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From British Greens to Indian Dreams: Raj Athwal's Journey with Odisha FC

Beyond the accolades and victories of Odisha FC, Raj's vision extends to the future of Indian football. In a country where cricket reigns supreme, he passionately advocates for the growth and promotion of football.

From British Greens to Indian Dreams: Raj Athwals Journey with Odisha FC

Odisha FC president Raj Athwal with Clifford Miranda. (Image via OFC)


Aswathy Santhosh

Updated: 27 July 2023 7:28 AM GMT

In the heartlands of India's football fervour, amidst the echoes of passionate fans and reverberating cheers, a remarkable tale of transformation has unfolded - none other than the rise of Odisha FC. At the helm of this extraordinary journey stands a visionary leader, Raj Athwal, the president of Odisha FC, from the green fields of English football. Destiny led him to a new frontier—an international endeavour in the Indian Super League.

A Crescendo of Triumph

Raj Athwal's eyes sparkled with pride and admiration for all who contributed to the club's success as he delved into Odisha FC's evolution. "Everyone associated with the club was on a high," he exclaimed during an interview with The Bridge.

Raj Athwal and Diego Mauricio

"It's testament to the players, coaches, and all the club staff for what they collectively achieved. And that's something I've always asked for. The reason we're in the game is to win trophies and to compete with the best although I joined in the 2020-21 season, where unfortunately, we finished last. But within two and a half seasons, we've gone from finishing last to reaching the playoffs, winning the Golden Boot Award, winning the hero Super Cup and and also qualifying for Asia," he added.

The Enchanting Call of India

Embarking on this journey to India was not a decision made in haste for the seasoned veteran of British football. Raj Athwal's career, adorned with experiences at renowned clubs like Coventry City, Watford, and Glasgow Rangers, had come to a defining crossroads. As he sought to breathe life into a new project, the allure of an international endeavour beckoned him beyond the borders of his homeland.

"I've worked in British football for over 25 years. I wanted to, perhaps try and achieve what I've done in English football. India, if I'm being honest, wasn't on the agenda. But, I wanted to utilise my experience and knowledge, so I ended up speaking to Rohan Sharma," Athwal said.

The meeting of minds with the club's owner, Rohan Sharma, was serendipitous, for they shared a mutual ambition—to sculpt a trophy-winning team while nurturing the heart of the community.

"And why Odisha because the club was pretty much aligned with my objectives. The owners were very transparent and honest, and they said you can come over, utilise your knowledge and experience, we're going to be here to support you, even though there was no preconceived sort of ideas that this is what you have to do. And it was almost a blank piece of paper that appealed to me because I felt that I can put my own mark on it," stated Raj.

Blending East and West

As Athwal delved deeper into his Indian adventure, the convergence of Eastern and Western cultures was evident, resonating harmoniously within the club's ethos, "I believe there are universal principles to building a winning culture in any organization. And from my experience, it doesn't matter whether you're in India, USA, England or anywhere in the world. It's part of your purpose to identify the club's core values, and provide the message clearly across the globe, on and off the pitch."

Emphasising core values that transcended geographical borders, each individual, be it the star player or the unsung heroes behind the scenes, embraced the sense of family and belonging, forging a harmonious orchestra where every note mattered.

"In fostering a cohesive mentality, I emphasis the concept of unity within the team, regardless of our individual positions and roles. While I hold the responsibility of running the club and each member has distinct duties, I want them to feel a genuine sense of belonging to the club, transcending mere individuality. I view the club as a well-oiled machine, where every part plays a crucial role. I encourage open communication and provide them the freedom to approach me with their thoughts and ideas. Our relationship is founded on trust and integrity, forming a strong two-way connection between us," Athwal added.

Raj Athwal and Diego Mauricio

The recruitment process is an art, where characteristics, family backgrounds, and passions blend seamlessly with skillsets and positions. It is an alchemy that results in a united ethos that permeates the very fabric of Odisha FC.

"I implemented an English model, both on and off the pitch, to ensure our journey towards success was methodical and purposeful. Establishing a strong structure and efficient processes became the cornerstones of our operations. However, it was equally crucial to recruit the right individuals who shared our ethics and values. We delved beyond the surface and looked into the essence of the players, considering not only their skills and positions but also their characteristics, age, and even family background. Understanding their motivations and aspirations was pivotal in building a united ethos around Odisha FC."

