It was while the owners of Odisha FC were explaining a bit of the history of the Indian Super League (ISL) club that their new Coventry-born president Raj Athwal really began to understand the potential of the place. . They pointed out that it was not the largest of the states.
The reasoning? Only 47 million people live there.
“It’s a different world,” says Athwal Sky Sports. “Odisha is considered a small coastal state. When you consider that India’s population exceeds one billion, you understand why.”
He is a man with over 25 years of experience in British football, having held managerial positions in Coventry and Watford in England, and, perhaps most notably, in Rangers in Scotland.
But the opportunity to become president of Odisha FC, shaping the vision for a big club in India – the country where his parents were born – is moving for Athwal.
“My parents came in the early 1960s and therefore all of my ancestry is from India. When I talk to my family there, there’s always that sense of pride, that bond.
“Having engaged in a number of open and honest conversations with the owners of the club, I have also found their passion contagious and Odisha’s vision extremely impressive.
“You have to remember that ISL is still in its infancy, its inauguration dates back to 2013. It would be unfair to compare it to the English Premier League or to one of the big European leagues.
“Make no mistake, however, the appetite for top-level football in India has never been greater. Similar to MLS, wealthy investors are stepping in and showing genuine interest in starting new clubs. The continued expansion of the league is proof of that. “
For obvious reasons, it is difficult to accept the position. For now, Athwal is forced to lead operations from his home in England rather than on the ground in India. The jet lag he can handle, but he can’t wait to face people soon.
“It was more frustrating than anything else. Ideally, I would have loved to travel to India to introduce myself to the players, coach and club officials in person.
“I feel like a chef who gives the ingredients to someone but can’t taste the food!”
While the current situation is far from ideal, in another sense, Athwal has landed his dream role. He has been campaigning for a more open approach since his days at Coventry, when the club were in the Premier League during the overseas expansion of the 1990s.
“Even then, I said we had to go global in our partnerships.”
But it was his experiences with the Rangers – a truly global brand – that proved to be the steepest learning curve as he helped rebuild the club’s reputation in the Scottish fourth tier.
“Literally all the partners were gone,” Athwal recalls. “But Ally McCoist did a phenomenal job with the players and within two years we had changed everything. We had to be a little more creative but I learned a lot during my time there.
“Working for the Rangers is not a football club, it’s an institution. It’s so intense, the wait is like a pressure cooker, and I’ve never experienced anything like it. such in my life. “
There is a certain irony in the fact that Rangers now have a connection with another ISL club, Bengaluru FC, given that a partnership in India is something Athwal pushed during his time at Ibrox. Manchester City owners are also making their presence felt in the country with the acquisition of Mumbai City. Others have found it more difficult.
“I have had several discussions with managers of Premier League clubs over the years, telling me that their pre-season tour of India had resulted in modest financial success,” says Athwal.
“What clubs fail to understand is that you can’t just visit India for a few days outside the calendar year, play a few friendlies with local teams, sign a few autographs and hope to sell. millions of replica jerseys on the back.
“Regardless of the stature of a club in your home country, if you are unable to consolidate a significant footprint in the country, and you do not know the native language or are not used to certain cultural protocols, you will inevitably have a hard time.
“If you do it right, however, the rewards can be very lucrative. The landscape of football in India is changing. ISL clubs are now looking to partner with overseas clubs that put the emphasis on. emphasis on longevity, trust and mutually benefiting evenings.
“I am not suggesting that all Premier League clubs flock to India and buy a club. Becoming a technical partner of a Super League club with the aim of sharing best practices can help open doors to new opportunities which, otherwise, would remain inaccessible. “
It’s clear Athwal’s plans go far beyond the football field.
“The opportunities for the football club to become a magnet for attracting investment from national and international companies are enormous,” he said.
“Our recruitment policy will largely focus on developing local talent. We will invest in building top-notch academies and partner schools across the country that will not only provide children of all abilities with an education, but serve as centers of excellence for talented young footballers who will receive mentoring. professional so that they too can one day represent Odisha FC. “
Given the scope of his vision, it’s easy to feel a rush of regret as this South Asian Briton travels 5,000 miles from his birthplace in search of the next opportunity. Athwal suffered from racism, but he hopes his story will send a positive message as well.
“I remember walking to and from school, or going to town with my friends when I was young, thinking racial violence was part of normal life. Although it was never a pleasant experience, like many other South Asians of my generation, I learned to adapt and make the most of the opportunities that presented themselves to me.
“To this day, I can honestly say that I have never personally experienced racism inside a football stadium. What I quickly realized was that Coventry fans never saw me as an Asian. As a Sky Blues fan, I was just one of them cheering on the team. It’s amazing to look back now at how the same club gave me my first break in my career. I will always be indebted to them.
“Football, from an early age, taught me that it has the power and influence to break down racial barriers, which is why it is more important than ever that the governing bodies, the anti-racist organizations , supporters and players unite in the fight. against racism.
“That’s why I’m talking now with kids, boys and girls, black, white or Asian, telling them that they can do it too. It motivates me. I do it for them. I go to schools and universities for free because if I can make a child think, “If he can do it, I can do it,” it is worth it. “
Athwal is already a success, but the challenge at Odisha is great: he takes the helm with the team at the foot of the table under the leadership of experienced and well-traveled English coach Stuart Baxter. A turnaround is necessary but the hopes are high.
“It’s the only club in the state, so the potential is there. It’s about building a vision across a whole club. We want to use the football club as a base to invest in the community. a huge opportunity to do something – huge for football in India. “
Kick it out signaling racism
Kick It Out is the football for equality and inclusion organization – which works across the football, education and community sectors to fight discrimination, encourage inclusive practices and campaign for change. positive.