Last season, FC Goa's last league stage game in the Indian Super League (ISL) saw them rock up at Jamshedpur knowing that a win would guarantee them a first place finish, and with it become the first Indian side to qualify for the group stages of the AFC Champions League proper
And they went full FC Goa on Jamshedpur.
Hugo Boumous and Ferran Corominas combined for the latter to score the first. Boumous added a second. He combined with Ahmed Jahouh to release Jackichand Singh for a third. He then passed it around with Edu Bedia and Carlos Pena before teeing up Mourtada Fall for an emphatic fourth. Boumous himself then ended it all with a flourish, a sublime finish after a quick Mandar Rao Dessai throw.
5-0. A proper Goa scoreline.
That it came just two games after the sacking of former coach Sergio Lobera, the man who defined to the ISL what this Goa team was all about (goals, fun, more goals), was a statement. They didn't need the man. They were set. This was a team where everyone pulled together.
Then the drain started.
Of the players mentioned above, those integral to the team's style, their performances, their results, only one remains this season. Edu Bedia.
Boumous, Jahouh, Fall, and Dessai followed their old manager, Lobera, to form a super-team at City Football Group-funded Mumbai City FC. Coro, that record ISL scorer extraordinaire, wasn't retained. Neither was Pena, so crucial to the team's defensive organisation. The core of a team that Goa had spent three years building... gone.
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A less prepared team would have been wiped out. But Goa aren't that. Director of Football, Ravi Puskur, knew it was going to be hard the moment the decision to sack Lobera was taken. "It was not a decision we wanted to take, but the relationship between the coach and the club was wearing down steadily, through the season. Long-term, we felt it was the best option for us."
He was prepared for the drain, too. "We knew [some players would move] because of loyalty to the previous coach, so it wasn't a surprise. We also felt like our squad was ageing a little bit, the average age of our foreigners was in the late 30s, so we wanted to freshen it up a little."
But they did try to retain one person - the man who steamrolled the league on the way to 11 goals and 10 assists (at a goal contribution every 56 minutes!), Hugo Boumous. "We tried to retain Boumous, but he had a release clause built into his contract. It was a high clause, but the financial might of City...," he laughs.
And so, the moment the season ended he got to work. The first task was appointing a coach. After thorough vetting, they settled on Juan Ferrando, a young Spanish coach who was coming off guiding unfancied Greek side Volos to two consecutive promotions. This was a man, according to Puskur, "on an upward curve", and had the "hunger, desire and motivation" to match the club's.
"Some things [about Ferrando] really struck us. One, his active interest in wanting to participate and work with the youth. Two, his style of management, style of play. Three, the tactical advancements he said he would be able to bring to the team - he had studied our games and pointed out specific instances and approaches that could be taken to address those". Puskur and the Goa management were impressed. He had "taken a small budget club, two divisions up, on a restrictive salary." So they were confident that he could find what they wanted -- a "competitive balance between winning and developing players at the same time."
Then Puskur and Ferrando went about building a team.
They got in Igor Angulo, top scorer in the Polish division the season before last, and scorer of over 160 goals at clubs in Spain, Cyprus, Greece, and Poland. They scoured the Spanish lower divisions for the right players, and so came in Jorge Ortiz and Alberto Noguera - creative midfielders with an eye for goal and a strong desire to explore leagues outside their native Spain. Joining them was defender Ivan Gonzalez, graduate of the Real Madrid academy, and a veteran of 12 years in the lower reaches of his nation's leagues. They even went to Spain and signed an Indian - Ishan Pandita, wined and dined by Ferrando, convinced by Puskur, a tantalising talent. They jumped in on the A-League talent hunt too, signing James Donachie on loan from the Newcastle Jets.
As Puskur says, all this was a deliberate strategy. Noguera and Oritz to replace Boumous and Jahouh. Angulo for Coro. Gonzalez for Pena, and Donachie for Fall. For the most part, the replacements are younger. "All the foreigners, except Angulo, are 30 and below. We have freshened up our squad, and that will help us build for the next 3-4 years. They can offer experience, while at the same time provide consistent quality," says Puskur.
And Puskur wasn't kidding about emphasis on development. They have, and this is quite amazing, 14 Goans in the squad. That's almost half the squad (which is 30). The most thrilling prospect of them all? Princeton Rebello. Watch out for him.
Clifford Miranda, the interim coach after Lobera's departure, was retained as Ferrando's assistant, and has spent all of off-season coordinating with the local talents. Their preseason started long before Ferrando was allowed to fly in (after the central government lifted travel restrictions), with Miranda relaying feedback to Ferrando and the two working out, in detail, just what to do on a daily basis.
Whatever they do, though, Puskur says they will continue to play the FC Goa way.
"We have a specific style of football that we want our team to play in. It's why we hired Sergio [Lobera]. At that point, it was about establishing it. Now Juan [Ferrando]'s responsibility is to consolidate it. Tighten the screws up a little bit, organize a bit more defensively without compromising on attack. We have clarity that when FC Goa are going out to play, we are going out to dominate. That's what we do, that's what we want to do."
Over the summer Puskur and Ferrando have built a brand new team, a team of "28-30 moving pieces which have to move into one ideal puzzle that will define success," a team they are confident will be capable of defending their league shield.
By necessity and by design, FC Goa are in the middle of a revolution, and by all indications, it's going to be a fun ride.