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Curtains are all set to come down on the 7th edition of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) with defending champions ATK Mohun Bagan crossing swords against Mumbai City FC at Fatorda Stadium in Goa tomorrow. But the highest level of professional football league in India could not generate the desired interest in Odisha despite Bhubaneswar-based Odisha FC being one among the 11 teams in the fray.

In fact, Odisha FC proved to be a big disappointment for football in the state as they finished at the bottom of the league table with 12 points from 20 games. OFC won two matches, lost 12 and drew six, scored a total of 25 goals and conceded 44 for a difference of minus 19. The team even failed to defend the sixth position they had secured in ISL 2019-20 season where they won 7, lost 7 and drew 4 to finish 25 points from 18 matches.

[caption id="attachment_525716" align="aligncenter" width="750"] Standings (Indian Super League 2020-21)[/caption]

WHAT WENT WRONG?

Among many reasons, the most important was the team simply did not play well to deserve a better finish. Frequent change of coaches and management executives, lack of adequate preparation, playing all games away from home turf Kalinga Stadium and a couple of debatable referee decisions may have contributed to the downfall of the team.

Head coach Stuart Baxter joined the team three weeks after training started at Betalbatim in Goa, under the guidance of assistant coach Steven Dias and was fired for making distasteful comments in a post-match interview with six matches still to go. Assistant coach Gerald Peyton took over as Interim Head Coach, but only to part ways after four games, citing personal reasons.

Odisha FC had to play their last two games again under the guidance of Steven Dias, who, interestingly, proved to be the only consistent man in the team that turned out most inconsistent in terms of picking people to manage the team both on and off the field. If that was not enough, the post of CEO lay vacant for over six months after Ashish Shah parted ways following the termination of his three-year contract. UK-based Raj Athwal took charge as club president in January this year, replacing Rohan Sharma, who took the new role as CEO. Change in management set-up thus was a permanent feature of OFC.

The team management drew criticism for not recruiting home-grown Odisha players and not giving Odia players enough opportunity to showcase their talent. “Though defender Shubham Sarangi and goalkeeper Ankit Bhuyan belong to Odisha, both developed their game in Delhi and never played for the state of Odisha. Moreover, Bhuyan did get to play a singles match and spent the entire season warming the bench,’’ lamented Sarat Das, an avid football lover.

[caption id="attachment_525708" align="aligncenter" width="750"]Does Odisha need Odisha FC Odisha FC players during a match[/caption]

However, supporters of the team say that Odisha does not have footballers competent enough to compete in ISL. “In the case of young goalkeeper Bhuyan, spending a season with OFC should be a valuable learning experience for him. Had he played and conceded some goals, it would have shaken his confidence. He has age on his side and should wait for his turn,’’ explained Rohit Sahoo, a member of OFC fan club.

Looking back, the Department of Sports & Youth Services, Government of Odisha and Delhi Soccer Private Limited signed a 5-year agreement on August 31, 2019, to launch Odisha FC as a new avatar of ISL team Delhi Dynamos FC. As per the agreement, the Odisha Government would provide ground for training and matches free of cost and enable OFC develop the overall standard of football in the state. On their part, OFC boasted to make football the No 1 sport of Odisha and Odisha the No 1 football state of India.

But in reality, the agreement is not delivering the desired results. Besides the ISL disaster, OFC has hardly done any worthwhile job in scouting and nurturing talents at the grassroots. They fielded under 13, 15 and 18 teams in I-League without any Odisha player in any of the three sides. Making things more disappointing, National coach Igor Stimac did not consider a single OFC player while selecting 35 probables for the National team.

All these factors makes one wonder whether Odisha did the right thing by providing support to US-based ship recycling company GMS Inc to rebrand Delhi Dynamos FC as Odisha FC!

But former Odisha international Rajendra Prasad Singh has a more balanced view on the issue. Assessing all sides he said, “Odisha FC simply lacked quality players to excel in ISL, where the level of competition has been getting higher, faster and tougher. They probably did not spend enough to rope in quality players of national and international repute.’’

“The defense was very weak and let the team down, committing several costly mistakes. Upfront, Brazilian striker Diego Mauritio waged a lone battle and did not get the necessary support to convert opportunities into goals. Spaniard Manuel Onwu failed to score any goal, compared to seven off four games in the previous season,’’ summed up Singh, who is fondly known as RP.

[caption id="attachment_525714" align="aligncenter" width="750"]Indian super league Odisha FC players during a match[/caption]

A former India mid-fielder, RP noted a few positives in OFC’s ISL campaign in season 2020-21. “Mauricio emerged as the third-highest scorer with 12 goals in 20 matches, while custodian Arshdeep Singh made a staggering 64 saves. Despite finishing at the bottom of the points table, the young OFC team fought well. The fact that they lost six matches by one-goal margin speaks a lot about the effort they put in on the field.’’

He, however, was quick to point out that OFC needs to give emphasis on spotting and grooming talents at the grassroots. “The real development of football in Odisha lies in promoting the sport at the grassroots level. OFC should give this area equal importance and seek the support of Football Association of Odisha in their scheme of things,’’ signed off RP.

PRESIDENT SPEAKS

Raj Athwal was appointed as Odisha FC president this year on January 14 when the team was struggling in Indian Super League. In an interview, the UK-based president threw lights on the team performance and future plans. Here are some excerpts:

What are the major reasons for the team finishing at the bottom of the Hero ISL table?

There are several contributing factors that determined our final league position. We had a very short pre-season of two weeks, which is not adequate for any team to gel and absorb the tactics employed by the new coach. Unfortunately due to the pandemic, the senior management team was unable to have any presence at the hotel which is an important factor for any football club. Decisions on the pitch affected our results. In one particular fixture versus Bangalore, we scored a perfectly good goal which was ruled for off-side. This would have changed the game and its small margins that affected not only the results but confidence within the squad.

What are the positives OFC found from their overall performance in ISL-7?

OFC is recognised for providing younger players game time and we witnessed excellent performances from Zuala, Jerry, Paul and Arshdeep. Many players will have the maturity and experience to continue their progression. This season will help the younger players to become physically and mentally stronger.

What are the major contributions OFC has made in promoting football in the state and giving opportunities to home-grown talents in ISL?

Due to factors outside of our control, we have been unable to complete a full football season in Odisha meaning we are behind schedule in having deeply impactful roots in Odisha. Having said that we have worked closely with the Juggernauts to ensure there is an Odisha FC presence in many events throughout Odisha. We are also planning to have our full-scale residential academy launch this year in conjunction with a top technical partner; enabling us to discover the best Odia football talent. Essentially we are starting from scratch to break new ground to develop Odia players. However, we are delighted to see players like Rajan Sorem, Bekey Oram and Tankadhar Bag gain recognition nationally. Hopefully, they can be a part of our set up in the future.

What kind of support OFC received from Odisha Govt and football lovers of the State?

OFC is fully committed to engaging with and promoting football to both boys and girls in the state of Odisha. Through our programmes, you will naturally discover hidden talent which will be communicated to our youth and academy teams. It would be fantastic to one day have a team of homegrown talent. Community wise we are in the process of evaluating our structures and will be announcing our plans in the near future. The long term plan is to roll out initiatives across all 30 districts encouraging youngsters and adults to participate in sports and education which would not be possible without the incredible support of the Odisha government and our fans.

What measures the team management contemplates to improve their showings next season?

Announcements will be made soon though it would be remiss of me to disclose any confidential information at this particular time. As an executive team, we have been analysing the season over the last few months and taking every conceivable step to ensure we do not have a repeat of this season.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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