Goal Rush

Goal Rush

Goa is synonymous with three Fs: fish, feni and football," says Remo Fernandes, a well-known Goan rock star who was recently awarded the Padmashri. “While cricket is the most popular game in India, football will always remain closest to Goan hearts. Anybody who promotes Goan football is not just promoting a game, he is lifting the whole land and its people. And Shrinivas Dempo has done both in great measure," he says.

The man Fernandes pats on the back is a 38-year-old fellow-Goan, the industrialist-owner and promoter of Dempo Sports Club, the team that won the 11th National Football League (NFL) in May this year, making it No. I in India. During the past five years, under coach Armando Colaco, it has won two NFL tournaments, one Federation Cup, two Goa Professional Leagues and one Durand Cup, pushing it ahead of Mahindra United, JCT and Mohun Bagan.

But football, which the Dempos adopted in the 1960s, is a late entrant to the fascinating, four-century-old history of the Dempo Group, one of India’s longest reigning business families, among other Goan contemporaries such as the Salgaonkars and the Chowgules. Way back in 1560, a Goud Saraswat Brahmin family called Bodke fled to the capital city of Goa to escape conversion at the hands of the Portuguese.

The city then was one of the wonders of the world—Quem vio Goa, excusa de ver Lisboa (“Whoever has seen Goa need not see Lisbon"). Amid the Arabian, Armenian and European merchants there, the Bodkes learnt their business ropes, making themselves useful to the Portuguese as commission agents. Around that time, as Dom Moraes writes in his book, A Family in Goa: “There was a Bodke who walked with tremendous, eager strides (dhempe, in Konkani), as though anxious to reach his destination as soon as possible." The locals nicknamed the Bodke house “Dhempyaghar", or “the house of the long-strider". And the Bodkes turned into Dhempes which, in Portuguese, became Dempo.

By the late 19th century, the Dempos had become one of the most trusted names in Goa. So much so that when the local Portuguese government wanted a loan, the Overseas Bank of Portugal did not trust either its own viceroy or Lisbon and would only accept the security of the House of Dempo. The Portuguese later conferred upon them the title of Baron.

In the 1930s, with the Depression and World War II rocking the global economy, the family fell into debt, and looked towards one of its youngest members, 17-year-old Vasantrao Dempo, to lead them out of it.

The visionary entrepreneur went on to become an icon in Goa as he repaid the debts, and more. He set up his own company in 1941 to build ships and import foreign goods, even persuading Madame Dior, at the end of the war, to export her perfumes to Goa. But his most successful diversification was into mining and processing iron ore for export to countries such as Japan and China. Today, the group has more than 19 leases across 1,800ha in Goa, exporting a record five million tonnes.

But that was not all. After the Portuguese left Goa in 1961, Vasantrao set up Goa’s two leading newspapers, Navhind Times in English and, later, Navprabha in Marathi.

His grandson, Shrinivas, who now heads the group, says: “My grandfather felt that as we were under the Portuguese for 450 years, people needed to understand freedom of speech and expression."

The Dempo name became familiar to most of Goa’s youth as they studied in the several schools and colleges set up by the group after the Portuguese departed. The group also took over a local football club in Bicholim that was rechristened Dempo Sports Club, and football became a family passion.

Learning to play the game at a very young age, Shrinivas reveals how the sport gradually took hold of their lives. “Every Sunday, my grandfather would take me to the ground and I would see how absorbed he would get with the team. When he could not attend a match, the club manager would pick me up in the players’ bus, and we would sing football songs as we drove to the game," he recalls. Dinner table talk in their joint family home was always business or football.

In those days, mine owners such as the Dempos assured players a job in the company, but salaries were meagre and people played for the love of the game, explains Shrinivas. “It really wasn’t about money then; the game’s values spilled over into our corporate philosophy. The Dempo players give their soul to football. From them, we’ve learnt how to be passionate team players."

Savio Messias, secretary of the Goa Football Association, says: “The Dempo team is a winner because it has three ingredients: good players, good coach and good management. Mr Dempo is a great guide but gives the coach a totally free hand. In Kolkata, you have three coaches change in a single year." Stanislaus D’Souza, assistant editor at The Times of India, who has covered sport for more than 20 years, says: “In 2005, despite the untimely loss of their player, Cristiano Junior, in the critical semi-finals, they went on to win the Durand Cup and later, the NFL. This year, they are the champion club again. A lot of the encouragement comes from the management. After Mahindras, Dempo is the corporate house that spends the most on its team."

The Dempo name is perhaps better known today because of football than its businesses. That is an irony, feels Shrinivas. “With football becoming big business, players being poached from all over and the need to import players from foreign countries, our budget has skyrocketed. We spend more than a million dollars each year on the team. And, unlike other groups, I don’t have any branded products such as jeeps or beer to justify this as a marketing exercise. For us, it’s still about maintaining a Goan tradition and the love of the game."

Recently, he has drawn up a blueprint to “corporatize" the team and to raise sponsorships for an ambitious Football Youth Development programme that includes talent scouts scouring the country. D’Souza adds: “The government, too, must lend support, as it does for cricket. It should allocate land for stadiums. Look at the state of Mumbai’s Cooperage football ground— it’s used for weddings."

Standing on the very same field, Shrinivas has just watched his team win the penultimate League round against Air India, before the forthcoming 2007 finals. Despite his request, coach Colaco will not hear of the Dempo players being photographed.

Later, in a newspaper interview, the coach explained his refusal: “I did not want to make Mahindra United (also title contenders) believe that we are celebrating and give them the mental edge."

Unfazed, Shrinivas politely says: “We always go by the coach. Do you mind if I substitute instead?"

And then, much like his ancestor Bodke, he takes a long stride, kicking the ball hard. Like applause at match time, the resulting dhempe resounds all over the arena.

Name: Shrinivas V. Dempo

Age: 38

Occupation: Industrialist

Title: Chairman & managing director, Dempo Group

Education: MBA, Carnegie Mellon University, USA

MCom, Sydenham College, Bombay University

BCom, Goa University

Pursuits: Football

Claim to fame: Has taken the group’s turnover from Rs500 crore to Rs1,500 crore in five years. Signed an MoU with Maharashtra for a Rs1,000 crore greenfield mining project in Sindhudurg, Maharashtra. As football promoter, has helped propel Dempo Sports Club to the top position in India, winner, NFL (May)

(Personal Space runs on alternate Fridays and looks at the pursuits beyond work of some of India’s corporate leaders. Write to Sangitaa Advani at personalspace@livemint.com)