Juan Ferrando finding his smile in Goa

Juan Ferrando finding his smile in Goa

What Ferrando has done in his first season in India is impressive

Juan Ferrando. Credit: Getty images

FC Goa toiled hard against Al-Rayyan's relentless pressure. The Qatari club was pressing their Indian opponents hard as they raced against the clock to avoid a humiliating defeat. After all, the Indian club should have been the whipping boys of the group, competing at a level far above their station.

As the momentum forced Edu Bedia close to his centre backs and as Goa was forced back into their own final third, Glan Martins arrived in support. Swifty, the team was out of trouble.

On the touchline, Juan Ferrando kept chewing his nails.

"It was perfect, my team needs to have three passing options when in trouble. I really liked it," he admits later.

If he felt happy, there was little trace of it on his face. Just days ago one of the club's higher ups had told him that perhaps he needs to smile more, to convey to his players that he was pleased. 

"I'm very serious about my job. Maybe it’s important to smile, so that they understand. These things are important because in the end, the team is like a family. The emotions are what connects the team.

"Out of the pitch I smile, I make jokes. On the pitch, I'm (moves his hands across his face to a stoic expression) serious. Because you are thinking about what can happen in the next five, 10 or 20 minutes," he says.

It's a trait he picked up from Marcelo Bielsa, the Leeds United coach, widely lauded as one of the great minds in world football.

"Bielsa takes lots of notes (during the game)," Ferrando says, showing writing motions with his hands.

"It's impossible to read really," he smiles. "But he is studying, looking forward, this can happen in five minutes or that five minutes later."

Ferrando doesn't take notes, but the influence is easy enough to see. 

"Lot of (it is) mechanical decisions. Bielsa knows football is a show, players are actors. It's important to put on a show."  

Over the season, FC Goa have put on a show - entertaining and crowd pleasing - culminating in the Champions League. At a level that was a first for an Indian club, Goa finished third in Group E with three points from six games. But the victory is that over the course of the campaign, it was tough not to feel that perhaps Goa deserved more. At the start, draws against Al-Rayyan and Al Wahda felt big. In the second meeting against the former, the draw felt like a defeat. 

But it's a process. They will learn from this. Just like from their Indian Super League campaign where they went toe-to-toe with an expensively put together Mumbai City FC for 210 minutes over two semifinal legs before losing on penalties. 

What Ferrando has done in his first season in India is impressive. He inherited a team that lost their all-time top scorer and a defensive stalwart. Three foreigners and their captain left for Mumbai.

But the club had a clear vision on how to stay competitive and attractive, while not breaking the bank like Mumbai or ATK Mohun Bagan.

"We knew what football we wanted to play. (We wanted) someone who can bring in a similar style plus tighten defensively," said Ravi Puskur, FC Goa’s Director of football. "We wanted someone with a predisposition for playing young players, particularly in a year where we wanted to push youngsters and see if they can go to the next level."

So the search started when it became clear that the association between the club and then manager Sergio Lobera, now with Mumbai, was coming to its end. Ferrando's resume came across Goa's top brass in February of last year. 

A coach since his teen years, Ferrando's education on the game is impressive. His time in Malaga CF as a youth team coach coincided with the team making a quarterfinal run in the Champions League. A staggering achievement. 

"The secret was ambition," he says. 

He has worked under Gus Poyet in Brighton & Hove Albion FC, where he saw in close quarters what fighting spirit and strong mentality can do for a club. There was also time with Bielsa and with Arsene Wenger, both among the pantheon of football greats.

Once he took over as the head coach role, he led Moldovan side Sheriff Tiraspol to the Moldovan Super Cup and to the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round for the first time in their history. While Dinamo Zagreb put paid to their group stage dreams, he led them to the Europa League Group Stage for just the second time in the club's history. 

After a few struggles, he took over then Greek third Division side Volos FC, who he guided to back-to-back promotions and into the first Division.

