In the dying minutes of FC Goa’s Indian Super League (ISL) season opener against Chennaiyin FC on November 19, 2017, optimism was in short supply at the away dugout. In fairness, optimism wasn’t really expected from them at that moment. The entire team bore a new look. Standing on the touchline was a young Sergio Lobera, taking charge of his first competitive match in India.
He, like thousands of Goa fans sitting at home, watched on as the referee blew the whistle, seconds past the fifth minute of injury time, allowing the away team to run away with three points and a bout of confidence. The rest, as they say, is history.
Within the next three seasons, Lobera had become a popular figure in Goa. While his sacking came as quite a bit of a surprise and caused an unprecedented ruckus, the Spaniard’s work with the team can never be questioned — FC Goa won the Indian Super Cup, their first title, made it to the final of the ISL, and then, were perched on top of the league table, running as hot favourites to qualify for the AFC Champions League (ACL), under Lobera.
His remarkable success and the beautiful attacking brand of football Goa played under him meant that everyone associated with the club knew that, one day, he would depart, that there would have to be a last dance. All good things come to an end, or so they say.
But it wasn’t meant to end the way it did.
Exorcising Lobera’s ghost, Ferrando the man to do the job
Sergio Lobera created a legacy at FC Goa (Source: ISL)
Whoever succeeded Lobera would have known that a long shadow has been cast, thriving under it will be no mean feat. The need to find a replacement, added with the situation of players departing, deepened the club’s predicament.
Anyhow, cut to October 2020, Goa have appointed a new manager, boast a new look team (having lost most of their stars to Lobera’s new team, Mumbai City FC) and made a lot of promises.
Numerous candidates (or their representatives, so to speak), from Dunga to Guus Hiddink, contacted FC Goa to register their interest in the role. The club, after a series of interviews, decided to go with an lesser known profile in Juan Ferrando.
“He showed the willingness to embrace the ecosystem that we have built here at FC Goa. The youth, foundation, first team, he wants to be part of the whole process, rather than just come here for the results. Yes, the lure of Champions League football makes it easy for any coach to say yes, but Juan wanted to look further forward... He clearly wants to make an impact here,” Goa’s director of football Ravi Puskur had later explained the decision in an interview with Times of India.
Now, Ferrando, challenged with the task of his life, has to transform the ISL club in a way nobody can imagine. The 39-year-old Spaniard is young and eager, perhaps a little more than one would expect because of the way he had to leave his previous club Volos. When a bacterial infection saw him temporarily lose vision in his eyes, Ferrando had to step away from football. Despite being named the best coach of the 2019 in Greece, he stayed away for one whole season.
But Ferrando will know as much as he has to prove himself after the sabbatical, he has to emulate Lobera, with a considerably weakened squad he is expected to play the same fearless brand of football.
Bear in mind, the main stars of FC Goa’s team, from Golden Ball winner Hugo Boumous to the league’s all-time top scorer Ferran Corominas, have departed. What hurts more is the fact that Boumous, Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh and Mandar Rao Desai all left to reunite with Lobera in Mumbai.
Igor Angulo (Source: FC Goa media)
But the management believes that, like with Ferrando, they have got suitable replacements for each departing player. Spanish forward Igor Angulo, a record goalscorer in Poland, replaces Coro. “We will not miss him (Corominas),” the 36-year-old had stated with authority in a recent virtual press conference. “Corominas was a good part of Goa but now we have to look at the future as he’s not going to be with us.”
Age has been put forward a concern in regards with Angulo but then again, it’s just a number, Coro had also come in at 35-36. And if Angulo’s words are anything to go by, he is a mentality monster, hungry for success. In the final third, there will be a huge reliance on the efficient brilliance of Angulo.
The other new recruitments, Jorge Ortiz Mendoza, Alberto Noguera, Ivan Gonzalez, James Donachie, Makan Winkle Chote, Redeem Tlang, Ishan Pandita, etc., all strengthen the squad in a definitive way.
Ferrando's Best XI at FC Goa
While we have talked enough about the first challenge which is emulating Lobera, Ferrando’s immediate next headache will be how to set up his team, or which five foreigners to select.
