It was when the owners of Odisha FC explained a bit about the background 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 is not the largest of 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 the population of India is over a billion, you can understand why.”
This is a man with over 25 years of experience in British football who has had senior roles at Coventry and Watford in England, and perhaps especially Rangers in Scotland.
But the opportunity to become president of Odisha FC and shape the vision of a top club in India – the country where his parents were born – is an emotional one for Athwal.
“My parents came over in the early ’60s, and so my whole lineage comes from India. When I talk to the family out there, there’s always that feeling of pride, that connection.
“After having a series of open and honest conversations with the club’s owners, I also found their infectious passion and vision for Odisha extremely impressive.
“You have to remember that ISL is still in its infancy, its inauguration was in 2013. It would be unfair to compare it to the English Premier League or any of the major European leagues.
“Make no mistake though, the appetite for top football in India has never been greater. Like MLS, wealthy investors are showing up and showing real interest in establishing new clubs. The continued expansion of the league is proof of that.”
For obvious reasons, it is an awkward time to accept the job. So far, Athwal is being forced to lead operations from his home in England rather than on the ground in India. The time difference he can handle, but he is eager to deal with people face to face soon.
“It has been frustrating more than anything else. Ideally, I would have liked to have flown out to India to introduce myself to the players, the coach and the club officials in person.
“I feel like a chef who gives someone the ingredients but can’t taste the food!”
While the current situation is far from ideal, Athwal has in another sense been given its dream role. He has been pushing for a more outgoing approach since his days at Coventry, when the club were in the Premier League during the foreign expansion in the 1990s.
“Even then, I said we needed to become global in our partnerships.”
But it was his experience at Rangers – a true global brand – that proved to be the steepest learning curve as he helped rebuild the club’s reputation in Scotland’s fourth level.
“Literally every partner had gone away,” Athwal recalls. “But Ally McCoist did a phenomenal job with the players, and within two years we had turned it all around. We needed to be a little more creative, but I learned so much in my time there.
“Working for Rangers, it’s not a football club, it’s an institution. It’s so intense, the expectation, it’s like a pressure cooker, and I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life.”
There is some irony in the fact that Rangers now have an affiliation with another ISL club, Bengaluru FC, as a partnership in India is something Athwal pushed for in his time at Ibrox. The owners of Manchester City are also making their presence visible in the country with the takeover of Mumbai City. Others have found it harder.
“I have had several discussions with directors from Premier League clubs over the years who have told me that their pre-season tour to India resulted in modest financial success,” said Athwal.
“What clubs do not understand is that you can not just visit India a few days out of the calendar year, play a few friendly matches with local teams, sign a few autographs and expect to sell millions of replica shirts on the back of it.
“Regardless of the stature of a club at home, if you are not able to cement a meaningful footprint in the country and are not familiar with the mother tongue or are not accustomed to certain cultural protocols, you will inevitably struggle.
“If you get it right on the other hand, the rewards can be very lucrative. The football landscape in India is changing. ISL clubs are now looking to partner with overseas clubs that focus on longevity, trust and that both parties benefit both parties .
“I do not suggest that any Premier League club should flock to India and buy a club. Becoming a technical partner with a Super League club with the aim of sharing best practices can help open doors to new opportunities that otherwise remain inaccessible. “
It is clear that Athwal’s plans extend 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 focus heavily on developing home-grown talent. We will invest in building first-class academies and partner schools across the country that will not only provide children of all abilities with an education, but will serve as centers of excellence for young talented footballers. who will receive professional coaching so that they can hopefully one day continue to represent Odisha FC. “
Given the scope of his vision, it is easy to feel a despair that this British South Asian is making the move 5,000 miles away from his birthplace in search of the next opportunity. Athwal has some racism, but he hopes his story will also send a positive message.
“I remember walking to and from school or traveling to town with my friends as a young boy who thought they were racially abused was part of normal life. Although it was never a pleasant experience, learned I like many other South Asians of my generation to adapt and make the most of the opportunities that came my way.
“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 simply one of Those who cheered on the team from the terraces.It’s incredible to look back now how the same club gave me my first break in my career.I will always be in debt to them.
“Football from a very early age taught me that it had the power and influence to break down racial barriers, which is why it is so important now more than ever that governing bodies, anti-racism organizations, fans and players must stand together in the fight against racism. .
“That’s why I’m now talking to children, boys and girls, black, white or Asian, to tell them they can do it too. It drives me on. I do it for them. I go to schools for free and universities because if I can get a child to think, ‘If he can do it, I can do it,’ it’s worth it. “
Athwal is already a success story, but the challenge in Odisha is great – he takes responsibility for the team at the foot of the table under the experienced and well-liked English coach Stuart Baxter. A turnaround is needed, but hope is high.
“This is the only club in the state, so the potential is there. It’s about building a vision across an entire club. We want to use the football club as a base to invest in the community. This is a massive opportunity to do something. fight for football in India. “
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Kick It Out is football’s gender equality and inclusion organization – working throughout the football, education and society sectors to challenge discrimination, encourage inclusive practices and campaign for positive change.