UNDER MATEUS COSTA, Sporting Clube de Goa have hardly ever enjoyed the tag of favourites. Yet, ever since he took over from Oscar Bruzon in late 2014, the Flaming Oranjes have developed a knack of sneaking up on unsuspecting teams and pulling off upset wins.
In the previous edition of the Federation Cup, Sporting's first competition under Costa, they trumped Royal Wahingdoh and East Bengal to make it to the semi-finals; the biggest surprise of the tournament. In the following I-League season they struggled and had to remain in the relegation fight till the last game; but still they had a couple of surprise wins under their belt against teams like Mohun Bagan and Pune FC. This season, they have had a much better start. They overcame Bengaluru FC at their own backyard; that too with 10 men. Later, they beat a strong Mumbai FC side, coming back from behind. With 3 wins out of 7 games, they sit fourth at the table, before going up against Mohun Bagan at Barasat tomorrow. They have been one of those teams that nobody quite wants to bet too much on, but continue to linger in the league table, breathing on the necks of the title contenders and designated "dark horses".
But sitting back in the team bus after the pre-matchday practice session, an unassuming Costa said he wasn't worried about the finishing line just yet; he wanted to take it one game at a time,
"See, every game is going to be difficult in this league. But we have a very balanced team this time. Early on we had a hiccup against East Bengal, but we've managed to come back since then. As you can see, we're right up there in the league table. It's not like the top two teams have much of a gap on us. On any given day, somebody can perform a bit better and cause an upset. It's that day's performance that's going to matter in the end."
A Goan himself, Costa spoke with enthusiasm about the football culture that nurtured him and turned him throughout his decades of relationship with the sport. At the mention of the recent visit of FIFA delegates at the Fatorda Stadium, where Javier Ceppi expressed his concerns about I-League clubs not getting enough support from local fans, Costa said,
"I see that changing. In the last match against Mumbai FC we had a decent crowd cheering for us. Football in Goa is as popular as ever. Very recently a local tournament was held in the vicinity of the stadium and there was a good crowd there. We just need to make sure that these fans come for the I-League matches as well... it's a marketing issue more than anything else. You can see how well ISL does its promotions. The matches start in October, but FC Goa start their advertising campaigns from May itself."
Asked if FC Goa and ISL, through promotion and glamour, have taken over the football scene in Goa, Costa said it wasn't as straightforward as that,
"Playing in the I-League comes with a bigger responsibility towards the game than just the first team. And as such, Sporting Clube de Goa is doing its job well enough. We have an owner who goes out of his way to help Indian football. We have created a fully inegrated system that Under-9, Under-12 all the way to the seniors are an important part. We played a very young side in the Goa Pro League and won it. We have quite a few youngsters in this squad as well. They are playing their part as much as the experienced players. This is a much more diverse initiative."
But in the fast-changing landscape of Indian football, teams like Sporting Clube de Goa have a certain uncertainty about their future. There is a talk of a merger between I-League and ISL, but no one knows how many clubs from the I-League will end up playing in the newly formed league. Asked what role he could see Sporting Clube de Goa play in the transformed Indian football scene, Costa said he wasn't worried and wanted to just concentrate on his job,
"It's for the club owners to look at where Sporting Clube de Goa will be in the case of a merger. But I think it's good for Indian football to unify I-League and ISL. If they reduce the number of foreigners in the new league it will be a great platform for our Indian boys to showcase their talents."
Apart from having more players, I-League has also distinguished itself from ISL in terms of featuring Indian head coaches; 8 out of its 9 clubs presently employ an Indian at their hot seats, while ISL 2015 didn't feature a single Indian manager. Bagan coach Sanjay Sen recently took pride in this development, and Costa said he agreed with his colleague,
"Absolutely. The Indian coaches have a much better understanding of our players. Sanjay Sen himself is doing a very good job at Mohun Bagan. He is my senior, we did our coaching license together. So I have a lot of respect for him. Indian clubs and players can do very well if they don't have someone coming from outside and telling them how to do things."
From Sanjay Sen, the talk inevitably turned to tomorrow's game. Going up against the league leaders away from home is a tough task; and Costa was quick to admit as much,
"It'll be a difficult game. Mohun Bagan are a great team. But with respect to them, we're also here to win... they have three or four very dangerous attackers, but we've also been doing our homework. Come tomorrow, we'll know what to do."
One of the key weapons Costa has against the Mariners is of course, the former Mohun Bagan star striker Odafa Okolie. The Nigerian has scored 5 out of the 9 goals the Flaming Oranjes have netted so far; including a scorching brace at Kanteerava that felled the mighty Bengaluru FC. But playing against Mumbai FC, he could be seen trying to be more effective, coming down deep to retrieve passes to make up for lack of balls supplied to him. Both the goals he scored in that game came from penalities. Asked whether there was a problem here, Costa replied,
"While practicing, we told Odafa to move a bit deep. It was part of the plan. He is a great striker, and if he is moving around it becomes very difficult to contain him; much more than if he is playing in just one position. He is an asset for us."
Whether that strategy will come in handy against Mohun Bagan, or if Bagan will manage to trap Odafa and silence the Sporting attack like they did last season at Barasat is anyone's guess. But what's for sure is that Mateus Costa's boys have every big team in the league in a state of perpetual frowning. No one can be sure when they will sneak up against a heavyweight club and pull off yet another upset win.