The newly-relocated Indian Super League (ISL) team Odisha FC find themselves in touching distance of history with five games to play. They sit fourth on the table with 21 points on a four-game winning streak, and with a chance to battle it out for the ultimate prize in Indian football. Standing in their way over the course of the next three matches are Bengaluru FC (away, tonight) Goa (home, 29 January), and ATK (away, 8 February) — all top three teams.
It should be noted that while the difference between top-placed ATK and Odisha maybe just three points, the journey to where the Bhubaneshwar-based club find themselves currently on the table understates the efforts they had to put as a singular unit: The footballers, management, the backend, and the administration had to rally as one.
Firstpost caught up with Ashish Shah, the CEO of Odisha FC to talk about the reason of having to play away from their home base, about Aridane Santana — Odisha FC and ISL’s top scorer; high-hopes for Shubham Sarangi; morale heading into a season-defying run, and the knack of this team to ultimately churn challenges into opportunities.
Excerpts from the interview:
Vinit Rai was recently given a contract extension, do you see him as a possible successor of Marcos Tebar as club captain?
At some stage, yes, sure. He’s definitely captaincy material even in the national team setting. He’s a natural leader, we see him the way he is on the field off the field - if he can continue his progress, then, yes, of course, he can be a captain.
Could you explain why the team had to temporarily shift from their home stadium Kalinga Stadium at the beginning of the season?
The main pitch was being relaid for the under-17 World Cup that will happen this year. Because of the heavy rain and the prolonged monsoon, there was unavailability of sand for the pitch. That project got postponed by a couple of months. And as a result, it wasn’t ready when it was supposed to be at the end of November for our first home game.
It must have been a strange scenario for the management, the administration, yourself and the players to play their home games at Pune’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Stadium?
Of course, it was strange. We were mentally not prepared for it. First of all, we moved away from Delhi. The whole exercise of moving is a sizeable operation, not only physically, but to get everybody ready for the new environment and new regulators, the new fans. We were getting used to that and then suddenly we had to shift to Pune, a place that would have zero affinity to us. It was almost like playing away, you know? We had three games there and didn’t have the feeling of having home support. It delayed our whole project by that much time and had fewer home games to play, which in hindsight there is an advantage of playing at home. If we had those three games at the Kalinga Stadium, and one of which was pretty close, maybe we’d have won. The points tally would have read slightly different than what it is now.
It was difficult, the operational side of things, to get the permissions, to get the stadium ready, try to keep it under cost — this was a cost that was not budgeted for — the extra travel, lodging. The tougher part was for the coaches and the players as there was no practice field there.
Where did you eventually end up practising?
On the same field. We had an agreement with the league which allowed us to practice two days before a match on the same field. One day before the match, as per the rules, the away team is also allowed to use the premises. So, two teams were practising on the same field right before they played the game.
For the first two games in Pune, it worked out well as we were there 3-4 days before matchday. Between second and the third match, there was a long break, so we had to move the entire team to Mumbai and practice there and come back to Pune leading up to the match and practice there as well. So, as you can understand, it was a tough time for the team.
That must have had some financial implications as well?
All of this was not budgeted for at the start of the season. It did end up having a knock-on effect on our financials.
Why did it take as long as it did for the Kalinga Stadium to get ready?
Like I said, as and when the sand became available, it was the matter of having enough materials. Otherwise, everything was ready. The contractors were ready, as soon as they could do it, they did it.
The Odisha FC fans aren’t seeing as much promotion as far as outdoor campaigning goes to raise awareness. Could you explain why that has been the case?
Not everything in terms of promotion that you do is outdoor campaigning. We are planning to use all kinds of media — whether its newspapers, radio channels or outdoor, the signages in and around the stadium, going to schools and colleges with our players, interactions with the grassroots etc.
We have now, around 15 hoardings in the city, we have a decent digital media presence, we are running contests, and looking to innovate. Movie theatres, for example, are running our adverts.
I agree it would be great to paint the whole town in the colours of Odisha FC, with signages and hoardings but that’s something we’ll build on slowly. Ideally, we will love to have them at the airport and the main roads that lead up to the stadium.
The top scorer in the ISL this season, Aridane Santana, on loan from Cultural y Deportiva Leonesa has been crucial to Odisha this season. Do you have him in your plans next season?
It’s a no brainer, right? He’s been one of the pillars of our team. His role might be that of a striker but you’ll see him across the entire field, whether it’s the defence of midfield, he’s out there fighting for the cause, blocking, scoring goals — a great team player. Off the field, he gets along with everybody, he’s a good human being. He has all the qualities one would want from senior foreign players because it’s also about teaching the young Indian lads what football and life are all about.
And being a Spaniard and his style of play is what (the manager) Josep Gombau wants. We would love to have him for a longer term, and that’s something we are discussing now.
What are your thoughts on local boy 19-year-old Shubham Sarangi?
It’s one of those feel-good stories where he joined us as an academy player who got through our system including Aspire Academy (Qatar, Doha). He is one of the first footballers to make the most of that developmental partnership we have. The coach liked what he saw and gave him game time, experimented with his position (he’s not a natural right-back) but he’s adapted very well; kudos to Josep Gombau as well for that and Shubham for working hard and now starting every game. Being a local is a great source of pride for him and for the fans.
What are your plans for Odisha FC to actively engaging in awareness camps, training camps and youth football competitions in Cuttack, the city being the hotbed for football in the state?
Those are the things that have already started. We’ve had an official kick-off of our grassroots program a couple of months ago. After which we have started visiting schools and conducting football festivals, started training physical instructors in football techniques. There’s also the baby league, that’s a competition for 9 through 11-year-olds that’s underway.
From May onwards, the academy kids will also shift base to Odisha; they are still in Delhi due to the unavailability of grounds at the moment. Once the grounds are ready we will have a full-fledged grassroots program running in Odisha. We have started with Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack, of course; from June we’ll start expanding to different districts of the state to scout for talent. We have been told there are a lot of talented kids and hopefully, we’ll have many more Shubham Sarangis.
What is the general mood around the club right now, being in touching distance of the ISL playoffs?
The morale is high like I’ve said, but now there’s a sense of nervousness. Because it has dawned on us that there is a high chance of us reaching the semi-finals, and it’s in our hands, and not dependant on what the other teams do. There is a little bit of pressure, but good pressure. We are travelling to Bengaluru and we have one more away game in Kolkata, and there are three home games too (Goa, North-east United, Kerala Blasters). The next three games are against top three clubs, so there’s a bit of apprehension. We are looking forward to ending the season on a high.
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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2020 12:28:29 IST