I could not have asked for a better setting for my 50th if I had tried. It had the Wimbledon final in the evening, and the UEFA Euro Championship final in the early hours of the following morning.
I guess cheering for either of the finalists could be misconstrued as an ‘anti-national’ act, given the colonial histories of both Portugal and France on our subcontinent. I’ll make no secret of the fact that I (like most of Goa, I suspect) was rooting for Portugal. Apart from the historic affinity one felt for the team, there was also much more riding on that match for Portugal. The last time they got to the final, they were on home soil, but had to be content with the runner-up spot.
And what a nail-biting match it was! It looked like curtains for Portugal after Cristiano Ronaldo’s premature exit due to injury pretty early on in the game. If Portugal were to score now, who would it be? I had thought it might be Nani or Renato Sanches. Éder (Éderzito António Macedo Lopes) was not even a consideration until he was brought in as a substitute for Sanches at the 78th minute. I don’t know much about footballers’ vital stats, so when the TV commentator made remarks like “not a very good goal-scoring record” and “struggled in Swansea City” as Éder ran onto the field, it was not very confidence-inspiring.
But manager and coach of the Portuguese team Fernando Santos obviously knew what he was doing when he sent Éder in. I marvel at how coaches decide on the strategic moment that a specific player comes off and another comes on.
And just when it seemed like the 0-0 stalemate would spill from extra time into a penalty shoot-out, sweet deliverance for Portugal with a stunning goal from Éder in the 109th minute! The London Guardian the following day called him “the most unexpected of heroes.”
Unexpected indeed. The South Wales Echo saw fit to carry its headline the same day “Swansea flop Eder the hero” and in its text even while celebrating his ‘sensational’ goal also described him as “one of the most disappointing transfer flops in recent Swansea City history”.
Coach Santos had earlier termed his team “ugly ducklings”; Éder had in almost in a heartbeat now metamorphosed into “a beautiful swan” in Santos’ eyes.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s remark to the press qualified their victory quite insightfully: “It is a trophy for all the Portuguese, for all immigrants, all the people who believed in us.”
Their team-mate Pepe echoed a similar sentiment: “We represented Portugal, a beautiful country of immigrants and we represent every one of them. This goes out to them.”
The Guardian London acknowledged Éder’s immigrant origin as well as early background with a rather clumsy headline: “Éder’s piece of outsider art caps journey from care home to Euro 2016 glory”.
The composition of European national teams is interesting, because the ethnic origin of many team members often betrays the country’s colonial history or past waves of economic migration. Éder was born in 1987 in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau, a West African country formerly under the Portuguese until it unilaterally declared its independence in 1973. Not much about his early childhood is in the public domain. His family moved to Lisbon for better economic prospects when Éder was two years old but lacked the means to care for him. He was therefore admitted to Lar O Girassol (“The Sunflower Home”), a state-administered care home in the vicinity of Coimbra. He spent his formative years here. The Lar was apparently run by Catholic priests, and characteristically had a rigid daily schedule, from which football provided a welcome release.
The TV commentator at the live match coverage said something shortly after Éder’s goal, to the effect that his childhood was so deprived that he rarely spoke about it. But in the Guardian article, his quotes from the previous year about those times seemed candid enough: “It helped me to grow into the man that I have become and aided my football career…. Of course, at times it was a little bit tough, which is normal, but I enjoyed it a lot. I met so many of my friends there, and it was good to have that life experience.”
Immigrants and “outsiders” are raging topics worldwide right now, from the Syrian refugee crisis, to Brexit, to the US election and Donald Trump’s proposed wall to keep Mexicans out, to the ever-increasing xenophobia in the “civilised” world and even to Goa, with issues of Portuguese citizenship, and our attitude to migrants from other parts of India.
I recently exited one of the umpteen Facebook groups that discuss Goan issues, as a reaction to a meme championing the cause of “Ghanti-exit”, with pictures of supposed migrants to Goa, carrying all their belongings upon their heads, and with their impoverished state quite clearly obvious. Does love for Goa necessarily have to translate into hatred and scorn of the “other”? Who is harming Goa more, the poor migrant in search of work, or the rich elite from India’s metropolises who buy second and third homes at exorbitant prices, therefore spiralling real estate prices ever upward, making it impossible for Goan first-time buyers to enter the property market? Or the casino barons who (mis)use our rivers with impunity and give very little back in exchange, to say nothing of cheapening the brand value of Goa as a tourist destination? Or ‘Goan’ politicians who actually get re-elected on artificial vote banks?
How differently would history have played out if Éder’s family had been denied entry into Portugal? Would Portugal have lifted the Euro 2016 trophy in his absence?
One could speculate even further beyond football and further back in time: would Beethoven have been Germany’s pride and joy, its greatest gift to the world, had his grandfather not been permitted to move at the age of 22 from the Brabant region in present-day Belgium to Bonn?
One certainly needs checks and balances when it comes to immigration, to avoid swamping of finite resources. But there’s really no telling who, and how many generations later, will make a nation rejoice (as Portugal did on 10 July) at having let someone, or a family, or a community into their borders, into their lives and into their hearts.
(An edited version of this article was published on 31 July 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)