I would like to congratulate FC Goa for their great overall performance in the 2021 AFC Champions League and by doing so, they made Indian football proud!
An expanded 2021 AFC Champions League from 32 to 40 teams resulted in India getting finally a fixed group stage slot and no longer a first round playoff spot, which denied many Indian clubs the chance to reach the group stage against stronger and better opposition.
And I do remember when the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced that India would get a fixed slot in the AFC Champions League, I like most Indian football fans was happy with the move.
Then FC Goa in the 2019/20 Indian Super League won the ISL League Shield and by doing so ensured that they would be the first Indian football club to play in the AFC Champions League group stage. But over the last summer, FC Goa not only lost their head coach Sergio Lobera, which was during the latter stages of the ISL-6 and then numerous of their players joined Lobera at Mumbai City FC while further players also left the club, meaning that a near complete rebuild needed to happen.
A young 39 year old Juan Ferrando was appointed as the new head coach with a new set of foreigners and Indian talent coming to the club with the Gaurs deciding to go into the season with only six foreigners in defenders Ivan Gonzalez (Spain) and James Donachie (Australia), midfielders Edu Bedia (Spain), Alberto Noguera (Spain), and Jorge Ortiz (Spain) besides striker Igor Angulo (Spain) instead of the allowed seven.
ISL-7 was a mixed season for the Gaurs which ended in the playoff semifinals with a penalty shootout loss to eventual champions Mumbai City FC but Juan Ferrando was able to settle his squad by making some adjustments in the squad over the winter transfer window.
But before the AFC Champions League, FC Goa’s head coach had to take the tough call on which two players to omit from his six ISL foreigners roaster. In the end Alberto Noguera and Igor Angulo were omitted keeping in mind that Ivan Gonzalez and James Donachie were needed in defence with Edu Bedia being a key player as the teams captain and Jorge Ortiz being a player able to play across multiple positions.
The draw for the 2021 AFC Champions League put FC Goa in Group E alongside last season finalists Persepolis FC from Iran besides West Asian sides Al Rayyan SC from Qatar and Al Wahda FC of the United Arab Emirates. That meant from the start that FC Goa were the underdogs in the group, so finishing last; getting a draw, here or there; scoring a goal or two; would have been something realistic to achieve.
But Juan Ferrando and his men from the start said that they wanted to get the best possible results over the two weeks. A big advantage was that the Group E matches were to be played at home in Goa. And FC Goa started off with a historic goalless draw against Al Rayyan SC followed by another goalless encounter against Al Wahda. Then came the encounters against Persepolis FC and Edu Bedia would score the first-ever Indian goal in a 1-2 loss.
In the second encounter against the Iranians, FC Goa made wholesale changes to give rest to their key players besides having some injury concerns. It resulted in a 0-4 loss.
FC Goa then went ahead through an early Jorge Ortiz goal against Al Rayyan SC to suffer a late equaliser and lose the chance to score a first-ever win.
Ahead of the final game, FC Goa’s foreign contingent and head coach Juan Ferrando left the country due to the exploding COVID-19 case load in India, so an all Indian eleven went into the game under assistant coach Clifford Miranda against Al Wahda FC to put up a great fight to only lose 0-2.
In the end, FC Goa finished a credible third with three draws and three losses ahead of Qatari side Al Rayyan SC, who are coached by 1998 FIFA World Cup winning French captain Laurent Blanc.
FC Goa not only did themselves and their fans proud, but the whole of Indian football then as mentioned earlier, there were questions and fears that they could get trashed each and every game in this tough group. These questions were amplified by India’s heavy 0-6 loss to the United Arab Emirates in a friendly in March. But FC Goa proved that they were a worthy representative for Indian football at the continental stage.
Next year Mumbai City FC will have to prove their worth at the Asian level with FC Goa setting a healthy bar.
FC Goa results in the AFC Champions League – Group E:
14-Apr-2021: FC Goa 0-0 Al Rayyan SC, QATAR
17-Apr-2021: FC Goa 0-0 Al Wahda FC, UAE
20-Apr-2021: FC Goa 1-2 Persepolis FC, IRAN
23-Apr-2021: FC Goa 0-4 Persepolis FC, IRAN
26-Apr-2021: FC Goa 1-1 Al Rayyan SC, QATAR
29-Apr-2021: FC Goa 0-2 Al Wahda FC, UAE