FC Goa played out 0-0 draws in each of their opening 2021 AFC Champions League matches against Al-Rayyan and Al-Wahada, having earned two points so far. While the odds are heavily stacked against them to progress to the next round, their spirited display has taken everyone by surprise.
Two years of effort, financial pinch, scouting tailor-made players to fill in the gaps – all gone in one go, it was dire straits for the FC Goa management that had recently qualified for the AFC Champions League, a feat achieved by none of its fellow clubs. Normally, when the pack falls apart, it takes some time to soak in the situation, yet, the ISL side were brave enough to get over it and move on. Since the inception of all the problems started with the sacking of the head coach, on bitter terms with the club – the saga took an embarrassing shape, with the secrets still confined to the dressing rooms.
The mass evacuation from Goa to India’s most glamorous city, about 600kms north along the coastline was backed by financial investments from the CFG (City Football Group). While Mumbai City FC bolstered their squad with minimal exertion in their think-tank, the ‘Gaurs’ were left with a whole lot of brain-storming sessions to get the machine working once again. What worked in their favour was that they already had a strong scouting system in place, which was put to work with immediate effect.
It was not a daring move to appoint Juan Ferrando as the head coach, with him possessing almost 10 years of experience, having led Greek side Volos to a title-winning season a year ago. Giving him a free hand was the wisest decision possible and FC Goa knew what had to be done. Keeping the past aside, the management recruited Igor Angulo, Jorge Ortiz, Ivan Gonzelez, Alberto Noguera, and James Donachie as the five foreign signings along with their only existing member from their core group – Edu Bedia to complete the quota.
Working with a new unit is tricky, because it might take a few games to try out new combinations and zero in on the perfect one. Juan Ferrando stumbled onto it in the beginning, but had the anchor within his control; he took time to sculpt the ultimate product from the dough. In the meantime, the Spaniard nurtured the local talents with care, moulding them into durable materials that could serve the purpose in the future. Slowly, their lacklustre performances turned into wins as the season progressed, with the team growing in stature and oozing out confidence. Their peak couldn’t have been better.
By the end of the season, FC Goa was a well-organised team that played eye-soothing football with passes aplenty, maintaining the tradition of the club's philosophy. Even though they were eliminated by the best team in the league – Mumbai City FC, they did not go down without a fight with them taking the second-leg of the semi-finals into a tie-breaker.
Serriton Fernandes, Saviour Gama, Glan Martins, Ishan Pandita – all grew as footballers during the league but were dejected to have missed out on the final and a continental berth. But, they had more peaks to conquer – the 2021 AFC Champions League was knocking at the door and it was un-invaded Indian territory, where the ‘Gaurs’ had the responsibility to establish a foothold for the future years.
Maybe due to the fact that the team was hungry for more, maybe because the ISL and the group stages of the top-tier tournament would be played at the same venue, FC Goa had a head start, even if it was negligible. Juan Ferrando was too intelligent not to make the most out of the situation. Looking at the quality of opponents, the Spanish manager was evident that they require solid back four to combat the offensive waves.
The club did not hesitate to leave out Igor Angulo, the golden boot winner in the 2020-21 ISL and Alberto Noguera, the player with the most assists in the same while short-listing a four-man foreign contingent for the continental event, with the onus more on defenders. Evidently, Ivan Gonzalez and James Donachie were included in the squad and even though the decision might look objectionable, it would shocking show positive effects just two weeks later.
Little expectations accompanied FC Goa when they took the field against Al-Rayyan in the opening fixture of their Group E tie. The Qatari side were confident, but the task to get the ball past the goalkeeper into the net looked tougher than expected, with both teams playing out a 0-0 draw. While it was a point won for FC Goa, it was a couple lost for the hosts - it was a historic night for the club and Indian football. Few would have put their bet on the Goa-based side to produce a similar result, 48 hours later against Al-Wahada (UAE), with them now in the second place on the points table with two points from as many matches.
Indian football clubs have a lesson to learn from the way FC Goa went about their business, a model which can be followed for years to come. It doesn’t matter whether the Gaurs manage to add just one more point to their tally going forward, it has already been a successful campaign for them and one that would be talked about for a long time. Praise from other teams in the group, and from German side RB Leipzig, just magnifies the contribution of FC Goa’s towards the growth of the game in the current scenario.
As we speak, Juan Ferrando’s men have lost 1-2 to Iranian side Persepolis FC, the runners-up of the previous edition. Irrespective of the result, they've shown immense character against a far better side. For now, the ISL side can take a bow for showing how to sustain itself when the odds are stacked against them, they have survived the troubled times and now it is time to boss around.