“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes much sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge. And if you project forward from that pattern, then sometimes you can come up with something.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
Goans love football. Enough to say that out of the 100 greatest moments in the life of a Goan, you might be safe to say that 20 were associated with football. You actually might be underestimating that number.
It might be 30 or even 40.
At the pinnacle of their embodiment of that love stands FC Goa. The Gaurs in six years, have transformed themselves into more than just a football club. The club stands tall as a belief, an idea of pride and of hope. Delivering joy in the best way they can – on the football pitch.
Heading into the season, that hope had metamorphosed into expectations. And there were fair reasons for the same. After having reached the playoffs in each of the last two seasons (reaching the final last season thanks to some impressive performances, especially in the opposing half), the Gaurs ensued to grab their first piece of silverware with a triumph in the Super Cup in 2019
Panache with a touch of grit
The test to recreate the magic of the previous two seasons for the Gaurs began with the very first game. With three of their stalwarts (Edu Bedia, Hugo Boumous and Ahmed Jahouh) missing in action for the opener, the onus fell on the rest of the squad to up their game.
And they did so magnificently. The likes of Manvir Singh and new-signing Seiminlen Doungel stepped up to the plate and delivered a thumping 3-0 win over Chennaiyin on their home turf.
The next two games, meanwhile, brought to light a different aspect of the Gaur fortitude. Still hamstrung by unavailabilities, they mustered up two gritty performances to stay unbeaten.
Coro stepped up to the plate against Bengaluru (thanks to a 93rd minute penalty) – bagging himself a penalty and then dispatching it to earn the Gaurs a draw.
A few days later, Goa would need another moment of inspiration. This time, up against NorthEast in Guwahati, the defending Super Cup champions faced a severe test of their character. They squandered a first-half lead. Then went down to 10 men before scripting the last line of the game.
This time, it was Manvir Singh who delivered the goods for Goa with the last touch of the game. The forward rose highest and headed in the equaliser, in what was the 6th minute of time added on at the end of the game.
Heading back to the pitch where they had annihilated Mumbai City 5-1 in the first leg of the semi-final, the Gaurs seemed to have found their mojo back at the Andheri Football Arena. There was sync, cohesion and a reminiscence of the Gaurs of old – an eager bunch striding forward at every opportunity, hacking down the opposition with precise movement and intricate passing.
A 4-2 win and the season was off to a 4-game unbeaten start with expectations of FC Goa using that performance as the launching pad.
Answering the tough question
It turned out to be a temporary relief as the Gaurs suffered their first loss of the season at home to Jamshedpur.
That, though, turned out to be a timely wake-up call. With heels dug in and again a man short, the Men in Orange dug out a crucial point in Kochi in the next game. Yet again overcoming injuries and a numerical disadvantage, Goa kept going till the final whistle and eked out a 94th-minute equaliser – this time from the boots of the ever-dependable Lenny Rodrigues.
And if that was not a true show of their character, their performance in the next game against Hyderabad surely was. Chinglensana Singh came from the bench to produce a Hero of The Match performance whilst Manvir Singh yet again came off the bench to deliver the telling blow.
Thanks to that 1-0 away win, the Gaurs remained in the top 4 as the calendar promised of tougher tests to come.
The first of them was a visit from the high-flying ATK. Led by the electric duo of Roy Krishna and David Williams, the team from the City of Joy presented Goa with arguably their biggest test till date in the season.
The Gaurs played in the only way they could.
With the talismanic Ferran Corominas back in the line-up, what also returned was belief in the ranks for FC Goa. A 2-1 win over the then two-time champions helped herald a 4-game winning streak.
There was fervour in their movement and intent in every step that the Gaurs took. It was fun to be an FC Goa fan again.
Odisha FC were the first to face the wrath of Goa as they were trounced 3-0 before the Men in Orange took their case to Chennai. Under Owen Coyle, the Machans had gone through a mini-revival. However, a first-half that saw the Gaurs race to a 3-0 lead put an end to their schemes.
Chennaiyin did mount a fight-back in the 2nd half. The devastating blows, however, of the first forty-five minutes were enough to get the away side over the hump. The eventual 4-3 win helped the Gaurs secure a 5-point lead at the top of the table.
Stutters and the home stretch
“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
No journey is without bumps on the road and Goa’s big bump came in the next three games. Whilst Goa kept their pedal to the metal in terms of their home form, with a 2-0 win over NorthEast, that victory was sandwiched between two body blows in the form of two consecutive losses on the road to Bengaluru FC and ATK.
