The first football match Brahmanand Sankhwalkar remembers playing as a goalkeeper was in Class 3 during a mid-interval school break at the age of eight. He was playing for the marathi division of his class against boys from the english division.

Hailing from Taleigao, a small town near Goa’s capital Panjim, Sankhwalkar took up the game at the age of five. Then, the scrawny boy with a tall frame mostly lined up as a forward whenever he took the field at a small playground near his house.

But during that school game, his brother was adamant to play as the striker. Perhaps, no one wanted to be in the goal. It took a bit of convincing from a few others before Sankhwalkar took up that position, placed between two stones. His team won 2-1 and even though he had conceded a goal, the youngster felt something like never before.

“I felt satisfaction playing between the two stones,” Sankhwalkar told “Collecting the ball gave me happiness. Everyone praised me after the match. I can’t describe that feeling.”

That was the moment Sankhwalkar decided that there was one position if he wanted to make it big in football: it was going to be as a goalkeeper.

Although he was skillful with his feet, he didn’t want to dribble past opponents anymore nor did he want to score goals. Sankhwalkar took up the most unforgiving and challenging position on the pitch. It was this boy who would go on to establish himself as a legend of the sport, enjoying a stellar football career, lasting 25 years.

Sankhwalkar not only became Taleigao’s but arguably Goa’s greatest footballer and one of India’s finest goalkeepers. Moreover, his contribution to Goan football can never be forgotten, helping Goa script a piece in Indian football history by leading them to the Santosh Trophy as captain and the Federation Cup for the first time, two of India’s biggest titles back in the day. He had a successful international career as well, receiving more than 50 caps for the Indian team and becoming captain.

Given his achievements, it was fitting that Sankhwalkar was the first Goan footballer who became a recipient of the Arjuna award.

Brahmanand Sankhwalkar won the Arjuna award in 1997. (Photo: Brahmanand Sankhwalkar)

The early days

The youngest among 10 siblings in his family, Sankhwalkar inherited his love for football from his father, a goalkeeper who played in a dhoti. Three of his elder brothers were also footballers.

While Sankhwalkar never received any formal coaching in his formative years, he was groomed by Remigio Pinto, his family doctor and a football buff, who often trained children from Taleigao. It was under him, where Sankhwalkar learned the nitty-gritties of goalkeeping – the correct technique of handling the ball, positioning, distribution among other technical aspects.

Surprisingly, the first match Sankhwalkar ever played for a club came under rather bizarre circumstances. Just shy of 16, Sankhwalkar was called up by his brother Vallabh, a striker for Panvel Sports Club on the recommendation of club secretary Anthony Botelho who was in search of a goalkeeper for a friendly.

Wearing his school shorts, jersey and Vallabh’s football boots, Sankhwalkar turned up. The club eventually found a goalkeeper for that game with Sankhwalkar coming on in the second half as Panvel trailed 2-1. As it happened, they lost the match but had the teenager not been in goal, the scoreline could’ve been worse.

“I appreciate Botelho for giving me that chance,” he recalled. “A defender said to him, ‘Don’t field this boy, he’s a kid’ but he persisted with me. Botelho asked me, ‘are you ready?’ I said yes. I don’t know how I fared but Botelho was impressed. That was the turning point of my career.”

Impressed by the young boy’s heroics, Botelho invited the youngster to play another friendly game for Panvel. They won and Sankhwalkar starred again. Botelho was convinced about his talent after the two friendlies.

But there was a catch. Before he featured in those games, Sankhwalkar earlier signed for Clube Sao Miguel de Taleigao, although his club registration form was kept pending by Goa Football Association as his signature was invalid as minor. Botelho bought a new form, got Sankhwalkar’s father to sign on it, and that’s how the goalkeeper ended up at Panvel SC, penning a contract in 1970.

During the fledgling stages of his career, Sankhwalkar, a science student, considered leaving the game to focus on academics in 1973. But with support from Botelho and his father, he stuck to the sport.

Goa’s icon

That same year, he was picked by Goa for the Santosh Trophy, which was once recognised as India’s top domestic competition. By then, the top Goan clubs had their eyes on him. Sankhwalkar was on the cusp of joining Dempo SC, who offered him a free scholarship if he signed for them.

