Indian Super League: Odisha FC make ex-Watford and Rangers executive Raj Athwal club president

It was when the owners of Odisha FC were explaining a little 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 biggest of states.

The reasoning? Only 47 million people live there.

“It is a different world,” Athwal tells Sky Sports. “Odisha is considered a small coastal state. When you consider the population of India is over one billion you can understand why.”

This is a man with over 25 years of experience in British football, having held senior roles at Coventry and Watford in England, and, perhaps most notably, Rangers in Scotland.

But the opportunity to become president at Odisha FC, shaping the vision of a top club in India – the country where his parents were born – is an emotional one for Athwal.

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“My parents came over in the early ’60s and so my whole ancestry is from India. When I am speaking to family out there, there is always that feeling of pride, that connection.

“Having engaged in a number of open and honest conversations with the club’s owners, I also found their infectious passion and the 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-flight football in India has never been greater. Similar to MLS, wealthy investors are coming forward and showing real interest in establishing new clubs. The continuing expansion of the league is testament to that.”

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For obvious reasons, it is an awkward time to accept the job. For now, 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 anxious 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 club officials in person.

“I feel like a chef giving someone the ingredients but not being able to taste the food!”

While the current situation is far from ideal, in another sense, Athwal has landed his dream role. He has been pushing for a more outward-looking approach since his days at Coventry, when the club was in the Premier League during the foreign expansion of the 1990s.

“Even back then I was saying that we needed to go global in our partnerships.”

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But it was his experiences at Rangers – a truly global brand – that proved the steepest learning curve as he helped to rebuild the club’s reputation in Scotland’s fourth tier.

“Literally every partner had walked away,” Athwal recalls. “But Ally McCoist did a phenomenal job with the players and within two years we had turned it all around. We had to be that little bit more creative but I learned so much during my time there.

“Working at Rangers, it is not a football club, it is an institution. It is so intense, the expectation, it is like a pressure cooker, and I have never experienced anything like it in my life.”



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There is a certain irony to the fact that Rangers now have a tie-in with another ISL club, Bengaluru FC, given that a partnership in India is something that Athwal pushed for during his time at Ibrox. The owners of Manchester City 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 directors of Premier League clubs over the years telling me their pre-season tour to India resulted in modest financial success,” says Athwal.

“What clubs fail to understand is you cannot simply visit India for a few days out of the calendar year, play a couple of friendly games with local teams, sign a few autographs and expect to sell millions of replica shirts on the back of it.

“Irrespective of a club’s stature back home, if you’re unable to cement a meaningful footprint in the country, and are unfamiliar with the native language or unaccustomed to certain cultural protocols, you are inevitably going to struggle.

“If you do 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 enter into partnership with overseas clubs which focuses on longevity, trust and which mutually benefits both parties.

“I am not suggesting every Premier League club should flock to India and buy a club. Becoming a technical partner with a Super League club with the aim to share best practices can help open doors to new opportunities which 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 huge,” he says.

“Our recruitment policy is going to focus largely on developing home grown talent. We are going to be investing in building first-class academies and partnering schools across the country which will not only provide children of all abilities with an education, but will serve as centres of excellence for young talented footballers who will receive professional coaching so they too can hopefully one day go on to represent Odisha FC.”

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Given the scope of his vision, it is easy to feel a pang of regret that this British South Asian is making the move 5000 miles away from his birthplace in search of the next opportunity. Athwal has suffered racism but he hopes his story will send a positive message too.

“I remember walking to and from school, or going to town with my friends as a young kid thinking being racially abused was part of normal life. Although it was never a pleasant experience, like many fellow South Asians of my generation I learned to adapt and make the best of the opportunities that came my way.

“To this day I can honestly say I have never personally experienced racism inside a football stadium. What I quickly realised was that Coventry fans never saw me as being an Asian. As a Sky Blues fan I was simply one of them cheering on the team from the terraces. It’s incredible looking back now how the very same club gave me my first break in my career. I will always be indebted to them.

“Football from a very early age taught me it had the power and influence to break down racial barriers, which is why it is so important now than ever before for governing bodies, anti-racism organisations, fans and players to stand together in the fight against racism.



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“It is why I do talks now with kids, boys and girls, black, white or Asian, telling them that they can do this too. That drives me on. I do it for them. I go to schools and universities free of charge because if I can make one child think, ‘If he can do it then I can do it’, it’s worth it.”

Athwal is already a success story but the challenge at Odisha is a big one – he takes charge with the team at the foot of the table under the experienced and well-travelled English coach Stuart Baxter. A turnaround is needed but hopes are high.

“This is the only club in the state so the potential is there. It is about building a vision across a whole club. We want to use the football club as a base to invest in the community. This is a massive opportunity to do something huge for football in India.”

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