A final played, a final lost. Another appearance in the showpiece contest this year would have been out of question if last year’s fracas had exacted its full value. Thankfully for Goa, it did not.
A 15-point deduction in a 14-match season is akin to a death sentence. The details of that night last December do not need to be retold, but the sanctity of the competition dictated that the punishment could not be meted out. That says a lot about an eight-team tournament masquerading as a league.
Whatever you like to call this competition, FC Goa are very good at it. Under Zico’s tutelage, the side has played arguably the most exciting football in the last two seasons. It is winning the trophy that has proved a step too far. Even in 2014, Goa were the team with the most attacking flair but not the rewards that should have come with it. A semi-final defeat on penalties broke hearts on that occasion.
In the final last year, it was even crueler. As the clock neared the 90th minute, Goa were 2-1 up. But a smash-and-grab comeback saw Chennaiyin score twice in as many minutes.
If the pain of a last gasp defeat was not enough, the fact that the final took place on their home pitch made the result even tougher to accept for Goa. The exaggerated response to the defeat meant sympathy was in short supply for the Goans but the manner of the reverse must still be stinging, particularly for the 12 players who have returned to the club.
Goa have largely kept faith in the personnel and style that have brought them rewards. Discontinuity has surfaced mainly at the administrative level. Although Dattaraj Salgaocar and Shrinivas Dempo — who owned a 65 per cent stake in FC Goa — had their bans overturned, they sold their stake to Jaydev Mody as the club sought to make a clean break from the incidents that overshadowed last year’s final.
Clean breaks, though, have not been made on the pitch. For the second season running, Lucio is Goa’s marquee player. He is likely to continue his central defensive partnership with Frenchman Gregory Arnolin. While the pairing is usually reliable, Goa’s defence collapsed at times last season. Twice the side was at the wrong end of a 0-4 scoreline; the way the final unfolded must also raise questions about the side’s mental strength. It remains to be seen whether Laxmikant Kattimani will continue to be the side’s first-choice goalkeeper; Subhasish Roy Chowdhury has been given the number one jersey after his move from Delhi Dynamos.
The core of the side, however, remains the same. Particularly those who constitute the midfield that served Goa ever so well last year. Jofre Mateu is an influential presence in the centre of the pitch while Romeo Fernandes and Mandar Rao Dessai provide pace on the wings. The three were responsible for making the team tick in the final third; another retained player is Reinaldo, Goa’s top scorer last season with seven goals.
The club’s recruitment strategy, however, came unstuck in one regard. One of the stars of last year’s campaign, Leo Moura, will not make the trip to India this time as his parent Brazilian club Santa Cruz have refused to release him. The Brazilian midfielder scored two goals and provided eight assists in the second season of the ISL; it remains to be seen how Zico works around his absence.
Dudu Omagbemi and Thongkhosiem Haokip, responsible for four strikes each, have moved on to Chennaiyin and Kerala Blasters respectively as well. But Goa has responded by signing striker Robin Singh from Delhi Dynamos who played a crucial role for his former side last season. He joins a side that scored the most number of goals in ISL-2, something that Goa may achieve again. Such is the quality of attacking resources at the side’s disposal.
The Brazilian market has been raided again to fill the holes in the side. Richarlyson Felisbino is the man expected to take Moura’s spot. The former Sao Paulo midfielder has represented the Brazilian national side twice. Richarlyson is still 33 and his acquisition is a testament to Zico’s excellent scouring of his Brazilian network.
Rafael Dumas and Matheus Goncalves are two other additions by the coach from his home country. Both were part of the youth system at Flamengo and are expected to provide cover for the first eleven. Julio Cesar is an addition in attack, further boosting FC Goa’s Brazilian contingent.
After the controversial end to the last season, Goa seem like a rather steady ship at the moment. The club have achieved most of their targets in the transfer market, the deduction of points has been avoided and ownership issues have been sorted. Zico’s able leadership should ensure that Goa will once again feature at the business end of the ISL.
Whether the team ends up with the silverware is a question that will have to wait. In both editions of the ISL, Goa have played like the best team in the tournament without actually achieving that tag. There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. If Goa finishes this season with another defeat in the final but accepts the result gracefully, progress would have been made. But the pain will grow. The pain that still exists from that fateful night last December. Catharsis, however, does not lie in a faraway place. Goa can reach the promised land.