which could win," he says.
"If India is to get there, grass-roots development is the only way. You have to spot talent, nurture it at a young age and develop that talent. Only then will we get quality players who could play at the highest level. We have 3,000 youngsters training now, and our target is 5,000 in another two years.
Out of the 3,000 we have spotted 200 who have it in them to reach the highest levels. So we will get the base sooner rather than later. But how many other states in India are doing this? Nobody," he says in frustration.
Watching the Brazil World Cup, says Rufino Monteiro, chairman of GFDC, will fire up these youngsters. "The World Cup will get (youngsters) motivated to participate in the game and get a fire burning in their hearts to reach that stage," he says. "If there is no fire, that will never come." Such is the demand for GFDC's football development programme, that elected representatives are besieged by their constituents to start training camps in their areas.
"Apart from the Portuguese connection, there's another reason why Brazil has always been the favourite of Goans," says Monteiro. "If you see the style of Goan football, it is the style of Brazil. Short passes, trickery. It was never the European style, which is about long passes."
Like most Goans he, too, is going to root for Brazil. "I feel Brazil has got a crack team and I feel they will be successful. But you can never say," he says cautiously. Though Portugal have always had great players, they have never won the World Cup, only reaching the semi-finals once. That could change this time. But as Elvis Gomes puts it, "The level of football is so high, that no team can be rated better than any other team. Anybody can win."
For others like Alex Rodrigues, a Portuguese-speaking Goan, the tension has become so palpable, that he refuses to overtly commit himself to supporting either Brazil or Portugal. "I've always been an Argentine fan and I'm also going to support Italy. They have a good team," he says.
Many top-level Goan football officials and club owners — Goa had four teams in the last I-League — have already left for Brazil to watch the matches. These include Srinivas Dempo, president of the GFA and Dempo team owner, Sporting Clube de Goa owner Peter Vaz and many others. The lucky ones who will go to Brazil will get to soak in the infectious Brazilian atmosphere and the incredible energy at the stadiums.
Most Goans though will be watching the matches at home because of the timings, with the first match at 9.30 pm, the second at 12.30 am and the third at 3.30 am. "I'm going to watch all the matches at 9.30 pm. But if it's Brazil playing I'll also watch the match even if it is at 3.30 am," says another football fan. The GFDC will be recording matches and showing them later in the day at their training camps for children since they will be unable to watch the matches live because of timing issues.
With Goa being a tourist destination, there are many sports bars and pubs which will also be showing the matches on giant screens. Many plan to watch the matches in groups because that makes the experience more euphoric, especially if Brazil and Portugal win, while others will step out on weekends. Most nightspots in Goa have to shut down by midnight, but there are many in the coastal tourism belt, especially in north Goa, which have licenses to stay open till dawn.
One of the "in" places for football fans in Panjim, the capital city, is Club Vasco da Gama, which apart from being the name of the famous Portuguese explorer, is also the name of a football team in Portugal and also Goa (the team has now been disbanded).
Besides, serving excellent Goan-Portuguese food, they also serve a lip-smacking version of Fejioda, the national dish of Brazil, a spicy stew of pork and French beans. The Goa government had plans to have public screenings of the matches on giant screens because of the feverish interest, but had to shelve the plan because of the monsoon.
Somewhere in all that frenzy, an indelible impression may be formed in a youngster, a dream may take root, a fire may be sparked , a desire to play football at the highest level may be born. Who knows, with India hosting the under-17 junior World Cup in 2017, all that under-12 talent will come of age by then which may finally put India on the world football map. But if Brazil or Portugal fail to win, a lot of those hearts may be broken. As Fernandes, says, signing off, "Viva football!"