Embracing Accountability

Facing scrutiny and criticism is a part of the job, but Athwal believes in maintaining a balanced approach. He takes accountability for the club's actions and decisions, striving to improve and learn from challenges.

"Enduring criticism is undoubtedly a challenging aspect, particularly when we have invested the heart and soul into the cause. Yet, it comes with the territory, and when someone criticizes the team or a staff member, I can't help but take it personally. After all, as the one responsible for recruiting and equipping them, I feel accountable for their performance. I strive to provide them with the necessary tools and freedom to excel in their roles. If ever anything goes awry, I willingly shoulder the responsibility."

While acknowledging the need to address feedback, he also emphasizes the importance of not being consumed by criticism.

The Overture of Change

Raj Athwal touched upon a pivotal moment—the departure of their former coach. Odisha FC made the surprising decision to part ways with Josep Gombau, just before the Hero Super Cup.

"In the realm of football, timing is of paramount importance, and this situation was no exception. When faced with crucial decisions, all clubs take various factors into account, and Odisha FC was no different. As the Super Cup tournament loomed just three weeks ahead, the window for action was narrow. However, I trusted my judgment, drawn from the experience throughout my career and life," said Athwal.

Guided by transparency and open communication, he cemented the players' trust and commitment to the club's vision, "The players are professionals and they understand that change is inevitable in this industry. But it's how you convey that message to them, which can either have a positive or detrimental impact. So I personally addressed all the players and the backroom staff, and explain the changes why, and what our objectives were and what we were trying to achieve in the club. I was open to questions."

Raj Athwal with club staff(Image via OFC)

Doubts lingered in the air, and the odds seemed stacked against the boys from Odisha. But, in the face of uncertainty, they found the courage to rise above. Against all odds, they triumphed in the Hero Super Cup, etching their name in history. The taste of championship glory was sweet, and the Juggernauts relished every moment of it.

Harmonizing the Future of Indian Football

Beyond the accolades and victories of Odisha FC, Raj's vision extends to the future of Indian football. In a country where cricket reigns supreme, he passionately advocates for the growth and promotion of football.

"In 1983, when India won the cricket world cup, it sparked a remarkable surge in cricket's popularity. Rather than fearing cricket's dominance, we should draw inspiration from its success. I firmly believe that a strong performance by our national football team will have a transformative effect, resonating across the entirety of India. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic two years ago, I have observed a steady growth in the fan base of the Indian Super League, defying all odds and potentially avoiding the loss of an entire generation of supporters," he stated.

To maintain this, he calls for the efforts of all football clubs, including the ISL teams, in tirelessly promoting and nurturing the sport's ardent following. Raj also talks about how tasting first success is changing the fortunes of the Juggernauts.

"Since securing the Super Cup and qualifying for Asia, our journey has witnessed an upward trajectory. Our success has not only amplified our presence on social media but also attracted newfound interest from diverse media platforms. With the expertise of our media managers, interviews with coaches and players have reached corners previously untouched by football enthusiasm. We take pride in the fact that Odisha FC has emerged as one of India's fashionable clubs"

Crafting a Resilient Football Community

Fueled by the burning passion for football and unwavering commitment to the community, Odisha FC envisions a brighter future.

"Our vision transcends the boundaries of the field, championing gender equality, health, and well-being through the impact of sports. At Odisha FC, we firmly believe in walking the talk, actively demonstrating our commitment to gender equality through our actions. Our outreach spans across universities, schools, and underprivileged areas, fostering a robust footballing community that stands resilient against all odds."

Athwal emphasises the essence of nurturing young talents, advocating the initiation of coaching programmes for children as young as seven while also championing gender equality and opening doors for aspiring female athletes.

"To flourish, we must ignite the spark at a tender age, coaching them from seven or eight, embracing the basics. Gender equality is vital; we actively seek and encourage female players, fostering inclusivity within our ranks."

Stay tuned for the second part of this interview, where we delve deeper into strong government support, securing the renowned Sergio Lobera as head coach, and their ambitious plans for the upcoming season.

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