Fortunato Franco: The Story behind Goa’s most decorated footballer
In conversation with the legendary Fortunato Franco as he reflects on his time as a professional footballer during India’s ‘Golden Era’.
Having relocated back to Goa in 1999 after retiring from his post as Senior Manager of Public Relations for the Tata Group – where he served with distinction for 40 years – Fortunato Franco reminisces fondly about his contribution to the golden era of Indian football.
As he sits back in his cozy 3-bedroom house in Colva, Franco describes his coach, the Late Abdul Syed Rahim, as the man who shaped him as a footballer. “What can I say about him?” begins Franco when quizzed about India’s most successful coach. “He was my mentor, my guru, my God! He was the man who put his arm around my shoulder after I played a phenomenal game against Services in the Santosh Trophy in 1958 and told me to continue playing in the same fashion.” It was those words of encouragement that Franco defines as a key moment in his career.
Born in the Colvale area of North Goa in 1939, Franco and his family migrated to Bombay when he was 6 years old. He recalls having a flair for sports in his early days while studying at the St. Sebastian High School in Mumbai, where he was an inter-school hurdles champion. However, football was his passion, and in 1957 Franco was brought over to the Western Railways team. In that same year he was selected to represent Bombay in the Santosh Trophy tournament. Franco didn’t get a chance to showcase his skills during the tournament, but recounts the experience he received as invaluable to his development.
After his scintillating performances for Bombay under the tutelage of the great coach Rahim, Franco was added to the national team line-up for the first time in 1959. However, he couldn’t displace the then vice-captain, Mariappa Kempaiah, in the right half-back position at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
The Indian team was unable to replicate the success they had at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, when the team finished fourth in the tournament, having been placed in a tough group that included the likes of Hungary, France, and Peru. Playing against some of the best teams of that era, India put up a proper challenge, only losing 1-2 to Hungary, 1-3 to Peru, and drawing 1-1 against France. India would have even beaten the French had it not been for a defensive blunder in the 90th minute.
In spite of not qualifying for the later stages, Rahim only had words of encouragement for the team. “This was a much, much better performance than Melbourne,” he said when quizzed by Franco about the team’s early exit. “We played against the giants of football and were able to match them. We did not get played out of the park in any game.”
Franco finally got his opportunity at the expense of Kempaiah, as Rahim rang in the changes for the IV Asian Games in 1962. A tweak in formation during the tournament saw Rahim deploy defender Jarnail Singh as a striker. It was a shrewd tactical move that reaped rewards for the team as Jarnail scored in the semi-final and final, helping India achieve its greatest footballing triumph till date.
Franco played his part in the final as well. It was his ingenuity that paved the way for Jarnail Singh to score the winning goal. “I remember that moment vividly,” he says with a visible sense of pride. “I took a free kick and passed the ball to Jarnail. He controlled the ball and scored that vital goal that won us the Gold medal.”
It was during this tournament as India’s second-place finish at the Asian Cup Finals in Tel Aviv in 1964, where Franco cemented his place as one of India’s greatest ever half-backs. A vital cog in the Indian team, Franco represented the country for seven years between 1959 and 1966, amassing over 50 caps until a fatal knee injury ended his playing career prematurely in 1966.
“I have no regrets,” quips Franco. “I got married that year and decided that it was time for me to focus on my job with the Tata’s.” Today, he lives a comfortable life with his wife, son, and loving dog Snoopy. His daughter and 2 grandchildren live in Dubai. He spends a majority of his time between doing household chores and going to watch the young generation play football.
“Today’s kids have the best facilities to train in,” he says. “Parents come out in numbers to support their children, something that was non-existent during my time. I believe what you guys (Força Goa/FC Goa) are doing for Goa is very commendable and I hope that through these grassroots programs, we can produce players that will go on to match, or even supersede the kind of success we had.”