In the brief history of the Indian Super League, FC Goa have been one of the most consistent sides but when Akshay Tandon took over as President during 2016, his first season with the club was nothing short of dreadful.
The Gaurs had finished rock bottom of the table in the 2016 edition, which proved to be their worst since the inception and under coach Zico’s era. The club was under fire. In a football-crazy state of Goa, it was not acceptable.
But since then, FC Goa have been a force to reckon with in the league – qualifying for the playoffs on all occasions.
They may have not won the ISL title yet but have cemented a reputation for themselves by treating fans in Indian football with a high-risk and an enterprising style of play alongside promoting local players.
That consistency has culminated with a spot in Asia. The Gaurs made history by becoming the first Indian club to secure direct qualification to the group stages of the AFC Champions League earlier this year, under the new criteria.
It has been a rollercoaster journey for Gaurs under the leadership of the 33-year-old who is a graduate from Boston University. Scroll.in spoke to Tandon on his vision for the club, the departure of coach Sergio Lobera, the road ahead for his team and a lot more.
Excerpts from the interview:
What were you looking at establishing since you took over?
Honestly, we were no experts, and had no fixed agenda. For me personally, it all happened a bit last minute as well. It wasn’t something I was intending on doing. But as season three was progressing and I was overseeing the activities of the management, I felt like as an entrepreneur, things could be done differently.
I started my research. I travelled around to a couple of places, read a few books around the world to see how things were done. We started with the basics – focus on the youth, on the locals, stick to one style of play and have a young coach who is hungry to prove himself. So everything we did was a first-principles approach to decision making. We wanted to keep things simple and stick to the processes.
When you have the pressure of performances on the pitch, the pressure of the media, fans it becomes emotionally challenging. And keeping your cool is not easy. It’s about keeping a steady hand and that has really been the only big difference. The three-year cycle that we started has come to an end. We are starting a new cycle now which will have its own set of challenges.
You took over the club at a time when Goan football wasn’t doing well and FC Goa has reignited that lost pride. How important was that?
Indian football is doomed if we don’t do the basics. Technically, we are still a decade and a half behind what is taught from the grassroots level to the first team. So to say that winning trophies is a priority, is kind of missing the point sometimes. There’s no point of us competing only at a domestic level and feeling good about ourselves. So the only way to do it is to do it with local players.
The previous owners did a fantastic job of building FC Goa as a brand and consolidating the Goan fandom around the franchise. We inherited a team that was already filling the stadium. So our job was not to compromise what had already been done. What we will take some credit is for continuing what they started doing.
Season three was so terrible that everyone was thrashing us. We were the butt of jokes for a while. And what I realized quickly that the only thing that’s going to matter is how many goals we scored. Because the more we score goals means that we are a better product on the pitch.
Even we’ve made our fair share of mistakes of in terms of expensive signings. But as we move into this next phase, the focus remains very much on promoting more players from the youth system. That was the whole point of getting involved with FC Goa. To promote Goan players and give back to the Goan community. If it was just about spending money and winning, anyone could do that.
Sergio Lobera’s departure raised many eyebrows during the season raised quite a lot of eyebrows. How tough of a decision was it for you?
Definitely, the hardest decision I’ve had to make. Not only myself but also a couple of others. It was very important to us that we don’t tarnish the legacy that Sergio had built for himself, not only in Goa, but also in Indian football. But at the same time, we knew it was sort of time for us to expedite to our next chapter. Touch wood, things have gone smooth and that didn’t derail us.
It was an extremely difficult period, not only for us but everyone at the club and even the fans. What I’m hearing is a big chance we could be seeing him in another team next season, so looking forward to playing against him.
A lot of the FC Goa developmental team players didn’t receive enough game-time in the first team. Did that aspect have a big role to play in your decision?
I’m not gonna isolate one or two items as a reason of what played into our decision making. I wish these things were as simple as that but for us they’re not. Whether it’s Princeton [Rebello] or Saviour [Gama], or Kingsley [Fernandes] there’s a whole bunch of other boys that are also there.
