The Spaniard has a combined win percentage of 55.42%, the most by any coach in ISL history.
Former FC Goa and Mumbai City FC head coach Sergio Lobera’s four-year association with Indian football came to an end (at least for the time being) last Friday, when his then-club Mumbai City confirmed his departure. When he left, it had only been a few months since the 44-year-old helped the Islanders to their maiden Indian Super League (ISL) league victory and the title – also resulting in their qualification for the AFC Champions League (ACL) 2022 group stages.
Those were, however, not Lobera’s only achievements on Indian soil. During his previous stint with FC Goa, he played a pivotal role in their Super Cup triumph in 2019. In the same season, he played a significant role also in Goa’s ISL League Winners’ Shield triumph and helped them qualify for ACL 2021.
The Spaniard will now take up a new challenge within City Football Group (CFG) – Mumbai City’s owners – as confirmed by the club and the man himself. Meanwhile, as the world of Indian football is trying to cope with the exit of a true modern-day visionary, Khel Now takes a detailed look at his legacy and what he gave to the sport in the country.
Sergio Lobera: The Beginning
Lobera’s first big break in football coaching came in the year 1997 when he was just 20 years of age. That year, he was appointed as the tactician at La Liga giants FC Barcelona’s youth team. After working with them for nine years, he joined Barcelona’s ‘C’ team as their coach, as they played in the Tercera Division.
Stints at Terrassa, San Roque and Ceuta followed, before he returned to Barcelona to become the assistant to then-manager Tito Vilanova. Later that year, he shifted base to Las Palmas where he became the head coach once again. In 2014, the Spaniard travelled abroad for the first time, joining Moroccan outfit Moghreb Tetouan. After a fairly successful three-year stint with them, he signed with FC Goa, thereby kick-starting his time in Indian football.
His arrival at FC Goa
First things first, the Gaurs have to be given the credit for bringing Sergio Lobera to India. The team from Goa have shown remarkable scouting abilities, be it for players, coaches, technical staff or anybody else for that matter. It is also worth noting that Juan Ferrando, Lobera’s successor as the coach at FC Goa, is also doing equally well at the club if not better – having led them to their first-ever Durand Cup title earlier this year.
Brazilian legend Zico was the head coach at the club before Lobera’s appointment. While he did well in the first two ISL seasons, the 2016 season did not end well for Zico, as FC Goa finished rock-bottom of the then 8-team tournament.
It’s worth remembering that the Gaurs were going through a transitional phase during that time, which included a change of ownership. The new owners, including Club President Akshay Tandon had very little time to put a team together and that played a role in their poor showing in 2016. As a result, the management were determined for such a situation to not happen again, as they started planning well in advance of the 2017-18 campaign.
FC Goa’s process of recruiting Sergio Lobera is a case study in itself. They first decided the style of football that they wanted to play. Soon afterwards, Tandon and Club Director Ravi Puskur travelled to Europe, and studied various European clubs including Benfica, Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona. Based on their findings which included a focus on player development, style of play and more, they shortlisted many coaches, one of who was the Spaniard.
Lobera’s experience of working with Barcelona’s youth teams and a Spanish top flight side in Las Palmas gave him an edge over the others. His stint in Morocco further proved that he had an ability to go beyond his comfort zone and excel again.
Lobera’s work with FC Goa
Goa moved quickly to hire him after a couple of interview rounds, where he impressed the management with his thoughts on grassroots development and more. Another person who played a pivotal role in the process was Derrick Pereira. However, hiring him was only a part of the work done, as the Gaurs also had to sign the right set of players in the upcoming draft. Sujay Sharma, the club’s then Head of Player Recruitment and Analysis and Derrick Pereira played prominent roles there as well.
The duo used all their experience in Indian football to rope in a good set of players including Narayan Das, Pronay Halder, Chinglensana Singh, Brandon Fernandes, Seriton Fernandes, Amey Ranawade and others.
