The only female CEO in the I-League spoke exclusive to Khel Now on a range of subjects including the club’s return to the I-League, the future of Indian football and much more…

Churchill Brothers are back in the I-League after a span of three years and the Red Machines’ return to the top table of Indiamn football has been tumultuous both on and off the pitch to say the least. With just two wins in 11 games it has been a roller-coaster of a campaign for the only team from Goa in the I-League. The club’s CEO Valanka Alemao has been at the forefront of orchestrating the Goan outfit’s return to the top tier and getting them in shape for what was set to be a demanding campaign. The only female CEO in the I-League recently sat down with Khel Now’s Ravish Narvekar for a candid chat on all things Churchill Brothers and Indian football. In part 1 of this two-part exclusive, she talks about her club’s return to the national stage and and the challenges involved there in.

She started off by expressing her delight at the club’s return to the I-League after a brief hiatus. “For me and my family, football is a passion and till date, whatever Churchill Brothers have done has been completely for the betterment of Indian football. The club is not making even one percent of revenue from this. Whatever we have done is to promote Indian football,” Valanka said.

“We are back after three years and there is no self-benefactory reason behind it. It is a complete tribute to Goan football, I don’t know what has changed in these three years but I can say that there is lot to be done,” she further added.

Alemao left no stone unturned in her efforts to get the club back in the top flight after they were banished three years ago. She even reached FIFA headquarters in Zurich where she was refused a meeting with the then President Sepp Blatter for failing to seek a prior appointment.

“I have struggled a lot to be back in the top flight. It was very difficult for us to stay away from it. I have not seen the stadium till we came back in the I-League, so you can imagine how difficult it was for us,” Alemao explained.

Churchill Brothers has performed good with very less preparatory time

She further explained, “We have won everything in the country, from the Rovers Cup to IFA Shield, Federation Cup to National League (twice) and much more. When we were relegated, I was fighting for our rights and at some point, my father said “Baai sod te sagle, aami sogle jikla puro aata. Ani kaai naka aamka (Daughter leave it all, we have won everything. We don’t want anything now). I replied, “You have given 40 years to Indian football and I, as your next generation, cannot simply let it go. I will fight for it and give my best.”

Valanka feels proud that Churchill Brothers are the only club from Goa in the I-League this season. However she is also disheartened that other Goan clubs pulled out from the league. She added, “It is very sad that three Goan clubs, which I have grown up watching and the sweet rivalries between them are not there in the top tier. Today we miss that fun.”

She further stated, “I appreciate Shivanand Salgaocar, Shrinivas Dempo and Peter Vaz’s decision because it is their decision. It takes a lot to run a club. There is a lot of money involved, it takes a lot of energy and time also. Only the one who runs a club can understand this. So I respect their decisions and at the same time, I congratulate them because the kind of contribution they have given to Indian football is tremendous. I will be the happiest person when all four clubs will play together once again.

“After the order by the Delhi High Court, I actually didn’t want to play in this year’s I-league. I wanted to take a break this year and come back stronger the next season because it was impossible for a champion club like us to build a strong team in such a short span of time. I even spoke to the federation (AIFF) that we will not play this year but the situation forced us to play. Goa had no representative in the league and it would have been incomplete without a Goan club. Players were also jobless. So taking all these things in consideration, we chose to play,” Valanka explained, elaborating on why Churchill Brothers chose to play when the other three clubs from Goa decided to boycott the league this year because they were unhappy with the proposed roadmap for Indian football.

With just two wins in 11 games, the team’s form obviously hasn’t been great. However, Valanka believes that the team is playing good football and is expecting to finish in the top five.

“Our team is very young and on top of that we did not have time to practice together. So only after three practice sessions it takes a braveheart to go and play against Mohun Bagan. Our players are playing very nice football; only thing is that results are not favouring us. There are lot of players who have potential and can really make difference,” she explained.

“I think the appointment of Derrick Pereira was needed but that does not mean that Alfred Fernandes was not good. Derrick is an experienced coach and that will count. He is calm and composed and I think that will help us to finish in top five,” Valanka added highlighting the reasons behind the appointment of the new manager.

Derrick Pereira looks to have made positive changes and the team is playing better football

The Churchill squad is largely made up of Goan players as more than 18 out of the 26 registered players are local. Even though they had other choices in the market, the club chose to go for home based players from the state and Alemao justified that decision.

“Like I told you before, this season is a tribute to Goan football. There are many unemployed Goan players out there and we, as the only Goan team in the league, chose to go for more local players than going out for others,and I am happy with that,” she reaffirmed.

Though Churchill’s first foreign recruit, Trinidad and Tobago striker Anthony Wolfe has found his form and has won two back-to-back Man of the Match awards, the striker was woefully out of stride in the first half of the season. The club’s other foreign recruits have also come in for a fair share of criticism, but Valanka defended the club’s activity in the foreign market and blamed the cramped schedule of fixtures for players taking longer to adapt.

“I wouldn’t agree on this because normally the league used to start in September and run for six-seven months so any overseas player used to get time to acclimatize to all the aspects, but in the last few years the league starts in January and in February, more than half the season has been completed. I look at this more as a tournament than a league. Everything is squeezed. It is like they want to finish it as soon as possible. So how can we expect them (players) to perform instantly? It takes time because players need proper time to recover from injuries and also need proper rest after travelling but they don’t get the same due to tight fixtures. Anthony Wolfe is a good player and now we see him gelling up nicely with the team. It is same with the other players also,” she said.

The Red Machines had just few days to prepare for the I-league as their comeback in the league was confirmed two weeks before the league started. Fernandes, who was then the assistant coach, was in-charge of the team and he had the responsibility of recruiting players as Nigerian Joseph Afusi who was supposed to be appointed head coach before the start of the season was not available. However, Valanka is happy with the job Fernandes did with the team and does not blame him for the team’s performance in the first half of the league.     

“Alfred has done really well. He is the one who stood by the team in every situation. He has worked very hard. I cannot blame him solely for our team not giving results because we work as a unit, the management, the owners and everyone at the club,” Valanka said.

However, she believes that the club wasted time in trying to get in the Nigerian coach and said, “Trailing Afusi was a blunder which the club did. His visa was not permitted. We thought he will be coming because every time we called him, he used to say that “I am coming this week” but it never turned out. If we knew about this then we would have signed Derrick (Pereira) long back.”

This season Churchill have the advantage of being the only club from Goa in the top flight, unlike previous seasons where fans used to get divided between three other clubs. Asked what the club is doing to get fans into the stadium, Valanka feels they do not need any special strategies as the club is emotionally connected to its fans.

“Our club is emotionally connected to the fans and they are coming to the stadium to see and support the only club from Goa. This year we did not even get time to build our team so we need some time. Fans are already coming to support us and we will do every possible thing for our fans.” Valanka said.