This piece appeared in the Business Standard Weekend supplement on January 4, 2020.
In his everyday avatar, that of a young entrepreneur helping his father run a wholesale cement business, Conrad Barreto is a soft-spoken, pleasant young man just under 30 years old. Like all good superheroes, he is someone you would think leads a sedate, even humdrum, existence. But, like all good superheroes, that deceptive exterior hides the fact that, in an altered state, he is almost single-handedly transforming a signature aspect of Goan life – its football fan culture.
The story started simply enough. Barreto was a dedicated Liverpool fan who first started using social media to bring together other Indian Scousers like himself. “Around 2011-12,” he says, “a group of us Liverpool fans started a Facebook group called Liverpool FC Goa. We started by chatting online, but quickly moved up to the idea of having some real-world interactions.” The first of these was a screening of a Liverpool game at the Mandovi Hotel in Panjim.
The Mandovi Hotel, the first international-class hotel in the city, was set up in the 1950s by the family of Purxotoma Ramanata Quenim, then Member of Parliament in Portugal representing Goa. Anish, one of the current generation of Quenims, is a dyed-in-the-wool Reds fan, so much so that he and his girlfriend Natasha Mistry got married in a ceremony at Liverpool’s home ground Anfield in 2013, the first couple in the world to do so. (Since that event, Liverpool FC has begun offering “Weddings at Anfield” as a special package for fans.)
Anish offered a space at the hotel for the game screening. “I had expected maybe 10 or 15 people to show up,” says Barreto, “but the turnout was close to 60-70!” Encouraged by that first try, the Liverpool FC Goa, which along the way gained official recognition from the club, continued screening games at various locations around the state.
But Barreto figured that things would get even more exciting if he brought fans of different clubs together for the screenings. At the height of the 2012-13 season, he launched The Football Dugout (TFDO) as a Facebook group, and fans started pouring in. In the years since, TFDO has grown into a massive online community with real-world presence. The Facebook group is almost 25,000-strong, with members scattered across various parts of the world. Barreto has registered TFDO as a corporate entity, and recently tied up with Hillary Gomes, a friend working with Tech Mahindra, to launch a TFDO website. Besides featuring footballing news and social media feeds, the website has started providing offers on game and event tickets, mobile fantasy challenge apps and club merchandise.
Having organically grown into a creator of a different type of fan culture in Goa, Barreto has become clearer in his objectives as time has passed. “We’ve never had the sort of fan culture there is in European football,” he says. “Over there, fans lose their sleep over their clubs’ performances. I have seen people crying, both when their team lost and when they won.”
He decided to actively try and grow that sort of following for FC Goa. Though there was already an existing FC Goa Fan Club, Barreto went about creating a new presence called The Gaur Army (the gaur, or Indian bison, is Goa’s state animal, and FC Goa’s emblem). It brought a new, more raucous, more in-your-face edge to the local support. “Fans here don’t get the sort of energy and culture we bring to the game,” he says with a wry grin. “When we stand up and cheer, people from behind will be telling us to sit down.”
Barreto is vocal about the value of fan bases to clubs: “FC Goa has all kinds of fans – men, women, children. They might not know much about football, but passion for Goa unites them. Mumbai has not got the same sort of fan culture. Cricket is the big thing there. FC Goa, Bengaluru FC, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal – these clubs have great fan bases. AtK [the Atletico de Kolkata franchise] also did, but during the third season of ISL, one of the owners – Sanjiv Goenka, I think – said something along the lines of ‘AtK is much more popular than any other Kolkata club’. Their fan base shrank from close to 1 lakh to somewhere around 1,000 as a result of that statement. That is the power of the fans.”
Marcus Mergulhao, Sports Editor at The Times of India’s Goa office, has had an insider’s view of the transformation that has taken place in fan culture in Goa. “In the past,” he says, “everyone from our village used to go for matches at Fatorda. We would all take a bus together. The thing with Goa is that everybody loves football, but they don’t always show it in terms of the way they follow a team or the game. The fan culture is much better in Bengal and Kerala. A Goan fan won’t wear his love for his team on his sleeve. But that means that the pressure on players is much greater in places like Bengal. Here, fans will discuss the game at the end of the match, then go off for beer and forget about it. In Bengal, football can be everything for some of them. They will talk about it and think about it at every moment.”
One of the reasons behind this could be the scattered presence of Goan clubs across the state. With FC Goa, however, the fans of different clubs, or of football in general, now have one team to rally behind. “One big fan moment in Goan football,” Mergulhao continues, “is when Dempo made it to the semi-finals of the AFC Cup [in 2008]. Three buses full of Dempo fans travelled to Hyderabad for that match. FC Goa fans have taken to travelling to outstation matches as well. We never saw this with the I-League.”
Many of those changes in fan culture have been wrought by Barreto’s Gaur Army. “We travelled to every FC Goa away game last season,” he says. “If it’s one of the closer destinations – Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune – we travel by bus; other places by air. To Kerala, we went by train. Numbers vary – the shorter bus trips obviously have more people travelling; but even when we fly, there are usually at least 15 to 20 people. For the finals in Mumbai [in March 2019], we had 280 people!” Sadly for that sizeable contingent, FC Goa failed once again to seize the day, losing to Bengaluru FC by a solitary goal scored in the 27th minute of extra time after a goalless 90 minutes.
There are other elements of the European fan culture that the Gaur Army has tried to bring to its support of FC Goa, such as synchronised chanting. Asked to demonstrate, Barreto sings, to the tune of Boney M’s “Brown Girl in the Ring”: “Coro-minas, shalalalala / Coro-minas, shalalalalala / Coro-minas, shalalalala / He scores whenever he wants!”
Such vocal support certainly energises the players. “In Goa,” says Sahil Tavora, who has played in the ISL for Goa and Mumbai, and is currently in the Hyderabad squad, “if there’s an FC Goa game, everyone knows it, and people will come from all over the state to watch and support the team. It feels good. I get recognised all the time. Even my parents get stopped by fans. My brother and I happen to look similar. One time, he was in the VIP box, and some young fans thought it was me. They wanted to take selfies, and even when he told them it wasn’t me, they said it didn’t matter, they would take the photos with him since he’s my brother.”
Mergulhao is not that convinced about the nature of Goan supporters, especially when compared with those from other places. “When Bengaluru FC played their I-League matches in Goa, their fans would make a louder noise in the stadium than ours,” he points out. “And we’re okay with it. It reflects the Goan attitude. Never have outstation fans faced any aggression from Goans.”
Though some would say that is what sets Goa apart and makes it such a warm, wonderful place to be, Mergulhao is clearly unhappy about it.
Barreto has used the leverage that TFDO and the Gaur Army have provided to explore avenues beyond the football arena. “With the visibility that TFDO has given me, I also work as an influencer for various Goan establishments,” he says. “We also do fundraising events under the Liverpool FC Goa banner. We have raised funds for orphanages through our drives. This year, we’re doing it for an animal shelter.
“It’s not just a fan club. It’s a community.”