When it came to the foreign signings, Sergio Lobera was responsible for the arrival of Hugo Boumous, Ahmed Jahouh and Mourtada Fall – while the others including Ferran Corominas, Edu Bedia, Bruno Pinheiro and Manuel Lanzarote were scouted by the club. Incidentally, he later took Boumous, Jahouh and Fall with him to Mumbai City, ahead of the 2020-21 season.
Eventually, in the 2017-18 season, the team finished third in the league, before bowing out to eventual champions Chennaiyin FC in the two-legged playoff. Lobera then followed that up with another impressive showing in the 2018-19 campaign, guiding them to the ISL final where they narrowly lost out to Bengaluru FC in extra-time. The same year, FC Goa also won the Super Cup under him, defeating Chennaiyin in the final.
The 2019-20 season saw the Spaniard’s team perform even better, as they finished as table-toppers at the end of the league phase. That, in turn, also earned them a spot in the AFC Champions League 2021 group stages. At the same time, it should be said that Lobera alone was not the reason for the Gaurs’ success. The Spaniard was merely one of the cogs of a well-oiled machine, albeit a very important one.
His overall record of 35 wins, 11 draws and 17 losses in 63 games across three seasons at Goa with a win percentage of 55.55%, placed him as the most successful tactician with a single club in ISL history – before he broke his own record with the Islanders last summer.
Tenure at Mumbai City
After the 44-year-old parted ways with Goa in 2020, City Football Group-owned Mumbai City acquired his services. The tactician then went on to oversee what was the club’s most successful season since inception, winning the league double.
At MCFC, CFG’s global ambitions along with Lobera’s own proven quality made for a powerful combination. He brought in Boumous, Fall, Jahouh, Mandar Rao Dessai and Ranawade from FC Goa, and also played a prominent role in the signings of Hernan Santana and Bartholomew Ogbeche among others. ISL 2020-21 was really a two-horse race between the newly-formed, cash-rich ATK Mohun Bagan and the Islanders – but it was down to Lobera’s tactics that they emerged victorious over the Mariners in both the league and championship phases of the ISL.
The Spaniard led Mumbai City in a total of 23 matches, out of which 13 were wins, six were draws and four defeats. His win percentage of 56.52% is the all-time best by any coach in the league.
He lost his first game in charge of the Islanders, against NorthEast United, but what followed was a series of wins as they propelled their way to the top of the table. Eventually it became ATK Mohun Bagan’s task to try and beat Lobera and co, but they were too hot to handle for the Mariners as well.
What set him apart?
Sergio Lobera was one of the earliest coaches who successfully implemented possession-based football in the Indian game. Doing that, plus getting results on a consistent basis, was unique for the sport in the country.. His preferred 4-2-3-1 system generally allowed his teams to have solid control over the game.
In 83 ISL games, his teams scored 169 goals, while conceding 100. In each of his four seasons, his teams (FC Goa in 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20 and Mumbai City in 2020-21) finished as the highest-scoring sides.
The former Barcelona coach has proved his pedigree many a time, also through the development of many players. The likes of Brandon Fernandes and Mandar Rao Dessai – both of whom are currently with the Indian national team at the SAFF Championship 2021 – partially owe Lobera for their resurgence.
Mandar, in particular, started excelling after he converted him to a left-back from left-winger.
Another key but often under-appreciated contribution of the 44-year-old is how he played a role in the arrival of some top class players to Indian shores. Jahouh, who previously played under him at Moghreb Tetouan, signed for FC Goa and became the best holding midfielder in the country soon afterwards. The same applies for Boumous, who recently became the most expensive overseas signing in Indian football after ATKMB shelled out ₹14.5 crore to acquire his services.
In summary, Sergio Lobera belongs to the crème de la crème of Indian Super League coaches. As he departs for a fresh challenge, we can be thankful that Indian football is at a better place, compared to what it was when he first arrived here.