Looking at the defence, it is most likely that he will start with both his foreign centre backs, Donachie, who stands at a towering 1.93m, and Gonzalez, who has publicly taken up the challenge of being among the top foreign recruits this season. Seriton Fernandes is expected to keep his place at right back while the young Saviour Gama should finally get his chance at left back. In between the sticks, you have another youngster, Mohammad Nawaz.
As we move up the pitch, Edu Bedia, the only foreigner retained from last season, will keep his place in defensive midfield and accompanying him should be local boy Lenny Rodrigues. Jorge Ortiz and Redeem Tlang should man either wing. Angulo, of course, should be an automatic choice and one of the first names on the team sheet with Brandon Fernandes playing behind him.
Ortiz is a versatile attacker who can play anywhere in the frontline, can surprise with his pace and is unpredictable. The club believes that he can be the second goal getter for the team behind Angulo in the ISL, if he gets going. Noguera, a central midfielder, isn’t a like-for-like replacement for Boumous contrary to popular belief. However, he is someone who can get goals, one who likes to make late runs into the box, which makes him a great attacking threat as well.
This is what FC Goa’s strongest line-up looks like: (4-2-3-1) Nawaz; Seriton, Donachie, Gonzalez, Gama; Bedia, Lenny; Redeem, Brandon, Ortiz; Angulo
Here, Ferrando has options in the form of Noguera in place of Ortiz, then, Len Doungel, Makan Winkle and Phrangki Buam are there to offer something extra off the bench. One more player to watch out for will be Princeton Rebello and we might actually see more of him. Club insiders fear that if the youngster doesn’t get enough opportunities, he will be tempted to leave. After all, he is of that quality who can easily walk into playing XIs of several ISL clubs.
FC Goa's Best XI (Source: BuildLineup)
One combination that could also be tried out sometime during the season is Princeton and Lenny starting at defensive midfield with Edu pushing up to play as a No. 10 like he did in 2018-19. If things go well, this could be Princeton's year to shine as he has been earmarked to do for a long, long time.
Another interesting acquisition was that of Ishan Pandita, who had been plying his trade in the Spanish lower divisions. As per reports, the signing was only made after making requisite enquiries about the young Indian’s performances in Spain and the club management believes that he will add an extra dimension to their attack. It will be interesting to see how coach Ferrando uses Pandita, if at all.
One more big worry for the newly-appointed head coach would be assembling the whole squad as soon as possible for pre-season. Most of the players have not played competitive football in months. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that international travel is difficult, club managements have to go through a detailed process to get their foreign members into the country. Thankfully, Goa’s Indian players started training on Tuesday in Goa after observing the mandatory quarantine period.
While he waits to board the flight to India, Ferrando has been constantly in touch with the members of the squad from Spain. Instructions have been laid out for the players and the domestic ones are said to be following routines set by the head coach himself.
Throughout lockdown, Ferrando has viewed the time he has been able to spend getting to know his players better, both as performers and as human beings. Football’s closure has been an opportunity, in a sense. It could not have been the easiest — any coach or footballer would prefer to have that close physical contact. But the virtual coaching and the video meetings have gone hand-in-hand as a means to try to pull everyone along with him and his ideas.
The foreigners are expected to arrive in India and join with the squad soon and so is Ferrando. The faster they can assemble, the more time the players will get to acclimate, the better it will be for the team because then, they will be actually able to put everything into action.
“Win, win, and then, win, win, win and then, win,” Ferrando had said with heartwarming laughter when asked about what a successful season would look like for him. “It’s important to play good football, to win but if I ask you which was the best team at the Russia World Cup? You will pick France. Why? Because they won the Cup. You don’t say, ‘I remember Brazil playing well in this match’,” he had further explained.
Indeed, there is still a long way to go before that goal is achieved. FC Goa appear more resilient and balanced this season but there has been a trade-off. Ferrando has a psychological adversary, there will be inevitably more circumspection.
Yet the new coach has to bring with him a gust of optimism, he has to resonate and relate to the club. Only then, there will also be a conviction in Ferrando that inspires belief, just like Lobera did.