Goa's cup of joy


Goa...winning the National championship after 15 years.-MAHESH HARILAL

AS the Goans danced to Ricky Martin's Cup of Life, one noticed tears rolling down Climax Lawrence's ebony cheeks.

The Goans had just won the Air-India Express Santosh Trophy and they were toasting their cup of joy after 15 long years. They had to wage a marathon two-hour battle against Maharashtra with the final flowing over to extra-time. So, one could understand when they danced like a bunch of merry men on a high on the ceremonial stage in Kochi.

Climax had played a crucial role for Goa almost all through the championship, toiling in the midfield, serving crucial crosses and lobs to the forwards and scoring goals too.

He could have been the player of the tournament.

Nicholas Rodrigues with the Best Player Trophy.-MAHESH HARILAL

But one miss cost him the individual honour. He muffed a penalty in the dying minutes of the regulation period, shooting over.

"Climax was our first choice, he had an excellent tournament. But that penalty miss was a big one. It could have changed the game completely," said Olympian O. Chandrasekharan, who was among the selectors for the award.

To Climax's credit, he did not get bogged down by the miss. Instead, like a seasoned warrior, the Dempo star recovered instantly and came up with a lion-hearted show.

Climax was a classic case of the great Goan fighting spirit in the championship. "We bounced back immediately after conceding goals, in the semifinals and the final. That showed how hungry we were," said Mauricio Afonso, the Goan coach.

Afonso had a smart strategy to choke Maharashtra. "Do whatever, but stop Steven." That was Afonso's command to Nicholas Rodrigues. "Steven's crosses are very dangerous. But he was nowhere (in the final). Nicholas marked him very well," said Afonso, who has now won the Santosh Trophy as a player and coach.

Climax Lawrence of Goa... a midfielder par excellence.-MAHESH HARILAL

That effort won Nicholas the championship's Best Player Trophy. "This award, in my first Santosh Trophy, is a big surprise," said the 23-year-old Sporting Clube de Goa player who scored a goal each in the semifinal and the final.

With Steven Dias virtually caged, Maharashtra striker Reuben D'souza appeared lost in the final.

But Reuben is very promising. The lean, wild-haired 19-year-old is good at both hockey and football but now, after being picked for the Indian camp after his Santosh Trophy debut, he is sure that the football pasture is greener.

Coming in for the injured India striker Abhishek Yadav, midway through the quarterfinal league in Kochi, the Mumbai lad struck crucial goals, against Bengal in the league phase and the lone goal, which packed off the defending champion Kerala in the semifinal. Well, Steven Dias was in top form in those games too.

"Coach Dereyk (D'souza) told me that he began as a substitute in a big game. He told me to grab the chance when I went in. I think I did," said the Golden Gunners striker after the semifinal.

Son of an athlete and a fine sprinter, Reuben easily outran defenders. He has lovely ball control and a cool head, which should stand him in good stead in the years to come.

Steven Dias is another player to watch. The Mahindra United medio is the find of the season and his performances in the recent Federation Cup in Goa and the Santosh Trophy speak volumes of his class.

"He is very gifted, he has a fine understanding with the forwards," said former national coach Dereyk D'souza.

As a nine-year-old, Steven used to accompany his elder brothers to the Don Bosco Ground in Kurla. "We used to play barefoot," said the 21-year-old Mumbai youngster, who is the youngest of six children.

"This is probably my best year in football. But I have a dream... I want to play in England some day," he said.

Steven adores Indian captain S. Venkatesh, his partner in the Mahindra midfield. "He is also my close friend.

He helps and guides me a lot," said the youngster who was adjudged the Best Player in the Promise Cup, which Mahindra won in Maldives two years ago.

Goa, Maharashtra, Kerala and the fast and tough Manipur, which made its exit under controversial circumstances, were easily the best teams in the championship.

While Maharashtra looked well organised, often playing to a plan, Kerala took time to find its rhythm. And when it did, in the semifinals with experienced medio K. Ajayan and young defender N. P. Pradeep playing a sterling role, the erratic forwards let the team down.

I. M. Vijayan made a comeback to the team after nearly five years but did not make much of a mark.

Looking back, Kerala paid the price for its decision to drop Sylvester Ignatious, last year's captain and Man of the Final, from the team at the last minute. "It was shocking," said V. P. Sathyan, former India and Kerala captain.

And the best on view?

Without any doubt it was Goa. So why those tears from Climax?

Were they tears of joy, relief... pain? Your guess is as good as mine. The results

Final: Goa 3 (Felip Gomes 74th min, Nicholas L. Rodrigues 105th, Joaquim Abranches 115th) beat Maharashtra 1 (Soccor Velho 73rd) in extra-time.

Third place: Kerala 2 (N. P. Pradeep 57th, T. Asif Saheer 79th) beat Punjab 1 (Narinder Singh 68th).

Semifinals: Goa 2 (Peter Carvalho 14th, Nicholas L. Rodrigues 48th) beat Punjab 0; Maharashtra 1 (Reuben D'souza 50th) bt Kerala 0.