Perhaps success should not be narrowly defined by fame, money and accolades alone.
DEEPA GEORGE meets Andrew Fernandes, better known as ‘Football Uncle’ of Pomburpa, who despite being close to 70 years of age, continues to be among the rare lot of coconut and mango tree climbers. Yes, of course, he did until recently teach youngsters the tricks and treats of enjoying Goa’s favourite sport
Driving through the winding roads of Pompurba, one is reminded of the fact that Goa truly lives in its villages. The verdant cover, the noticeable drop in temperature and the old houses that dot the way makes you fervently hope that these parts remain this way forever.
Well, I may not be on a nature trail, but am looking forward to meet someone who is known as ‘Football Uncle,’ without essentially knowing his actual name or the precise vaddo he hails from. Of course, I did realise that all that did not matter.
Magically, just like in pixie land, where passwords seem to hold a magical power, in this quaint village too, I was surprised that it worked without much ado. And soon I am shown the way to his house.
Football Uncle aka Andrew Fernandes greets me with a firm handshake. His athletic looks belie his age and it is obvious that he is from a generation that hadn’t made a comfort pact with junk food. Eager to show off my Konkani skills, I rattle off and eager to put me at ease, he allows me my transgressions with a benign smile, as we delve into the origins of his name and his evident passion for football.
His living room is filled with pictures of yesteryear World cup winning teams. Along with him, Pele, Beckenbauer and Maradona greet me. In a corner, medals, cups and trophies compete for space; won by his daughter Steffi Vyona Fernandes, a state level volleyball player and his son John. That sports is a living member in this home is vividly apparent.
A self-made man who decided to build his own home and have his own farming land rather than depend on family property, Fernandes spent 20 years in Doha, Qatar and returned to Goa in 1993 when his son was six months old.
Talking about his days as a football player, Fernandes nostalgically reminisces, “In Qatar, I played as a defender for the Qatar Goan team and we were the champions among seven other teams from 1977-79. When I returned to Goa, I started the Bardez championship and named it Johnny 7, after my son. It was an extremely popular cup and we had many fabulous players from nearby villages.
“Johnny, Pio, Marsellian...fabulous players and friends who have moved abroad to join their children. Now, at every fest, we have a football match and I play centre forward. Can’t be defender when I am nearing 70,” he says with a chuckle.
Working as a coconut tree and mango tree climber, Fernandes is also one of those rare people who provides this service and is understandably in great demand. Giving me a short demonstration, Fernandes uses his climbing machine and zips up steadily. Watching him one can’t but marvel at these native skills and its significance to our land. Post his return, Fernandes would work by day and in the evening, coach children of his village in football. He has done this for nearly two decades, only to give it up a few years ago.
“I wanted young talent to come up in our village. Playing a sport is important for overall development and is the best stress reliever that keeps your mind clear. It is so important to be fit in sports so naturally there’s no place for vices. Discipline is key and I used to be very strict with my students,” he underlines.
The universe seemed to have manifested his desire to have sports champions from his village. His daughter, Steffi Fernandes who is a professional volleyball player, has represented India and won a Gold at the 2014 Lusofonia Games! She is also a beach volleyball champion while his son, John continues to play football as a hobby and works with an airline. Steffi, earnestly following her father’s footsteps wants to encourage the love for sports and teaches volleyball at her alma mater, St Thomas Girls High School, Aldona and Don Bosco in Panjim.
A proud daughter, Steffi chips in, “My dad motivated me a lot. At my first nationals, I was reluctant to go out of Goa but he is the one who encouraged me. Because I went for the selection, I was amongst the four chosen for the Lusofonia Games.”
He wanted the youngsters from our village to do well in sports; some of his students did go on to the Club level, she adds.
What made him stop? Fernandes laments, “For one, it was getting hard on me physically to teach football post a hard day’s work. Besides, I think kids these days seem to have less time to play. Earlier, every evening at 5 pm they’d be out practising. Now, there is tuition class and so much screen time that keeps them away from the game.”
Also children these days aren’t strong or ‘ghott’. I still have the ‘xit’ from our fields and try to eat vegetables and fruits that are grown naturally. That’s why it’s important to grow your own produce, he adds.
In his native wisdom, Fernandes has ensured that he walks the talk by ensuring that at least his own children know farming techniques and understand its importance. He proudly says, “They both join me in the fields and I hope the next generation keeps these fields alive. They are important for our sustenance.”
Fernandes’s face lights up when talking about the ISL matches and Forca Goa in particular. He watches every match with an eagle eye. Giving me his take, Fernandes says, “FC Goa team seems to follow the Barcelona tiki-taka tactic with greater possession of the ball under Lobera, the new coach.” These days, headers aren’t what it used to be. Now, they drop the ball with their head and then pass or score, he points out, demonstrating a forceful imaginary header that seems likely to curve straight into the goal.
His wife, Josefina brings out the old albums that show a young Fernandes in his football gear with his team. His passion for the game and life makes him always look forward than get lost in the web of memories. Just as I leave, his wife in true Goan hospitality insists that I have lunch with them. While I promise to come back another day, I revel in the joy they impart in keeping things simple. Football Uncle scores big in teaching us that lesson.