But then disaster struck. His career was on a high when an aggressive and stubborn bacterial infection in his eyes took it all away. One day Ferrando woke up unable to see, his world thrown into darkness. A complicated surgery and three months of rehab later, he regained his vision. By that time he had left Volos, was unable to take over his next club because his rehabilitation went long and the potential suitors were hesitant. 

This was when Goa came along. There was trepidation about his situation, Ferrando had yet to return to football after his ordeal. The club was given assurances but what sealed the deal was Ferrando's insistence of being more involved with the reserve team. It was music to Goa's ears. 

While it was not possible easily due to the pandemic, they did manage to make Sanson Pereira, Princeton Rebello, Saviour Gama, Makan Chothe and Devendra Murgaokar among others household names. A far cry from the years before when Goa lost out on two of their best prospects in Liston Colaco and Mohammad Yasir who moved away to get game time and are now internationals.

It's easy to see why Ferrando is so trusting of the youngsters. He put together a profile which is an amalgamation of his influences. His education in football has seen to that. The belief in team above all else and playing with freedom. Words like mentality, ambition, routine are a constant in his lexicon. They call Wenger the professor. Ferrando is a teacher. 

Prior to coming to India, the 40-year-old read up about Goa and the country. The history, culture, everyday life of people.

“Football is one language. In Israel, Japan or India. One ball, tactics and enjoy the game. But football has to connect with the people. (For that) you need to change with the culture. Only then is your job complete inside the dressing room," he says. 

Like with his quip about the smile, Ferrando also had to understand his players. Bielsa, he says, explained football through examples from life. He too had to find a way.

"When I came to Goa, it was necessary to change. In Europe, you come to training, do some exercise, watch the video and then go for training. Here it is necessary to put the video, explain why it is important to do the drill. It's not a problem, I had to adjust so that the players understand and learn to read the game. It's also why we are able to change players and put in youngsters without losing tactical discipline because they understand (what we are trying to do). Romario is in the team and then we put Chothe or Redeem (Tlang), it's not a problem in terms of the plan. Of course, Redeem has more dribbling and Romario fights for the second balls better (traits change). More or less everyone is at the same level in the team. Coach is like a teacher here. Elsewhere it is not so." 

The Spaniard also takes it personally, taking every mistake and bad decisions on the field as a personal affront to his coaching ability. 

His team plays with confidence and taking risks, but always according to the plan. It's always the team above the individual too. Even when Goa lost midfielder general Lenny Rodrigues halfway through the season to Bagan or goalkeeper Mohammad Nawaz made it clear that his future was elsewhere, nothing changed. In came Glan Martins, Amarjit Singh and Dheeraj Singh to prop up the spine. 

They were outstanding too, even in the Champions League. where Goa played football as opposed to route one - see ball, kick ball away, defend for 90 minutes - approach. They could have been forgiven had they tried that, but then, that wouldn't be a Ferrando team.

"Everyone thought Goa would lose 4-0, 5-0 in Asia. But if everyone works as a team, you have a chance. If there is a good plan, we can try," he says.

"In Asia, the challenge was to be focused for 90 minutes. In ISL, sometimes the players are not ready after a throw in, or freekick or water break because the intensity is slower. In Asia, one detail and if you are not ready to do your job, it's an opportunity for the opponent," he says. 

Now, with the season behind it's been a successful one for the Gaurs, even without any silverware to show for. The focus is on next season. 

"Whether you are in Greece and getting promoted or in Moldova trying to get into the group stage, the thought is always to improve. We need to improve a lot. I don't think this is the maximum level, we can get better. The club is at 14 percent (of its potential)," says Ferrando.

"Bagan and Mumbai are on another level. But Goa is the best for me. Good players, good team, people who work in the club and the best supporters. It's a dream to win the league. This is my obsession," he says.

In a career that he feared lost after the eye infection, this is his second wind. FC Goa was at the right place at the right time for him. 

He's found his smile again.

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