An Odyssey of Perseverance | Know Your Opponent ft. Odisha FC

 An Odyssey of Perseverance

Odisha FC’s first ISL season (Courtesy: Odisha FC Media via X)

In a recently concluded game of the Indian football team against Qatar, which ended 0-3 in favour of the visitors, the consistent cheers of the fans who turned up in large numbers at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar throughout the match was very notable and appreciated even by our head coach Igor Stimac. It is a depiction of the increasing popularity of football and sports in general in the historical Eastern state. In the last few years, Odisha has emerged as one of the hotspots for football related activities. With a government keenly interested into making the state the hub for a multitude of sports, they have invested heavily into infrastructure and player sponsorships, be it hockey, football, track and field, swimming or any other major sport. 

When it comes to football, in 2018, Odisha Govt. signed a MoU with AIFF which allowed youth and senior women’s teams to get access to the facilities of the Kalinga Stadium complex. The state’s sport budget which was 266 Crore INR in 19-20 has gone upto 1217 Crore INR in the 23-24 financial year. During the recently concluded Intercontinental club, Odisha Govt. awarded the winning Indian team 1 cr INR. Few months later, Arsene Wenger came to Bhubaneshwar to announce the establishment of a “FIFA-AIFF Academy”. Also in 2022, FIFA partnered with the govt. to distribute 43000 footballs across 2000 schools in the state, and Kalinga Stadium also hosted five group A matches of the FIFA U17 Women’s WC. In January 2024, the upcoming Super Cup has been renamed as ‘Kalinga’ Super Cup, the winners of which will be gifted with an ACL 2 Prelims spot.

Rising Student Club of Odisha became the second ever Indian Women’s League Champions in 2018 (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

When it comes to the performances of football teams from Odisha, there have been largely successful in the Junior tournaments and leagues. The Odisha Men’s football team has won the B. C. Roy Trophy (Junior National Football Championship) once in 1968/69 and was the runner-up twice in 61/62 and 76/77. The team has also won the Mir Iqbal Hussain Trophy (Sub-Junior National Football Championship) once in 2018/19 and was the runner-up four times in 93/94, 2000/01, 12/13, and 15/16. The Odisha women's football team has won the Senior Women's National Football Championship once in 2010–11 and was the runner-up six times, won the Sub-Junior Girl’s National Football Championship one in 06/07 and being runners up seven times, and also are eight-time runners up in the Junior Girl's National Football Championship.

I. A Fresh Start

Thus, it was a no-nonsense move for a top division football club to build their bases in this state which not only offers a passionate fanbase but also a favourable government, which came in form of Delhi Dynamos shifting their bases from the national capital to Bhubaneshwar in 2019. Club director Rohan Sharma explained how it was becoming financially unfeasible to rent out the JLN stadium in Delhi due to the high fee, and also pointed out the lack of fan support there. Thus, by signing an MoU with the Odisha Govt, they got access to the Kalinga Stadium for free, which helped out their finances significantly. 

Delhi Dynamos since 2014 had been an impressive club in the ISL. They reached the semi finals twice, in 2015 and 2016. Their next two seasons was largely underwhelming with back-to-back 8th place finishes. DDFC had issues with ownership ever since their inception. After the original owners DEN Networks realised that managing the club was becoming unsustainable, in 2016, GMS Leadership (Global Shipping LLC and Global Marketing Systems INC) was sold 50% of the rights. Eventually in multiple instalments now GMS holds 100% of the club. Thus, during the transition period, it became difficult to hold on to important players, and finding adequate replacements, which led to the subpar performances in 2017/18 and 18/19 seasons. Now with a lesser financial burden, more of the investment could be focused on creating a team which would slowly but surely progress up the table and become a challenger for the playoffs and the title itself.

Odisha FC unveiling their first ISL season kits (Courtesy: Odisha FC Media)

So thus the arduous process for better performances began. Coach Josep Gombau was trusted for a second season and players who actually fit his possessive style were brought in, especially in the foreign department. Xisco Hernandez and Martin Perez Guides in the middle with Adriane Santana at the top. However, it was a highly foreigner dependent side with only 3 of the 28 goals being scored by Indians. They had an impressive run in the second half of the season which made them a contender for the playoffs, but three back-to-back defeats in their 5th, 4th and 3rd last games shattered their hopes as both Chennaiyin and Mumbai City FC leapfrogged above them. It also happened to be the breakout seasons for Jerry Mawihmingthanga and Nandhakumar Sekar.

II. Rock Bottom, and the Road to Asia

Josep Gombau throughout his two year stint was criticised a lot for the sub par performances of DD and subsequently OFC, but it was only realised what a mammoth task the club had in their hands once he left for Queensboro FC in the US, and how influential he was in holding on to somewhat respectable displays with the players at hand. When Stuart Baxter arrived after remarkably winning over Egypt in the 2019 AFCON R16 with South Africa, the Odisha faithful hoped that their playoff prayers would be finally answered, only for the team to finish dead last with only 2 wins and having to concede 44 goals throughout the season. The team only getting together 11 days before the beginning of the season due to COVID-19 related logistical issues, missing key players during the first few games, combined with tactical errors, the most important of them being a defender lacking pace having no cover and getting ran past easily in counters, were some of the major factors for such a low point. And Stuart getting his contract terminated mid season due to making insensitive comments after losing to Jamshedpur was the final nail to the coffin.

