From good to best via better – Acknowledging Sergio Lobera’s impact on Indian football
The truth is Sergio Lobera walked into the FC Goa dressing room, inherited a good side, got them playing better football, made them (arguably) the best team in the country and improved Indian football in the process. That much will always remain a part of his legacy.
If you are familiar with Christian mythology you have probably heard of Moses. The adopted prince who freed the Israeli tribes from the control of Pharaohs in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea and led their journey to the Promised Land. There is a part that a lot of people don’t know though. Moses died just before his people reached Mount Nebo – the border of the Promised Land.
In some ways, you get a similar feeling with Sergio Lobera’s sacking. The hero who could not see it through. A case of so near yet so far. The tactician from the North Eastern town of Zaragoza in Spain didn’t have to free his players from their masters like Moses. Or open up the seas to help his people cross continents.
But in some sense (considering he wasn't a Demi God), Lobera's first task wasn't any less difficult -- to exorcise the ghosts from the calamitous 2015 ISL final (which they lost in tragic circumstances) that were clouding the dressing room. The same ghosts whose weight had seen the Gaurs finish bottom of the table in the season that followed the final and made Zico leave the country.
All the Goans could have hoped for was an improvement that season but the Spaniard taught them to dream again. In his first year, with the help of Ferran Corominas and Mauel Lanzarote, Lobera orchestrated his team’s journey to the semi-finals, playing free-flowing football in the profess. In the season that followed, he took the Gaurs even closer to the Promised Land, reaching the finals and winning the Super Cup. With a healthy two-point lead at the top of the table – the league winners get the AFC slot – and the team scoring goals for merry, you would have thought that 2020 would mark the perfect culmination to the seeds sowed by the Spaniard in 2017.
In all likeliness, that might still happen. But Lobera won’t be at the helm. As the world found out on Friday night, football can be a cruel game.
What went wrong?
While the fans hushed in bewilderment the football fraternity sighed with a sense of inevitability. They had all heard stories that all was not well in the Goan camp despite the Lobera-esque football on the pitch. The coach’s methods were allegedly starting to bother the players. There were rumours that withing the camp there was a feeling that the coach had his favourites and was not ready to select his team on merit. As Times of India reported on Tuesday, Lobera had had the axe hanging over his head for almost a month.
The timing of the decision can be questioned. Not many clubs across the world would sack a coach who revolutionized their football while being on top of the points table. The fact that FC Goa risked the repercussions and still pulled the plug on the relationship should throw more light on how stale it had become. The equivalent of cutting your leg off. The overall feeling is Goa had to do it now to prevent further damage.
Elevating the gaming
"Memories are wonderful thing if you don’t have to deal with the past" says Celine (played by Julie Delpy) to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in "Before Sunset". She was talking about their mutual memory from their short-lived meeting nine years ago that had changed their lives back then. The 24 hours they had spent together would have been beautiful if they could it see in isolation and somehow forget all the sadness that followed the separation.
When the dust settles and the blame games are over, it is important we look at the legacy Lobera leaves behind in Goa in isolation. Derrick Pereira is a top quality coach so the Gaurs are temporarily in safe hands as they fish for the successor but what has made Derrick’s job easy is a crop of Indian players who flourished under Lobera. Seriton Fernandes, Mandar Rao Desai, Brandon Fernandes, Lenny Rodrigues, Jackichand Singh, Manvir Singh have all improved tremendously under the Spaniard’s stewardship.
What will always stand out when one looks back at Lobera's time in Goa will be the way he wanted football to be played. Concede three but score four was his mantra. He wanted his footballers to be express themselves on the pitch and that has played a large role in unleashing the potentials in the likes of Brandon and Seriton. In some sense, the match against Chennaiyin at the Fatorda Stadium in October 2019 was peak Lobera. He started with just three foreigners in his XI – Coro, Carlos Pena and Mourtada Fall – and won the encounter comfortably 3-0.
We will never know what transpired in Goa. The team will blame the coach and the Spaniard will say his team didn’t back him. Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘hairdryer treatment’ didn’t cost him the team, did it? In fact it made his Red Devils want to fight harder on the pitch. Maybe it is a generational thing? In 2020 should the approach have been different, a tad kinder perhaps? Were the stories about his anger even true?
A purist of the sport
The truth is Sergio Lobera walked into the FC Goa dressing room, inherited a good side, got them playing better football, made them (arguably) the best team in the country and improved Indian football in the process. That much will always remain a part of his legacy. Football in the Indian Super Legue will now be divided as pre and post Lobera era. In that way, sticking with the Christian mythology, he was Jesus Christ.
Top football coaches can always be broadly divided into two categories. There are some like Jose Mourinho or Louis van Gaal whose primary objective will always be to win. They will amass a lot of trophies in their lifetimes. Then there are the students of the game. The true lovers of the beautiful game whose core objective will be to elevate the quality of football. Success, according to them, will never be a quantifiable entity. It will remain qualitative. And that actual act of winning trophies will always be secondary. Johan Cryuff, Tele Santana, Marcelo Bielsa… the list is endless in football. The register will only get bigger in time. And in that list, tucked neatly in a corner, will be this former FC Goa manager, whose contributions to Indian football will linger long after he flies off the Goan coasts. A sweet aftertaste from the best football Indian Super League has seen since its inception.