Rohan Sharma lauds Odia pride and Odisha’s sports culture

Odisha FC president Mr Rohan Sharma hailed ‘Odia pride’, insisting that it was a part of the state’s culture and believes that it is the perfect place for promoting sport. The Bhubaneswar-based club made their Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) bow last season and the club’s president lauded the ‘forward-thinking’ approach of the state, while also thanking its chief minister Naveen Patnaik for his willingness to help with infrastructure and the development of football.

“When we had a meeting with the Chief Minister, they talked about a lot of things on football. They explained it very, very simply and broadly what they want to do with sports in Odisha. Frankly, that was very appealing to us because Odisha is such a forward-thinking state on how they want to promote sports, how they want to grow the state... Different states have a footballing culture. Odisha has that Odia pride,” Mr Sharma told host Anant Tyagi in the latest episode of Let’s Football Live.

“I love the fact that they were willing to help us out with infrastructure... It just made sense that working with a government that wants to work with sports, wants to grow football and develop kids follows our ideologies. It made sense. It's a perfect marriage in that way,” he added.

Mr Sharma also credited Odisha’s passionate fans for playing their part for the club last season. “It's really because of juggernauts (Odisha’s fans) that I got back into the sport in India and off the field Odisha was a great success for me this year. We sold so many tickets, we had so much fan engagement. I know people now in the fan club. To me, that's why you enjoy football, because of the community aspect. When fans are making posts of Shubham Sarangi or Martin and they come in after the game by the buses and they sign and take selfies. I think that's so crazy and that made me good,” he stated.

Entering Indian football

Mr Sharma went on to reveal how he entered Indian football. “It's a bit of a wild story. I more or less got into football because of the US national team and I was on ESPN when I saw the Hero ISL in India. I was like, ‘oh, okay, I didn't know this existed.’ Actually I wanted to go into MLS, being an American, but my father was like, ‘since you know we are Indian and we should always give back to the country and do something in India because they need more and there's more areas of growth, we should go involving India’. At first, we went to buy a team in Ahmedabad but that did not work out and then a couple months later, we found out that Delhi is for sale, so we bought it,” he explained.

Looking ahead at the landscape of football in the country, Mr Sharma believes India is ‘on the right track’. “The average Indian football fan is very passionate about the future of Indian Football. I'm hoping people stay patient because I do think we're going to get to the point where we're going to play in the AFC Championship more consistently… I think Martin Bain (CEO of FSDL) coming into the league is a big thing. He's doing a really good job trying to compartmentalize things, trying to make this a more professional league and I do think in 10 years everyone will be very happy and everything will relax. I think we're on the right track and we'll get there,” he shared.

Stuart Baxter oozes charisma

After finishing sixth in the standings last campaign, Mr Sharma appointed Stuart Baxter as their new head coach for the seventh Hero ISL season and is happy to have the Englishman at the helm for Odisha. “I can't say enough good things about coach Baxter. I interviewed close to 27-28 people to find the right guy because I wanted someone with the same mentality as coach (Josep) Gombau. I wanted someone who could improve the things we lacked last year on the pitch… coach Baxter just had his thing together and he oozes charisma. He came off the AFCON, where he took on Mohamed Salah and Egypt, and beat him 1-0 in his own backyard, which I think is outstanding.” Mr Sharma said.

He continued, “His experience across the globe is incredible. He's a guy who has been through it all, who knows what to do. We had our first zoom call between the players who all we’ve signed and coach Baxter, and he set the same tone right there. He said ‘so guys we can’t just stick at 100%, we need to give our 150%, we got to work harder’ and all those coach platitudes and he said it in a way that you know charges you up. I like the way that he is communicating with the boys, trying to plan their fitness regimens now, since we're in lockdown. I'm really happy with the way he's doing things and he's just dynamic. He is 66 but he still has a passion for the game.”

Faith in young players

He went on to praise the mentality of his players and made it clear that he wants his squad to be like a family. ”I think it depends on the mentality of the player. One thing I liked about our boys is the Indian young kids tend to be loyal. If you show that you will give a chance to them, they are very appreciative.  Vinit (Rai), Nandakumar (Sekar) and Shubham (Sarangi), all had offers to go elsewhere with more money. One of them got an offer from an international club but they declined, so they could stay in Odisha,” he said.

“What I'm trying to get is a mentality of players that want to fight for each other, not just for the club but for each other. Even for someone like Mohammad (Sajid) Dhot who I hadn't planned to re-sign, but Vinit and Nanda both approached me and said, ‘It's wrong, sir. He's part of our family. Let's get him back.’ And I want to create the family aspect where they know that we have each other's backs. We got Jerry (Mawihmingthanga), who I'm very happy with. I think he fits into more of what we're trying to build within the club.

“I feel that if you show these players the same amount of respect and give them the time and the chance, they always pay that back. All I want to do is develop these kids because if they grow together, and they are their family, and then they don't want to leave each other, they are close. Our locker room dynamic is fantastic. On the pitch, they all have each other's backs. I'm hoping this is the last year I have to mass purchase young talent, because by this point, I feel the guys I have gotten are really good. I think in the next three, four years if I get them going, they stay there and I'm winning,” Mr Sharma added.

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