Risk everything: FC Goa, Sergio Lobera and the joy of 'playing' football
In the end, the score read FC Goa 5-1 NorthEast United FC, but it could have been anything, really.
It could have been a badminton score if Goa had taken most of their chances.
Five minutes before Ferran Corominas opened the scoring for Goa with an brilliant finish, defender Carlos Pena won a foul for a push in his own box. Had the ref not seen it as a push, the Spaniard would have been penalised for a ludicrously silly handball. NorthEast would have won a penalty, and the hosts might never have recovered.
Going into the Christmas break, Goa - the most watchable, madcap, exciting team in the league - are third in the Indian Super League (ISL) table. They could very well have been outside the playoff places if the ref had given a penalty.
This is just how Goa are.
Even when the final score is 5-1, the 90 minutes are all chaos, entertainment, silliness, and pure fun. Anyone can score at any given point of time. Although the Goans almost always outscore their opponents. (matches that feature them average four goals a game, 2.5 for and 1.5 against)
Their coach Sergio Lobera would have it no other way.
If ever a press conference helped a football manager own his philosophy, it was this one. On the eve of their match in early November, Kerala Blasters' assistant coach Thangboi Singto said that while Goa were brilliant moving forward (they had scored 18 goals in 6 matches by then), they were also susceptible defensively.
Lobera's response was gold: "Let's see who scores more goals tomorrow."
Goa did concede a goal.
They also scored three.
Sergio Lobera has the quiet conviction of a man who knows he's doing the right thing. When he talks about why he plays the way he does, he touches upon a point he believes to be larger than himself, or any individual.
"I think football... we have to take care of it. Apart from the fans enjoying the victory, they have to enjoy the way you do it, too"
In this almost quixotic quest, he's willing to risk losing defensive stability and ditch pragmatism. "Let me give you an example," he says. "You are on a sofa, you are cold, but your blanket can cover either your upper body or your feet. If you cover one part, the other remains cold. That's football, for me. The most important thing, at the end, is the goal difference... you score more, you win."
He believes that in order to succeed with this philosophy, the most important thing is to convince the players on that idea.
He asks them to pass the ball, to trust themselves and play out of trouble rather than taking the low-risk, low-reward route of hoofing it clear. His team averages 507 passes a match, no other ISL side has more than 450.
Talking about it is easy; executing it day-in and day-out takes something special. "To develop this kind of football, apart from players who are good tactically and technically, you need a lot of personality."
His Goa squad has oodles of it.
Ahmed Jahouh didn't play in the demolition of NorthEast (due to suspension), but the Moroccan is the heartbeat of the Goan midfield alongside the underrated Lenny Rodrigues. No one in the league averages higher than his 73 passes a game. Few have his passing range; fewer still are allowed to explore it.
Having played under Lobera previously at Moghreb Tétouan in his homeland, Jahouh is fully convinced with the Spaniard's methods. "I like Lobera's style, because he likes to play football. With another coach, maybe for me football is a job, but with Lobera it's a pleasure, I enjoy it," he says with a wide grin.
"Maybe I make a mistake one day -- but [Lobera] knows I'll give three good balls and we'll score three goals because of that. Mistakes happen in football, but Lobera gives us the freedom to make them."
It's not just Lobera the coach that's made him a believer, though. It's also Lobera the person. "In Morocco, even after I'd changed teams, he'd call me frequently enquiring about me," he says.
Before moving to India, he spoke with his parents and despite the distance and the cultural differences that lay in wait, they said, "With this coach, its ok."
"He is not only my coach, but my big brother."
Like Jahouh, Mourtada Fall spent time under Lobera at Tétouan and has been in constant touch with him since. What the Senegalese says about why he came to India indicates what the coach means by 'personality'. "I needed a new challenge. If you come outside, to a new place, people don't know you and you have to prove yourself. This keeps you always [on your toes]."
At 6'5" and proportionately broad, Fall's not always asked to 'play' out of the back, but he enjoys it and seems to take pride in it.
"This is football. No mistake, no football. I think the way Goa plays, it's a little bit difficult. We can concede any moment because we take a lot of risk to play well. But if you don't take risks, if you are afraid to make mistakes, you never do anything. You play like any other team - long-ball, second-ball," he says.
