Since Raj Athwal took charge of Hero Indian Super League (ISL) side Odisha FC as president in 2021, the club has been making great strides with each passing season. Odisha FC endured a seventh-placed finish in the Hero ISL 2021-22 season standings, a significant improvement from the season before where the club finished bottom of the standings.

The club made history the following season by qualifying for the Hero ISL playoffs for the first time since their inception in 2019. They capped the season off with their first silverware in the Hero Super Cup and also secured a berth in the AFC Cup 2023-24 group stage.

Athwal, who comes with a rich experience of 25 years in football across Britain, having previously worked with teams such as Coventry FC and Watford FC in England, and Scotland’s Rangers FC, revealed that working in India has been the most challenging phase of his career.

“India has been the most difficult challenge of my football career,” Athwas was quoted as saying in an interview with The Times of India.

“I have had to acclimatise to the culture. The set up of professionalism in England is different. Professionalism of this nature (in Indian football) has only been since 2014, and it’s evolving. This is not criticism, but observation. Each season, we are improving, making huge inroads.”

Earlier this May, Odisha FC announced former Hero ISL winner Sergio Lobera as the head coach of their first team. Having attained success with Hero ISL clubs FC Goa and Mumbai City FC previously, Lobera is renowned for his style of football, with his teams known to attack and play on the front foot. Athwal aims on building a new identity for the club, with the youth teams and the first team playing a similar brand of football.

“We want Odisha to be a sustainable club, both on and off the pitch,” revealed Athwal.

“On the pitch, I want Odisha FC to compete for all trophies, but we also need to have a youth programme for under-7s and under-8s; 13 is too late. The plan is to follow the same style of football the (first) team is playing. You need to have an identity, otherwise you end up bringing managers with different philosophies. It disrupts the whole methodology,” he further explained.

As per the report, Odisha FC plans on having a residential academy for its youth teams including the U13s, U15s and the U17s, all consisting of Odia players. Plans are in place to include the U-10 players as well. Athwal also intends on including more local players in the Odisha FC reserve team. The Odisha FC president further stressed on the importance of a professional set up at the grassroots level, that will provide a talent pool of players in the years to come.

“Those at the academy will be educated. The truth is only one percent will make it as professionals, but what we are giving them is education and a chance to make a start in another part of life, if they don’t become professional footballers,” he revealed.

“We want to have the whole grassroots system, academy, youth team, reserves being set up professionally which will then bring players through in the next five to six years,” Athwal signed off.