"Wish we had lost in the earlier round"

IN death, as in his chosen sport, Cristiano de Lima Junior was the winner.

AVINASH NAIRAvinash Nair

Team-matesRonty Martins (left) and R. C. Prakash attending to Cristiano Junior, who collapsed on the ground soon after scoring the second goal. Pic. G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR-

IN death, as in his chosen sport, Cristiano de Lima Junior was the winner. The Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bangalore was the final stage in his life and in his last act he performed what he loved doing best — scoring a goal. His 78th minute goal, which came a few seconds before he collapsed on the ground and died, had followed his first-half goal which enabled his team — Dempo Sports Club, Goa — to win the Federation Cup for the first time.

Ironically, had it not been for the Portuguese-speaking people of Goa, Cristiano Junior would have been in Kolkata, which was his first home in India. Cristiano, who left East Bengal for Dempo only this season in a Rs. 22 lakh signing, had been recommended to join the Kolkata giants by his friend Douglas Da Silva, East Bengal's central midfielder. And, the clean-shaven striker had a great season in Kolkata, netting no fewer than 15 goals in his first season and spearheading East Bengal's National Football League (NFL) triumph.

East Bengal's loss this season was Dempo's gain. Though Cristiano missed the Durand Cup due to the delay in procuring his No Objection Certificate, he was in his elements for Dempo scoring five times in the four Federation Cup matches, including the twin strikes in the final. If only the 25-year-old had lived to savour the fruits of his labour.

A grief stricken Maria Jaci Ferreira Nunes holds her son's photo at her residence in Brasilia, Brazil. -- Pic. AFP-

His team-mates lived to see their team's maiden title triumph, but did not savour it one bit. "Give us our Junior back," cried one player. "Wish we had lost in the earlier round and returned home, for then our Junior would still be with us," another wept inconsolably. Majek Bolaji, the towering presence in the Dempo defence, spoke amidst tears: "Junior, we all love you. Even though you are not with us now, you will forever remain in our memory." Cristiano's strike partner Ronty Martins was seen kneeling and praying soon after the collision when his partner lay motionless with dilated pupils.

"He made the ultimate sacrifice," said Srinivas V. Dempo, President of Dempo SC, soon after hearing about the death of his striker. Lazarus Fernandes, the midfielder with flowing hair who shared the hotel room with Cristiano, was simply inconsolable: "He was such a jovial character," wept Fernandes, who spent a sleepless night after the incident. "A very religious man, Cristiano owed it all to God."

A thorough investigation, as requested by Bhutia and many others, may throw some light on the cause of Cristiano's death although the preliminary post-mortem reports have suggested `cardiac arrest'.

While the AIFF have banned Subrata Paul, the Mohun Bagan goalkeeper, for flailing at Cristiano instead of trying to stop the goal-bound ball, some probing questions have to be raised and answered. If the foul was so blatant did it not warrant a `card'? If there were two doctors and a physio on the ground, as claimed by the KSFA officials, why could not Cristiano be revived? Where was the ambulance equipped to handle such emergencies? Why, on earth, did it turn up so late?

Juliana, Cristiano's wife, being comforted at the Dabolim Airport, as her husband's body arrived from Bangalore. — Pic. PTI-

A.R. Khaleel, the president of KSFA and treasurer of the AIFF, did reveal a secret: "The officials and the doctors knew the very moment we saw the motionless body that it was all over. But an announcement to that effect would have caused a law and order situation in the stadium, which would have turned much more grievous. Hence the body was shifted in the ambulance to Hosmat, and not even to Mallya Hospital which is closer to the ground."

Will the football fraternity buy Khaleel's version? More importantly, will Cristiano's wife in Goa or mother back in Brazil buy it?