However, Botelho and Panvel player Levino Dias advised the teenager to stay at the club rather than warm the bench at Dempo who had experienced keepers. The Taleigao boy had doubts but once Botelho offered him captaincy, there was little Sankhwalkar could do to turn down Panvel. Sankhwalkar soon steered the club to the Bandodkar Gold Trophy, helping the underdogs bag their first major silverware. That win proved to be nothing but a farewell gift as Sankhwalkar among others, left Panvel the following season.

On his father’s recommendation, who was a close friend to VM Salgaocar, Sankhwalkar later signed for Salgaocar FC, winning the Goan top division in his first season. With his career graph on the rise, Sankhwalkar soon earned a call-up to the Indian senior national team in 1976 after signing for Salgaocar. The goalkeeper later captained the club and went on to become one of the their longest-serving players, spending 17 seasons.

He had offers to join Kolkata clubs Mohun Bagan twice and Mohammedan Sporting, two of India’s biggest clubs back then, but loyalty wasn’t something he would trade easily.

“I don’t regret anything in my career,” he said. “Mohun Bagan provided me with a huge offer. Hyderabad players would often go to Bengal to make their careers and secure jobs there. For me, I wanted to us [Goa] to win the Federation Cup for once.

“I never looked up to money.”

The keeper was a key cog of the Salgaocar side that made a mark in the national scene during the latter half of the 1980s. Between 1987 and 1990, they reached four Federation Cup finals and Sankhwalkar was at the heart of it. He kept clean sheets in the two finals which they won between 1988 and 1990.

He enjoyed success at the Santosh Trophy too. Goa made it to their first finals in 1979 although they conceded the title to West Bengal. Later under Sankhwalkar’s captaincy, Goa reached their second final in 1983, ending joint-winners with Bengal after two 0-0 draws.

Sankhwalkar and Co were aware the job was still incomplete. The side returned the following season to lift the title, a defining moment in Goan football history and Sankhwalkar’s presence between the sticks was immense – finishing the tournament without conceding a goal for 576 minutes – a record that stood till 2009.

The custodian was also part of Salgaocar’s Sait Nagjee Trophy triumph in 1988, the first for a Goan club and the year after, the Greens broke their Rovers Cup hoodoo.

Brahmanand Sankhwalkar in action. (Photo: Brahmanand Sankhwalkar)

One of India’s best

The Goan was a regular for the Indian team between the sticks since his debut, having come up the ranks from the U-19 level. Arguably his best performance came during India’s goodwill tour of Zambia for three-match friendly series in 1977. The African side was in reckoning to qualify for the 1978 World Cup.

In the final game of the series, the India custodian saved two out of three penalties, prompting the Zambia mayor to label him as ‘Leopard’ at the felicitation ceremony. However, he missed the 1978 Asian Games as he contracted jaundice just a few months prior to the event.

Sankhwalkar recovered but a severe arm fracture in 1981 required him to go under the knife. Doubts cast over his participation at the Asian Games again alongside his place in the Indian team, with quality keepers in their ranks including Bhaskar Ganguly and Biswajit Das.

“It took me eight months to recover,” he recalled. “Olympian J Krishnaswamy, the AIFF director visited me in the hospital before the Asian Games camp. He asked me, ‘Brahmanand, will you make it to Indian team?’ I told him, I’ll try. He said, ‘you still haven’t answered my question – yes or no?’ I responded ‘yes’.”

True to his word, Sankhwalkar returned and made his first Asian Games appearance in 1982. A year later, he won captaincy and led India at many tournaments, before announcing international retirement in 1986. His association with the game lasted another nine years before he hung up his boots at 41.

Giving back to the sport

Sankhwalkar’s contribution to the game has not been restricted to what he just did on the field. Soon after parting ways with Salgaocar in 1991, he joined the Sports Authority of Goa. That coincided with the veteran goalkeeper plying his trade in the Goan top flight for Churchill Brothers (1991 to 1994) and later Anderson Mariners (1994-’95).

Following the completion of his AFC license courses, Sankhwalkar joined the Indian team as a goalkeeping coach between 1997-2005. It was sandwiched by a brief stint in the same role with the Indian U-19 team in 1999.

He worked with SAG for nearly 17 years before serving as mentor at Goa’s Sesa academy for over a decade.

The veteran has now been appointed as chairman of the Goa Football Development Association, a government body which oversees grassroots and player development in the state. For a man who contributed so much to the sport, it’s right to assume the post is in safe hands.

“You never get tired to serve the sport if you have that passion for the game,” he said.

“It never wavers no matter hold old you get. I want to continue in football and wish to serve to the best of my abilities for long as I can. It’s all for the love for the game.”