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Josep Gombau, the Catalan coach behind Odisha's renaissance

Odisha FC coach Josep Gombau is an affable man. In the heat of battle, he remains calm on the touchline, encouraging his players, sharing a smile with the fourth official as well as the opposition players who might wind up close to him when fetching a stray ball.

At the end of his team's 3-0 defeat away to ISL champions Bengaluru FC, Gombau, a former Barcelona youth coach, got his team together after they acknowledged the away fans. Odisha dominated the opening 20 minutes, despite taking the field without two of their key Indian midfielders in Vinit Rai and Nandha Kumar. A couple of lapses in marking led to two goals inside three minutes, but Gombau would tell his young team that while the score might read 3-0, he saw the match as a gain.

As he walked to the team bus, the Bengaluru fans cheered and clapped for him, and then started an ironical chant for a pro wrestler he resembles. Gombau just smiled.

This balanced conduct, and his reputation for moulding young players well, makes Gombau one of the standout coaches over the last two ISL seasons. And Odisha, a team that went by the name of Delhi Dynamos until last season, have become one of the dark horses of the league -- the Bengaluru defeat snapped a four-match winning streak.

Gombau barely got enough time to settle into the Delhi job when he took it up in August 2018. With many Indian players part of the Under-23 team that was busy playing the SAFF Championship in Dhaka, he got only a fortnight with the entire Delhi Dynamos team, before being pushed into a schedule that saw them play their first six matches inside three weeks. However, the upturn in form after the international break for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup was evident -- they beat Kerala, Bengaluru and Pune, and held Goa and NorthEast United. Gombau knew he had something to work with.

Later that summer, as uncertainty loomed over the future venue of the club that has since been re-christened Odisha, Gombau took goalkeeper Ankit Bhuyan, defenders Shubham Sarangi, Sajid Dhot, Gaurav Bora, and midfielders Nandha and Jerry Mahwmingthanga to his village of Amposta in Spain to train alongside Southampton's Oriol Romeu, who played under Gombau as a Barcelona youth player.

"We tend to have a long off-season in India, and to be able to improve on your technical ability during that time was quite beneficial," says 19-year-old right-back Sarangi, who has been one of the best players for Gombau this season.

"We play with [a minimum of] five Under-23 Indian players in our lineup, and when people say, 'Wow, Shubham is doing well, or Jerry is so good,' I feel proud," Gombau said. 

He also explained the training process he put his players under while in Amposta. 

"While the other players and coaches were on holiday, we were in my village, [waking up at] 7:30 in the morning, training them in skills to try and narrow this big gap that they have. They are growing now."

Gombau was 16, in one of his first seasons as goalkeeper at Clube Futbol de Amposta, when the chairman walked into the change room one day and told the team that one of the coaches who looked at the Under-10s and Under-12s had quit.

"Guys, you need to take the team. The first training is tomorrow," Gombau remembers his chairman saying, and that responsibility fell to him, despite being the youngest in the squad.

An immediate interest in coaching fetched him a UEFA A license by the time he was 19. Having travelled around Spain and other parts of Europe to observed various coaches in action, Gombau spent six seasons working with youth teams in Barcelona -- that's where Romeu and others like Wolverhampton's Adama Traore, Hector Bellerin of Arsenal and Monaco's Keita Balde trained under him -- before coming to Kitchee in Hong Kong in 2009.

The club captain, a Hong Kong international, went up to the management and complained about being treated like kids and how Gombau wasn't doing anything to improve them tactically. Gombau defended his position with the chairman, saying, "The football that I want to play, if they don't have the skills, they cannot play it. Maybe we won't be that good this year, but the day they have the skills, we will be the best team in Hong Kong."

Kitchee won the league the following two seasons, and in 2011-12 they did the domestic treble of the league, the FA Cup and the League Cup.

"When you come to countries where football is not the main sport, and where football wasn't developed when the professionals today were kids, then you need to go two or three steps behind and show them a few basics," Gombau says about his philosophy of working first with youth at Barcelona and then professionals in India.

Like anybody with a strong Barcelona influence, Gombau wants to entertain people with his brand of football. In ideological terms, he likens Goa coach Sergio Lobera's philosophy to be the closest to his.

"If I tell a young player not to take risks and just play long balls, this is the easier option for him," he says. "You need to measure how you send a message to a young player. You can say, 'Under pressure, if you need to kick one or two balls [long], do it.'

"I want them to take responsibility, and sometimes we concede goals because we take a risk. But maybe this will bring you a knowledge that you won't make a mistake in the next 10 games."

For a coach who has worked with youth for most of his career, the domestic football structure in India puzzles him. Where they ought to be putting in about three times their current quota of 18 league games a year, a squad as inexperienced as his is likely to develop at a slower rate than he would like.

"These kids -- Shubham, Jerry, Bora, Daniel [striker Daniel Lalhlimpuia] -- kids their age in Europe would play a league of 38 games, and then different tournaments. We are missing at least 40 games each year," he says.

"That's 40 games of experience, of knowledge, of mistakes and growth. If Indian football has to grow, players have to be active for 10 months, with four sessions a week, and a game. If the top pros are playing 18 games over six months, I don't want to imagine what happens with the kids. Maybe six games...which is nothing."

The emphasis on taking up responsibility and learning from mistakes is evident in how Odisha approached the Bengaluru game. They went two goals down, and lost two important foreign players, forcing Gombau to throw in 19-year-old striker Seiminmang Manchong. Manchong, Daniel and Jerry showed they were not afraid of reputations as they kept taking on the opposition defenders. Gombau's encouragement for the younger players, regardless of their mistakes, is constant.

Odisha now face their toughest part of the road to an unlikely playoffs spot -- matches against Goa and ATK to kick off their final four. Gombau reckons 28 or 29 points could be enough for a team to finish fourth after the league stages. That would mean nicking at least a point from the two big clubs, and doing that without Aridane -- who has since been replaced by former BFC striker Manuel Onwu -- will be Gombau's sternest challenge yet.

Gombau's post-match speech with the team is only about encouragement, though.

"He told us that our style is to keep the ball and to play with it," says Sarangi. "As a team, we need to do better. We need to go game-by-game, and we should take something positive from this season. We shouldn't feel like we have given it everything and still got left behind."

Gombau knows the enormity of the task on hand, but faces it with a smile. The Bengaluru fans know this is a team that doesn't take too many backward steps. As they cheer for him on the way to the bus, there's a chant from the fans.

"Brock Lesnar! Brock Lesnar! Brock Lesnar!"

Even amid that noise, there's genuine appreciation for the man who had led Delhi to a 3-2 win at Kanteerava a year ago.

Gombau looked at the fans and raised his thumb in appreciation, before disappearing into the team bus. There is more work to be done, and more edges to be smoothened.

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