City Football Group has big plans for Mumbai, but first Lobera just wants to enjoy trophy no. 1

Updated on Mar 16, 2021 09:07 AM IST
Twice he repeated the sentence on being asked about the road ahead for his team. Rather than glance at the future, the Spaniard wanted to savour the present.
Sergio Lobera head coach of Mumbai City FC.(ANI/ISL)
Sergio Lobera head coach of Mumbai City FC.(ANI/ISL)
ByRutvick Mehta

It’s almost as if Sergio Lobera wishes to pause. “Lend me some time to enjoy this moment,” the Mumbai City head coach said with a smile on Monday, two days after leading the club to their maiden Indian Super League (ISL) title. Twice he repeated the sentence on being asked about the road ahead for his team. Rather than glance at the future, the Spaniard wanted to savour the present.

An ISL trophy on his CV has been a long time coming for Lobera. The former Barcelona youth coach has been one of the most successful managers in the Indian league; according to Transfermarkt, which tracks football analytics globally, Lobera has accumulated 145 points in 79 matches across two clubs, the highest points per match (1.84) of all coaches in the ISL with a minimum of 25 matches.

Yet before this season he was without silverware in the league. His three-year stint with FC Goa saw him take the team to the semi-finals in the first season in 2017-18 and the final in the following one. Last year, the one-step-higher trend was going strong as Goa finished the league standings at the top. However, Lobera was sacked before that, leaving some unfinished business for the Spanish coach.

That business met its end with a new club under a new management in a new season, although ironically at the same venue in which Lobera had scripted many chapters of his success story on Indian soil.

“It’s special for me to win the trophy and the Shield in Goa,” Lobera said in a media interaction on Monday. “I lifted the Shield in a stadium (GMC Stadium, Bambolim) we were training in the last three years, and I lifted the trophy in a stadium (Fatorda Stadium) we were playing in the last three years. Working in Goa for the last three years to winning the trophy now with Mumbai City, it has been very special for me. Our dream finally came true in this amazing season. If someone before the start of the season told me about the possibility of writing history, maybe this is the best possible history.”

Lobera managed to re-write Mumbai City’s history books in his first season at the helm, and now boasts of an ISL title, an ISL Shield as well as the Super Cup title (with FC Goa in 2019). But more than bagging both trophies on offer this season, the 44-year-old particularly relished overcoming the odds and evolving as a coach while working with the City Football Group (CFG), which added Mumbai City to its large global football presence of 10 clubs in late 2019.

Being in dialogue with CFG’s team of experts “every day”, Lobera ensured Mumbai bossed a large part of the season while recruiting 17 new players and imbibing a new style of play despite a short pre-season. The team had a 12-game unbeaten streak, ended joint table-toppers and beat the second-best team this season, ATK Mohun Bagan, in all of their three meetings, including the final.

“The last four years in India I have achieved a lot of things. But this season was important for me, not just winning the trophy but enjoying the journey and working with people with a big knowledge about football. In this group you can grow a lot as a coach,” Lobera said.

In the season of quarantines and bio-bubbles, Lobera had to deal with two of his key personnel going home, isolating again for 14 days after returning and getting back to the job; when defender Mandar Rao Dessai lost his father and goalkeeping coach Juan Maria Cruz lost his mother. “Finally when you achieve this, your thoughts are with these people on how they suffered a lot. When you celebrate yesterday (Sunday) with the entire team, and see the trophy and the Shield with us, this picture will always remain in my head. It’s impossible to forget this,” Lobera said.

Even as Lobera freezes that image in his mind, CFG has already begun preparing for the next set of objectives. Next year’s AFC Champions League, for which Mumbai City have qualified by topping the league this season, poses a stiffer challenge. And just like it did this season, CFG will look to extend its resources to Mumbai City, like tapping on the experience of one of its clubs that has been on the bigger Asian stage—Japan’s Yokohama F Marinos. “The challenges of AFC Champions League will be different to the ISL, given the level of teams representing the Asian region,” CFG’s India CEO Damian Willoughby said on Monday. “There may be an advantage for us as we have teams already in the AFC environment. So, I think we have a good handle on the leagues, the competition, the quality across the different Asian markets. That probably gives us some additional support and help.”

Willoughby stressed upon building a “robust football pyramid” that enables the club to identify, develop and nurture talented young Indian players. And also treating this season’s success as a starting block. “We’ll look to compete to try and retain the trophies, which is more difficult because you have a target on your back. We've already been thinking of planning and laying down strategic plans for the upcoming seasons, not just ISL-8 but beyond,” Willoughby said.

For Lobera, though, those plans can wait for a bit. “As a coach, now is my moment to enjoy this achievement," he said.

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