How Sergio Lobera's loyalty to style of football has transformed Odisha into ISL title challengers

Lobera is clear about his philosophy: "It’s important when supporters go to the stadium and enjoy the game. Enjoy the 90 minutes and not just the end of the game." Shibu Preman / Focus Sports /ISL

Odisha FC, led by coach Sergio Lobera, are knee-deep in the ISL title race this season. With 32 points in 16 matches, they are in first place at the time of publishing, and face a big test on Thursday, with playoff-chasing East Bengal coming to town. They'd played those same opponents exactly a month back at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar, in fact, but under very different circumstances. That had been the 2024 Super Cup final, a match that produced goals, extra time, and plenty of drama with East Bengal winning their first trophy in 12 years. Even in defeat, though, Odisha exemplified Lobera's footballing philosophy.

The winner that day, by Cleiton Silva, had come from a mistake by Narender Gehlot as he played out from the back. At that stage of the match -- 111 minutes on the clock -- the mistake could've been avoided with the goalkeeper going direct, but for Sergio Lobera, that would have been the antithesis of everything he believed in. Of course, the mistake could've been prevented but Lobera has absolutely no problem with the way the play panned out. In fact, he's proud his players stuck to his style even though it resulted in a goal.

"I believe in this kind of football. We need to be loyal to our playing style. And I think our players enjoy playing in this style of football. I think this is the way to achieve success, this is the way to win trophies," Lobera told ESPN a few days back in Bhubaneswar.

"We reached the [Super Cup] final after winning against FC Goa and Mumbai City. One mistake is possible, but I tell my players to continue playing this way. Because this is the only way to improve. If you're scared of mistakes and thinking about the future actions during the game, you're very far from achieving something important for the team," he said.

That clarity in thinking and his positive approach to football is not new. His ways have a proven track record in this country with clubs like FC Goa and Mumbai City FC where he won the trophies, and also helped in the overall development of Indian footballers. And now Odisha are title contenders.

"I told them that I'm proud. It's a crazy calendar for us, playing three competitions, playing three games in seven days. What the players are doing is amazing. Losing the game with 10 players on the pitch and then we make a comeback to force the match into extra-time. The players are doing amazing work. We reached a final, we are alive in the AFC Cup, and we are doing very well in the ISL," Lobera said about his interaction with the players after the tough loss in the final.

Winning trophies has always been the priority for Lobera, but he also cares how they win them. He believes in playing attractive football, he wants to make they supporters happy when they watch his teams. The philosophy is so ingrained in him that he takes it as his personal obligation to the game itself.

"...because we need to take care of football. I think every year, we are losing people who like football. I am not speaking about India but around the world. People are not enjoying watching the games. People enjoy it when their team wins three points or a trophy. It's important when supporters go to the stadium and enjoy the game. Enjoy the 90 minutes and not just the end of the game," he said.

"Working with Barcelona was my first experience as a professional, my education in football comes from there. I believe in this kind of football because it's possible to win and also enjoy. When I came to India and made the decision, maybe people thought 'it's crazy, it's impossible to win playing like this'. In India, we won trophies. This is my way of football; the supporters need to enjoy. I also think that as a coach you need to transmit what you believe to the players," he added.

At last year's Super Cup final, Odisha won their first trophy since their formation when they beat Bengaluru FC. This year's plan was to go up a notch and seriously compete for the League Shield and the ISL title. Who better than Lobera, who won the ISL shield titles with Goa and Mumbai (and an ISL cup with the latter), to take up the mantle.

"I love the big challenges. And I knew coming to Odisha and win the trophies was a big challenge. I know it is always special to winning trophies for a club who has never won them before. I won the first trophies for FC Goa and Mumbai City. With Odisha, I thought it is possible to achieve something important," Lobera said.

The Super Cup final didn't go their way, but the club is certainly going in the right direction. However, things could still go wrong as they enter a defining period in their season. With six league matches to go, Odisha cannot afford to lose form now. Beating East Bengal on Thursday would be high on the agenda especially after what happened last month; and then there is the two-legged semifinal against the Central Coast Mariners in the AFC Cup (March 7 and 14), followed by the big league match against their title rivals Mumbai on April 8.

"We are not feeling the pressure, we are enjoying it a lot," he said. "We are privileged people, if you take a look around the world, the pressure is another size. It's a very difficult situation with the pandemic and the wars. We are playing football; we are doing our hobby as a job."

"I know we are in a very good position to achieve something special, but this is the challenge, we are excited. We are putting the focus in the present, not in the future."