Indian Super League table-toppers FC Goa surprised even their most ardent supporters about a week ago when they announced the abrupt departure of their coach Sergio Lobera.
The official announcement came on February 1 but the news about his imminent sacking had started doing the rounds the evening before and the delay in the announcement was perhaps down to the two sides finalising the terms of separation.
There is nothing new or surprising about football clubs sacking their coaches in the middle of the season. But it is very rare for any club to sack a manager who has been consistently producing results, to go with attractive performances.
Lobera took over the reins at the club after the end of Brazilian legend Zico’s tenure, which had seen the team finish last in the eight-team league. He led them to the third place in his first season and then won them their first title at the Super Cup a year later. He also took the team to the ISL final.
The team had continued the good work under the Spaniard this year and were leading the league standings when the club decided to terminate Lobera’s contract.
While the club statement gave little away in terms of the reasons behind the dismissal of the coach, a report in The Times of India hinted at players unrest and also mentioned that the tension had apparently been simmering for quite some time.
But after FC Goa’s first match since the sacking, captain Mandar Rao Dessai came out in the support of the coach by saying it was not the right time to replace him and dedicated the 4-1 result on the night to the Spaniard.
Some of the players even paid tribute to the coach after the match with special gestures.
The incidents following the first match since Lobera’s departure were a clear indication that the Spaniard had clearly not lost the dressing room and even if a couple of players had a problem with his management style, they were in minority.
A report on Goal.com suggested that a few issues arose during negotiations over Lobero’s new contract while some reports have suggested that the club management and the coach had differences over the former’s failure to strengthen the squad in the transfer window.
However, none of this can really explain why the club management gave the marching orders in the middle of the season. Even Bengaluru FC had a difference of opinion with Ashley Westwood over the salary the Englishman was asking for and the contract extension talks hit a roadblock during his third season in charge. But they did not replace him in the middle of the season as winning the league was more important.
FC Goa sources had told The Times of India that this was the best period to take the decision as the team was playing the next two games at home and things would settle down by the time they head out for their final away game.
As things stand now, the Gaurs are just three points ahead of ATK but have played one game more than their Kolkata rivals. This simply means that FC Goa are still not assured of an AFC Champions League berth which will be given to the league topper, irrespective of who wins the title at the end of the season.
More importantly, the brand of football Lobera got the team to play had earned the club ardent fans. The Spaniard had even been giving more opportunities to local players to excel and that was evident in his overall team selection.
In the first two seasons, Lobera’s teams were guilty of conceding a lot of goals in their bid to play attractive football. But this season, they had managed to stem that rot to some extent though they were guilty of allowing their opponents to stage a fightback in the last two matches.
Both Odisha FC and Kerala Blasters had managed to score two goals each against the Gaurs but the leaky defence in those games could hardly have been the trigger to sack the manager. With the business end of the tournament just around the corner, this move has the potential to derail the team’s campaign.
Indian football clubs, and especially in the ISL, are still trying to build a legacy. Good results, the style of play and most importantly, titles go in a long way in helping build a loyal fanbase.
By sacking the coach who was helping them build that legacy in the middle of an ongoing season, the message that the club management has sent the players and the fans is that they don’t really care about the long-term picture.
There could well be very valid reasons for the club management to take such a drastic step. But then they needed to be more transparent about them. And if they don’t and the team fails to secure the top spot and an AFC Champions League berth, then the club would be the one to face the wrath of its supporters and pay a heavy price for this decision.