"[Lobera] encourages you to take risks, and if you make a mistake he tells you 'again' [take the risk], and that gives you so much confidence."
Lobera credits his eight years at Barcelona for his ability to spot the right kind of player for his system. "When you work that long for Barca, you are brought up in that way, in that philosophy." Working as a scout for Barcelona's youth teams taught him how to "recognise -- apart from the skill and tactical attributes of a player that anyone can see -- that personality."
Getting players to join is one thing, improving the ones on board is quite another. Lobera believes the latter to be of paramount importance. "I think, instead of criticising Indian footballers, we, the coaches, have to start to put more effort in teaching them. I think the Indian footballer is talented, professional, and has a very good attitude. For me as a coach, I really love working with players of this profile."
The Spaniard might as well have been describing Mohammad Nawaz. The 18-year-old Manipuri goalkeeper has already gone through several ups and downs in his career, yet remains remarkably levelheaded.
Nawaz was part of the Indian junior set-up since March 2013 (as part of the team being groomed for the U17 World Cup), but was kicked off the team when Nicolai Adam was sacked and Luis de Matos was appointed coach. He had been a regular under Adam. Matos, though, suddenly deemed he was not tall enough. "When they announced that I wasn't in the team, the whole squad got together and gifted me a jersey with the message 'you deserved it, Nawaz'. I felt very emotional at the time, but life is like that, so I kept going, I kept working hard."
He excelled for the Goa dev team, and his work and attitude caught Lobera's eye. When asked if he was ready, he responded - "Of course, I am ready, if I get the chance to play, I'll play."
The young man has made quite a few mistakes -- catching a ball outside the box after he thought the whistle had gone (it hadn't, and the opposition scored from the resulting free kick), allowing shots to creep in at the near post, spilling saves into the six-yard box -- but Lobera's never once employed the 'hair-dryer', nor has he dropped him.
"[Lobera] just tells me 'you've just started playing, so even though you made a mistake, just keep it simple, learn from it, and keep playing'."
It's working. He's pulled of some stunning reflex saves, is one of only two keepers to have saved a penalty this season and has a passing accuracy of 81.5%. Only Delhi's Francisco Dorronsoro has a higher percentage (84.37%).
Three other players from the dev team - Liston Colaco, Saviour Gama, and Princeton Rebello - are in the senior squad. A couple of others are frequently called up to train with the senior team.
Chinglensana Singh, or Sana, 22, is one of the most promising young defenders in the country. He also acknowledges Lobera's impact. "In the first training, last season, in pre-season - we didn't know his ideas so it was a bit difficult." But Sana and the others stuck to their task. "Now all our defenders can keep the ball, play it out from the back," he says.
Sana averages 49 passes a game with 90% accuracy, better than any centre-back in the league. "Lobera believes in the players, he encourages us and motivates us to be better," he says.
For Lobera, this is non-negotiable. "I believe as a coach when you ask the players to take risks, in the case of a mistake, they have to feel the coach is behind them," he says. "I think it's important to trust your players, because it's from that trust you build their abilities and their skills."
They only casually mention it when we talk, but it's instructive that Jahouh, Fall, Sana, and Nawaz refer to Lobera's style as "playing football".
Not "passing", not "possession- based", no technical terms. Simply "playing".
Even when they were going through a barren spell a few days back -- losing two, drawing one, and scoring just one goal - Goa never wavered from their philosophy. In the 0-0 draw against ATK that sandwiched losses to Bengaluru and Pune, they out-passed their opponents 629-209, and out-shot them 17-12.
Lobera and Goa kept at it because they believed in themselves, and had the strength of character not to allow the negativity of poor results to affect them. They were sure victory was around the corner, and against NorthEast, it all clicked back into high gear.
Confidence. Personality. Fun. Winning: It's no accident.
As observers, we often forget how much footballers love having the ball at their feet, and how easily that can transmit across to us as entertainment. Goa seem to enjoy their football, they come out to 'play' and to "take care of the game". Win or lose, they set out to entertain. Come what may, they seem to say, you will go to bed with a smile on your face after watching us.
That is what this Goa team, and Sergio Lobera, will be remembered, and celebrated, for... for showing India the simple joy of "playing" football.