Whilst a spirited performance at the Kanteerava was not enough to earn any point, the Gaurs seemed uncharacteristically disjointed in their 0-2 loss in Kolkata.
Having conceded the head-to-head advantage to their closest rivals, it was time again for FC Goa to stand up to the expectations of their fans.
However, as the saying goes, “It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
And move forward – the Gaurs did.
“We are going to treat each of the last five games like they were finals and we remain undeterred in our efforts to get our primary objective – that is to clinch the top spot in the league and qualify for the AFC Champions League,” announced Hugo Boumous ahead of the crucial final run-in.
Having set benchmarks in the league time and again, it was time again for FC Goa to walk the talk. In the games that followed, the Gaurs showed their resolve on the pitch.
While teams around them huffed and puffed, the Gaurs set on a course to deliver the club’s first-ever 5-game winning streak. Eventually leading them to the coveted place at the top of the ISL table when the dust finally settled.
The final stretch characterized not only FC Goa’s ability to rise to the moment, but also showcased everything that the Gaurs stand for.
Over the last 5 games, their synergy and purpose went into overdrive as they pummelled in 21 goals. It was FC Goa at their best – individual brilliance combined with a defining team blueprint that left everybody lying in their wake.
The expectation was for them to give their all, they might have ended up giving more than just ‘all’. And in the midst of it all, something amazing happened.
“Is it hard?’ Not if you have the right attitudes. It’s having the right attitudes that’s hard.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
With the onset of a new coaching staff, the eyes of the Indian footballing scene was focused on these men from Goa. And they showed why they should remain fixated right there, why it’s okay to have expectations from the Gaurs.
All this wasn’t about the numbers, the headlines, the brands or the contract. With heels dug in, gritted teeth and the ACL spot in their sight, they fought to stay together.
These guys went on to the pitch and showed that they genuinely loved to play for/with each other, play for their fans and play for something greater. It was really that simple.
They fought for everyone who wore the Orange with pride.
And the semis
By the time the semi-finals kicked in, it felt like FC Goa were in the midst of a Vegas movie montage. You know the one where the chips keep piling up and you can’t go wrong on the calls on the blackjack table. Everyone is laughing. There is pure delight all around.
And all the while, at the back of your head, there remains a fear of one stomach-punch loss that will lead everything astray.
Beginnings sometimes hide themselves in ends. And just like how the Gaurs headed into their first game of the season, with a crisis owing to absentees, they had a similar fate to deal with in their first leg of the semi-finals.
The difference was by this time, Chennaiyin had learnt how to beat just about anyone. A brilliant run of form under the stewardship of Coyle had seen them hurl themselves into the playoffs after being in the midst of another unsavoury season during the first half of the campaign.
With Edu Bedia, Brandon Fernandes and Boumous missing in the line-up, the Gaurs were shackled. And whilst the game remained in the balance going into half-time, a crazy 25-minute spell saw Chennaiyin score 4 in the second half.
But then again, you have to remember sports is a metaphor for life. We fall and then we get back up again. We keep on fighting till we really can’t anymore.
The Gaurs embody that like not many can. They started a comeback with an away goal in the dying minutes of the game and then took it over to the next one.
With everyone back in and the Fatorda roaring to the fullest, FC Goa were back in it.
Two goals in the opening 21 minutes of the game had everyone at the stadium and all around the country remember why they loved this team so much.
You expect things from them. Even when things don’t go right, you expect them to fight. When they fall, you expect them to stand back up and give it their best. You expect them to care.
And they did.
On the surface of it all, success is all black and white. You either win it all or you don’t. But beneath that layer or visage, is where the things that are even more beautiful exist – the memories, the love, the fans, the expectations.
And that’s where FC Goa triumphed again.
It’s those journeys to the Fatorda, strolling around the stadium – in an ocean of Orange. The away trips where, outnumbered, the Gaur faithful shouted their lungs out for they believed.
We all know how it ended. It was the final gut-wrenching night of the season.
And even within that hallowed feel of pain, there was pride. The Gaurs gave their all and even when the numbers dictated that they score 4 in the space of 10 odd minutes, there were expectations that the Gaurs would do it.
Sometimes, to travel is greater than to arrive.
The Men in Orange, for one more season, delivered yet again. The bottom line might have remained a bit blurry, but the journey was once again one to rejoice for.
While the aim for the Gaurs would always be to reach the summit, they are a timely reminder that even in football that it’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.