ISL 2022-23: From mid-table mayhem to continental contenders - Odisha FC’s Lobera-led revolution

The Juggernauts, once languishing in mediocrity, are now genuine contenders, not just in India but on the continental stage too, having secured a historic inter-zonal playoff semifinal qualification in the AFC Cup.

Published : Dec 23, 2023 16:03 IST , CHENNAI - 5 MINS READ

Sergio Lobera has transformed Odisha FC.
Sergio Lobera has transformed Odisha FC. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Sergio Lobera has transformed Odisha FC. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Once a familiar face in the ISL’s chaotic mid-table, Odisha FC has undergone a stunning metamorphosis under the guidance of Spanish tactician Sergio Lobera.

The Juggernauts, once languishing in mediocrity and not-so-great results, are now genuine contenders, not just in India but on the continental stage too, having secured a historic inter-zonal playoff semifinal qualification in the AFC Cup. 

When Lobera arrived in Bhubaneswar, he was met with a mixture of fanfare and scepticism. While his pedigree as a proven coach was celebrated, doubts swirled around the age of his foreign recruits; however, the likes of Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh, and Roy Krishna quickly silenced the doubters with their influential roles in the side’s success and progress.

The AFC Cup campaign was a testament to the team’s resilience as it made remarkable comebacks against Mohun Bagan and Basundhara Kings. It was grit and determination that sealed Odisha’s place in the next phase, etching its name in the club’s record books.

Unique Football Philosophy

But Lobera’s impact transcends mere results. He has instilled a unique footballing philosophy at Odisha FC, one that champions ball possession and attacking flair. “We are an aggressive team, I love attacking football. My education comes from football club Barcelona. I worked for eight years there and also worked with City Football Group for a long period. I believe in this style of football,” Lobera tells  Sportstar.   

Piling up 17 goals in just six AFC Cup group stage matches, Odisha turned heads with its go-for-it approach. But for its La Masia-forged coach, the true measure of success lies not in scorelines, but in smiles.

 “I’d take a 5-4 thriller over a dull 1-0 any day,” he declares, echoing the Barca philosophy of entertaining football. “Football is for the fans, for the supporters. They need to enjoy watching our games.”

However, Lobera is ot one to blindly chase goals. “I want to score more goals than the opponent, this is my target, but we also need to find the balance,” he acknowledges, underlining the importance of defensive stability too.

Sergio Lebera during training.
Sergio Lebera during training. | Photo Credit: Instagram / sergiolobera1

Sergio Lebera during training. | Photo Credit: Instagram / sergiolobera1

There are multiple challenges Lobera faces: adapting to the ISL and AFC Cup in strategy and tactics, handling the expectations of a passionate fanbase, and integrating young Indian players into the squad. But he approaches them with the wisdom of a seasoned and experienced campaigner, having tasted success in Spain, Morocco, and Thailand apart from winning almost every trophy in India.

“Odisha is a big challenge, the profile of the club is different,” he admits, “but I am excited to achieve something important here.” And achieve he has. From extracting more from accomplished veterans like Jahouh to unlocking the potential of youngsters like Jerry Mawihmingthanga, Lobera has breathed life into the Odisha FC ecosystem.

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The detractors may point to Odisha’s reliance on a few key players, but Lobera remains unfazed. “You can win games with 11 players, but you cannot win trophies without a good squad,” he says. He is building a strong vessel, one that will be capable of weathering the storms of suspensions and injuries and remain afloat during a gruelling campaign.

Nurturing Young Talent

With the AIFF and FIFA’s new academy taking root in the State, Lobera sees immense potential in nurturing young Indian talent. “The future is this,” he says with conviction.

“I came here to improve the level of Indian players and it’s very helpful to have very good foreign players because the coach and the foreign players can join hands to help the Indian players enhance their level. And show everyone they are ready to play in the biggest competition,” says Lobera, his eyes gleaming with the ambition of improving the young turks at Odisha. 

As the January transfer window approaches, the former Las Palmas coach remains tight-lipped about his targets. Though content with his current squad, he acknowledges, “If an opportunity to upgrade arises, we’ll seize it.”

Nurturing more youngsters being the agenda, the 46-year-old admits that the club is monitoring talent in the ISL and I-League, aiming to rope them in. “It’s our job to know the market. There are very good players playing in the ISL and I-league, and we need to give them the opportunity to play, to play with us,” he adds. 

Support of Odisha FC Faithful

For Lobera, the key lies in living in the present, savouring the journey rather than dwelling on past glory. “There are no memories in football, it is about the present and I am very excited to achieve something important here because it’s a big challenge. I knew this before I came here and we are ready for the challenge,” he emphasises. 

He recognises the unwavering support of the Odisha FC faithful and firmly believes that it is the collective spirit that fuels and propels the team forward. “It is the key because we are working for them. The aim of our job is to make our people happy,” he adds. 

Nine months into his Odisha odyssey, Lobera remains as excited and focused as his first day in office. “I came here to try to help, to grow the club. It’s a big challenge, but I am very happy about where we are,” he says.

As the drums beat and the chants reverberate at the Kalinga Stadium, one thing is clear: Lobera has not only rekindled the flame of hope in Bhubaneswar, he has also set the stage for a new era for Odisha FC in particular and Indian football in general. The Juggernauts, once mere dreamers, are now doers as they venture to conquer the continent. With Lobera, the fearless charioteer at the helm, a fascinating journey awaits.

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