In our defense, I would say we weren’t yet structured enough to ensure a smooth flow of players from one squad to another as and when difficult matches were reaching either the youth team or the first team. We have learned from that. What we are trying to build now is that we’re gonna have bigger squad for ISL and that means more players be sitting on the bench. So it’s about getting them game time and that remains our priority.
Even despite the success the club has achieved, Lobera’s departure has caused quite a lot of commotion on the outside. How do you react to that?
We very committed to ensuring that FC Goa waves not only the Goan flag but also waves the national flag as wide and as hard as possible. We have spent over 200 crores into this project now. No one feels that pressure more than myself. We have been cognizant of what we have built and what is our responsibility for not just the coming season, but the seasons after that. It’s a very difficult balance between spending and technical achievements. It’s not that we’re afraid of spending but spending in a way that may not be sustainable. We are planning not just for next season but right till the tenth season. We are all in. If kind of money we invest doesn’t signify our interest, I don’t know what would. And we have done it with Goan players and done it the right way.
‘Character’ – one word that you get to hear time and again when you speak to Ivan Gonzalez. And it’s not really surprising why. The Real Madrid Academy graduate has many a time, proven to be a player of great character.
Last season, he was entrusted by Cultural Leonesa to lead their charge for a promotion push. Handed the captain’s armband at the beginning of the season, he quickly set the tone for a season that saw them beat Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey before forcing a draw at the end of regular time against Valencia.
You don’t do that unless you have character in the team and a real belief in the ranks. And a leader like Gonzalez is the key to it all.
“I’m one who likes to lead by example. I like to set the tone,” quips Gonzalez in his first-ever interview with fcgoa.in. “I like to bring energy onto the field. Being the captain, you have to think that you need to do something more than just perform yourself. You have to play in such a way or be assertive enough in other aspects that the whole team plays well.”
In signing for FC Goa, Gonzalez also reunites with a couple of familiar faces. The defender had worked with the new gaffer Juan Ferrando during his time with Cultural Leonesa and played alongside fellow Spaniard Jorge Ortiz.
“I am very excited to play for a club as important as FC Goa,” adds the newest Gaur. “I have spoken with the Coach and he has always been someone who is very firm in his beliefs. He expressed his desire for me to be part of this exciting project in Goa. Having played under him, knowing the style of football and the players getting in, I had no doubts that I wanted in.”
The new season has seen an overhaul in personnel. A new Head Coach is set to be accompanied by new names from both India and abroad. The philosophy, the style and the objectives, though, remain the same.
“I know Goa is the defending League Champions and I will be replacing players who have done really well for the club over the past few seasons. However, personal challenges are very important to me and this is one of them – to keep Goa at the top. That was the aim from the very moment I started talking with the club.
“Knowing that they are the first Indian team to qualify for the group stages of the AFC Champions League is a great responsibility and I love that. It was one of the biggest factors as to why I joined the club. As I said, I love challenges, and this is going to be a good one.”
In 6 years, FC Goa has created a niche for itself in Indian football. The Gaurs have established themselves as the ‘flair team’ in the ISL, thanks to its rambunctious yearning to attack and an insatiable desire to taste the back of the net.
Goa have ended up as the highest scorers in 4 of the 6 seasons in the league whilst recording the highest points on 3 occasions. This has been accompanied by records of being the only team to have recorded 50 wins and 200 goals in this short span.
And Gonzalez, himself, was taken a bit aback.
“I had always wanted to play abroad and when FC Goa came in, I thought it would be a great opportunity for both me and the family to experience something new,” added the 30-year-old.
“I loved the place, and everything I heard about it, but most importantly, it was the style of football they played. I saw several FC Goa matches and frankly, I was surprised. The team plays a very dynamic game with some really talented players. And the mindset is to pass, to build up and always attack.
“This fits in perfectly with my qualities. I am a fast defender, I like to anticipate and steal balls from forwards. I feel comfortable playing the ball from behind. For the FC Goa fans, I would say that you can expect a player who doesn’t shy away from any challenge on the field and brings a lot of energy in each play.
“I hope that soon they will be able to cheer us on as they usually do in the stadium and I am able to meet them in person. For now, I wish all of them great health, I am waiting for the time that they can show me all the love that there is for football in this great state.”