Sports – and sporting events – and their link with nationalism is unmistakable. Yet, despite being so obvious this link is rarely scrutinized critically. The celebration of Goanness in the victories of FC Goa in the recently concluded ISL Championship is an appropriate example. One can suggest that such a celebration of Goanness was never seen before as far as football in Goa is concerned. So what does this mad euphoria for FC Goa tell us about Goa and Goan identity?
One of the most overt ways in which Goanness was celebrated through FC Goa was by displaying FC Goa’s flag with vehement enthusiasm both inside the stadium as well as outside. Driving to various towns and villages in Goa with a friend, I was struck by how ubiquitous the flags were. Cars, scooters, houses, as well as shops were seen proudly displaying the flags. Michael Billig in his book Banal Nationalism (1995) underscores the importance of ‘flagging the homeland’ in our everyday lives. This ‘flagging’ does not simply refer to the physical object of the flag of a nation, but the many abstract and symbolic ways in which we are reminded of our homeland or nation every day. Words such as ‘we’, ‘ours’, ‘theirs’, etc., Billig argues, subconsciously remind us of our nations and homelands every day. Billig looks at how the newspapers use these abovementioned words in the most banal manner and suggests that newspapers are a site for ‘flagging the homeland’ in day-to-day life. Billig singles out sports as an area wherein the homeland is continuously ‘flagged’ in a banal manner with much enthusiasm, whatever may be the political affiliation of the newspaper.
The link between sports and ‘flagging the homeland’ was also observed by Zoltan Grossman. Writing in a lighter vein about the Green Bay Packers football (the one where they pick up the ball and run!) team in Wisconsin, USA, Grossman discussed how their first Super Bowl victory in 1997 made people behave in a very ‘nationalistic’ and ‘patriotic’ way. Similar to the scene in Goa, Green Bay Packers fans waved flags and displayed their pride through car stickers. And perhaps they went overboard when they considered the turf of their home stadium as sacred earth! Grossman, though writing in a satirical and lighter vein, does draw parallels with how nations are imagined and how national territory is marked.
Needless to say, the failure and success of FC Goa was keenly discussed and followed in the press. Despite the celebrity presence in the form of Bollywood and cricket personalities, die-hard FC Goa fans maintained that they overwhelmingly supported the team because the Brazilian legend, Zico was the coach, and more importantly “that they finally ha[d] a ‘Goa’ team” to support. For his part, co-owner of FC Goa Dattaraj Salgaocar, writing in a local newspaper asserted that FC Goa was successful in uniting the Goan people. “FC Goa,” he said, “may have lost in the penalty shootout in the semi finals, but I believe that it has won the hearts of Goa and our entire country. Our vision of uniting the people of Goa through football has come true; every Goan has been rooting for our team”.
While today we may celebrate football as being quintessentially Goan, the history of its promotion in Goa in relation to the Portuguese state, and commercial interests within Goa has more than what meets the eye. There is an obvious link between mining firms/families and football in Goa, and as such it demonstrates a pattern. As Constantino Xavier based at the John Hopkins University, Washington DC noted in one of his columns, the Portuguese state or Estado Novo promoted football in the 1950s, which the mining companies capitalized on immediately. (Interestingly, many blamed the initial losing streak of FC Goa on the irregularities in the mining sector!).
Xavier also notes the link with the promotion of football in Goa with nationalism, “Passion for football became a symbol of passion for Portugal. In 1955, Mozambique’s Ferroviarios of Lourenço Marques [or Maputo] visited Goa on tour, which was followed in 1959 by the Port Trust Club of Karachi. The highlight came in May of 1960, when a reserve team from giants Sport Lisboa e Benfica showed up for three test matches”. So if we are proudly waving flags in celebration of Goan football and thus Goanness, the history of this may point to factors other than the cliché that football runs in the blood of every Goan. Indeed, FC Goa’s slogan ‘Força Goa’ is similar to ‘Força Portugal’, used to passionately cheer the Portuguese football team. The ‘flagging’ of FC Goa also points to the significance of Portugal for Goan identity and how the history of Goan identity is intimately tied to the Portuguese presence in Goa. Unfortunately, this history is not yet written. All we have for now is the stray but interesting comment that Xavier made recently.
The FC Goa euphoria came at a time when this was the only news that was worth looking forward to. Football offered hope and a reason to celebrate Goa. As it mostly happens with nationalism, the celebration of Goan identity through FC Goa flags came at the cost of forgetting how fractured this very Goan identity is. But sport and its deep connection with nationalism can be seen as providing a space for instant bonding, despite the internal fractures in a society. This was seen after Spain won its maiden World Cup in 2010, uniting the country despite regions like Catalonia and Basque demanding more autonomy. Commentators also noted the remarkable number of Spanish flags that were flown across the country following the victory. If at all any unity has been achieved, as the ‘flagging’ of FC Goa would suggest, it would mean nothing if we do not ask some tough questions about the things we love and cherish as Goans. If we love football then we need to dissect the sport thoroughly. We should not only be worried about utilizing and developing Goan talent in football, but how this sport – the beautiful game – unites us as Goans.
(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 21 January, 2015)