Before politics and the eventful ride to power, there was football. Looking at the large, six-foot-one frame of Goa’s ageing PWD Minister Churchill Alemao it is hard to believe he once dribbled a football for the village team. But his ambition to move beyond the Varca village team was abruptly cut short when his father died and he joined a cruise vessel as a deck-hand to keep the large family afloat.
Alemao makes no secret of his humble beginnings and recalls the tough journey with no trace of rancour. But it is his and his family’s long association with football and their abiding passion for the game that he likes most to talk about: “My father, a cabo (corporal) in the Portuguese army gave up his job to become a football referee, that’s how much we love the game.”If football was a passion, it was also a training ground and convenient launching pad for the Alemao brothers’ political careers. In the early 1980s Churchill took over the Varca Sports Club. “I became the club president when they did not have even Rs 100 in their account,” he says.
But Alemao who was already acquiring some notoriety as an arm-twisting toughie in South Goa, discovered the potential of marrying trade union politics with football. In return for his successful intervention in their Goa factory lockout which helped checkmate union leader Datta Samant, MRF sponsored the Varca football team for a year, says Churchill.
With the Alemao political star now firmly on the rise, by 1988 the family — they were six brothers at the time — had its very own Churchill Brothers Sports Club. Starting out from Varca, a small South Goa village, Churchill Brothers, the only family-owned club in India has become one of the most successful teams lately. It won the I-League last year and broke the jinx by becoming the first Goan team to win the IFA Shield last week. “Outside Goa I am respected more for my football than for my politics. Even MPs know me because of my Club,” says Alemao. His brother Joaquim — also a Congress minister — heads the club as well as the Goa Football Association. In an arena once completely dominated by clubs owned by mining magnates like Dempos and Salgaocars, Churchill credits himself with raising the level of football in Goa. Players were paid peanuts before he stepped into the stadium, he says. His Nigerian striker Okolie Onyeka Odafe who dazzled against Mohun Bagan to clinch the IFA victory for Churchill Brothers is the highest paid player in Indian football.
Tackling club finances has not been easy, and Alemao is disappointed that professional football is ignored big sponsors unlike cricket . The Churchill Brothers' tie-up with Zee and Coke among others was short-lived. Last week the Club signed what is being billed as the biggest football sponsorship deal in the subcontinent with a Kerala-based pharmaceutical company. Not bad for a team that started out in the dusty paddy fields of Varca.