Odisha FC are trying to build a team capable of competing for honours: club president Raj Athwal

Raj Athwal, club president at Odisha FC, believes his team is ready to move on from its bottom-place finish in the 2020-21 Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) and can realistically look at a top-four berth in the upcoming season. Odisha FC, who parted ways with head coach Stuart Baxter in February earlier this year, suffered 12 defeats in 20 games and conceded a record 44 goals to finish last in the 11-team league.  

Athwal pinpoints the reasons that he believes led to an underwhelming campaign for Odisha FC in what was the biggest Hero ISL season to date. “Unfortunately, as with all Hero ISL clubs we were dealing with an unprecedented situation and in hindsight there are several areas we would have approached differently. At the height of the pandemic, we were in the process of recruiting a new Head Coach. We were unable to provide any timelines as to when the league would commence. Due to the uncertainty the coaching staff had very little time for pre-season and general preparation. There is also the question of the domestic and foreign players getting to know each other and all these factors mentioned had a detrimental impact on our season,” he told indiansuperleague.com in an exclusive interview.

“Success in football is about small margins and we are doing all we can to eliminate the difficulties from the previous season and build a team capable of competing for honours,” he added.

Odisha FC have since shown the intent to improve, particularly in defence. So far, they have signed three very talented Indian defenders in Sahil Panwar, Lalruatthara and Sebastian Thangmuansang. Athwal thinks these signings will go a long way towards making Odisha FC a better team. “When rebuilding a football team, it is always prudent to build from the back; one of the learnings from the last few seasons was the importance of having a solid defence from which to build upon. With this in mind we made a conscious effort to scout and recruit young Indian defenders who could strengthen our team.

“Sahil & Lalruatthara are versatile players who have impressed at youth levels of Indian football as well as in their debut seasons of the Hero ISL. Sebastian was a player that we had been tracking for a few seasons and this past season he matured to be a key player in the Hero I-League championship team [Gokulam Kerala FC]. We feel he can continue his development with Odisha over the next few seasons,” he said.

In order to find young talents in the state as well as from the rest of the country, the Bhubaneswar-based club has introduced the ‘Odisha FC Digital Grassroots Academy’ program. The ambitious project kicked off on June 20 earlier this month, and Athwal is enthusiastic at the response the club has received in such a short period of time.

“The digital Grassroots Academy has been an incredible success story. There is clearly an appetite for football-related activities in Odisha as we sold out all places within 48 hours. What we very quickly realised was that the digital academy provided an important outlet to many children who have not seen or even communicated with their friends since lockdown. While this particular program is for two months, we are already planning a new and exciting follow-up. Football clubs are clearly an extension of the local community and we see our grassroots and community initiatives as an important part of the Odisha fabric,” he said.

“The Digital Academy is an on-line platform offering youngsters from 6-15 years of age football coaching and general drills. For instance, there are weekly assignments, regular mentoring and motivational sessions by the team staff and players. The players are important to the program as they are role models and kids want to emulate their heroes. The feedback from the parents has been pleasing with many thanking the club for the initiative. Many of the kids are in their homes and the digital academy has alleviated some of the boredom while teaching the kids to remain fit and healthy,” he added.

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