FC Goa are the champions of India. Well, not of the ISL yet -- because we still have to go through the theatre of the playoffs -- but as winners of the league stage of the newly-anointed first division of Indian football, that is what they are. Champions.
Their win over Jamshedpur FC on Wednesday night means they end the ISL's 18-game regular season with 39 points, an unassailable tally that comes with it a shiny new shield, and most importantly, a spot in the group stages of the AFC Asian Champions League. They will represent the nation on the continent's grandest stage. Champions.
Goa had come into their last game of the season in peak 'FC Goa' form, their last four scores reading -- 5-2. 4-1. 4-2. 3-2. Four games, 16 goals scored, 7 conceded. Scoring, conceding, entertaining, this merry caravan of organised chaos and relentless energy had rolled into town needing just a draw to seal the league. But as Hugo Boumous dropped a shoulder to drive past a hapless Jamshedpur defence and score a stunning goal to make it 5-0, nobody was surprised.
The stakes may have called for pragmatic game management -- taking-the-ball-to-the-corner, playing-keep-ball-in-your-own-half -- but that is not how Goa do things. They have scored 46 goals this season, a stunning average of two and a half goals per game. No one in the short history of this league has ever scored more. The next closest this season are ATK. And they have just 31. It's ridiculous.
This Goa team, though, have been ridiculous for quite a bit now. Over three years, Sergio Lobera helped shaped Goa into the physical manifestation of what he once told ESPN his footballing philosophy was - "The most important thing, at the end, is the goal difference... you score more, you win."
They had faltered at key moments in the past two seasons, but this time around, Goa kept scoring more.
Even without Lobera. Sacked with just three games to go, and with his team at the top of the table, Lobera had left the club just before the vision he had put into place found tangible success. That Goa navigated the remaining games -- tricky fixtures that had 'choke' written all over them -- with the minimum of fuss is a testament to a the excellence of Lobera's coaching, the strength of character within the squad, and the quality of the two Goans who took over Lobera's job -- youth team coach Clifford Miranda and technical director Derrick Pereira. Noises coming from the club at the time seemed to indicate that the senior management had a season-long tiff with Lobera and that a number of reasons, footballing and financial, long-term and short-term, had contributed to the sacking. The fact that they have gone on to claim top spot bears out the club's decision, but could you imagine the fall-out if they had not? On field or off it, Goa don't ever seem to do half measures.
Back on the field, though, this is still a Lobera team. Whenever Mohammad Nawaz makes one of his stunning quick-reflex saves, or Mourtada Fall decides to attempt a Cruyff Turn in his own six-yard box, or Ahmed Jahouh goes on a meandering stroll through the middle of the pitch, or Boumous dances through a defence at full tilt, you can see the Lobera stamp. The trust in youth, the encouragement of risk-taking, the insistence on being true to oneself, the emphasis on entertainment.
The past three games have been an extension of what preceded it all season long -- Fall and Carlos Pena directing play out of the back, Jahouh and Brandon Fernandes controlling everything at their leisurely pace, Jackichand Singh adding end product to that relentless running, and up top, Ferran Corominas doing Ferran Corominas things. Through the season, Goa have played football their way, and it has been brilliant, nonsensical-at-times fun. They overcame a slow, error-strewn, tantrum-filled start to hit a level of performance that has rarely dipped since.
Boumous, a man whose innate marriage of drama, inconsistency and ability to produce jaw-dropping moments of quality speak to the soul of his football club, has been, arguably, their best player. While Coro's 14 goals top the club's, and league's, charts as always, playing behind him in that fluid no.10 role, Boumous has 11. And 10 assists. He has mirrored Goa's step up in consistency over the past season. Yes, they slipped up against their two main contenders - ATK and Bengaluru, both away - but those two haven't really been able to find the requisite ruthlessness against the lesser teams, and that is where Goa have excelled.
That ruthlessness, that consistency, has helped them top the table in the first season where the league stage actually matters. For playing in the Champions League is a first, giant, step in levelling up Indian football. It is a big deal, and it will be tough. There are challenges that the current domestic scenario does not offer, whether it be in terms of foreign player restrictions or sheer quality of competition, and how the club handles it will define who they are. It can be a bit, well, scary.
What they are entering now is uncharted territory. Indian clubs have played in the previous iteration of the Champions League, the Asian Club Championship, but none have qualified to the tournament since the 2012 revamp. There is no great pedigree to lean upon, or live up to. It is a clean slate.
Come next season, FC Goa will have the chance to etch their name in the annals of Indian football history. For now, though, they will be doing what they do best. Party.