"It's testament to the players, coaches, and all the club staff for what they collectively achieved. And that's something I've always asked for. The reason we're in the game is to win trophies and to compete with the best although I joined in the 2020-21 season, where unfortunately, we finished last. But within two and a half seasons, we've gone from finishing last to reaching the playoffs, winning the Golden Boot Award, winning the hero Super Cup and and also qualifying for Asia," Raj Athwal to The Bridge, July 2023.

Before the beginning of the 20/21 season, the club had a major administrative change. Rohan Sharma, the club CEO (and whose family runs GMS Leadership, the club’s owner) took a new director cum advisory role, with seasoned leader Raj Athwal, having 25 years’ experience in British football notably at Watford, Coventry and Glasgow Rangers, took the President's tag. This turned out to be a remarkably influential moment as it finally gave direction to a somewhat clueless club. Although his first season happened to be a disaster, Odisha FC improved considerably the season after finishing 7th. They had a great start to the season winning 3 of the first four games, but a string of poor results in the next six games led to their new head coach Kiko Ramirez getting the sack. Although fans anticipated the hiring of a new head coach, they were let down as their assistant manager took over the coaching duties for remainder of the season and couldn’t provide the consistency. It seemed like the team had gave up too early.

The weather still seemed bleak, the environmental hostile, the resources limited. It was obvious that there was potential but it wasn’t getting harvested properly. So thus the club reinstated their faith back on to that Catalonian stalwart named Josep Gombau who had proven his worth in managing a side who were in a constant struggle to get things right on the pitch. And Josep, being the limited resource utilising genius that he is, led the 6th most valued squad of the league to a 6th place finish, eventually failing to move past Ferrnado’s Mariners who eventually went on to win the Championship. Throughout the season, the team staged multiple exciting comebacks. They didn’t have the highest quality players or the necessary experience but Gombau’s ability to make his players win the mental battle compensated for the difference in quality against the bigger teams and thus helped Odisha finally achieve their first goal in their quest of this elusive Indian Super League. 

Odisha FC secured AFC playoffs after winning the Super Cup (Courtesy: ISL Media)

While on the topic of Super, they surprisingly got their first taste of silverware in the post ISL Super Cup. Taking advantage of tired and vacation-longing ISL clubs, they progressed through the group stages after winning over I League side Aizawl FC and Hyderabad while drawing against East Bengal. There after getting the upper hand over NEUFC in the Semis, and finally against Bengaluru FC 2-1 at Kozhikode gave them a chance for spot in the AFC Cup, Asia’s second tier club competition, which they did after winning over Gokulam Kerala in a one game playoff. Even though Gombau was surprisingly sacked at the end of the season, interim coach Clifford Miranda, who is now the assistant Indian Coach at Mohun Bagan, built upon the principles established by Gombau and utilised the attacking agility and deft finishing of wingers Isak and Nandhakumar Sekhar and club hero Diego Mauricio who had won the ISL Golden Boot in his second stint at the East Indian outfit and led the underdogs to their first outing in Asia.

III. The Lob-Era

After the departure of Josep, Odisha were in search of another coach, preferably Spanish so as to continue the philosophy. And it had to be someone who could be trusted with and would help a lot with player recruitments, an aspect the club management struggled a lot. It was at this time they got a huge favour from rivals East Bengal. After a rather confusing saga of verbal agreements, talks and desperate attempts for procurance of an NoC from legendary ISL Head Coach Sergio Lobera’s last club City group owned Sichuan Jiuniu, and eventually talks breaking down between Sergio and the Kolkatan giant, this happened to be the perfect opportunity for Odisha FC to sweep in and offer a project which convinced him. Lobera got working from day 1 and started bringing in familiar faces with whom he achieved everything in Indian football from his stints at Goa and Mumbai. Jahouh, Fall and Ranawade came from Mumbai, Cy Goddard came back to the country from Detroit City, Lenny Rodrigues and Puitea who were with ISL winning Mohun Bagan were called, while a few other young signings from across the ISL and I League helped form a respectable squad ahead of the 23/24 season. 

After an extensive pre season in Thailand, the Juggernauts started their first ISL match with a 2-0 win over Chennaiyin. This was followed by a 0-4 embarrassment at home by Mohun Bagan, who share the same group in the AFC Cup. That was followed by a respectable 2-2 against Mumbai City FC, losing out to Goa through a 90+6’ winner by Jay Gupta and a loss away at Kerala. In the meantime, they lost against a resurgent Bashundhara Kings in AFC and a 6-1 drubbing of Maldivian club Maziya (we have KYOs both BK and Maziya). After a string of difficult games which was becoming overwhelming for the players, Lobera’s experience and expertise helped steady the ship as they went on a 5 match winning streak across the ISL and AFC, the most significant of which being taking the revenge against Mohun Bagan in the second head to head in the AFC group stage, thus eliminating Mohun Bagan from the cup. A win against Bashundhara on 11th December will ensure their progression into the AFC Cup knockouts. They now stand 4th in ISL, a point below MB although the Mariners still have 2 games in hand.

After a long pre season and a few tweaks after the commencement of the ISL, Lobera has settled on a 4-1-2-3 with Ranawade, Delgao, Gehlot and Jerry forming the backline, Jahouh being the anchor, Puitea the box to box, Cy Goddard the attacking mid, two wingers Isak and (another) Jerry and Mauricio or Roy Krishna up top. In build up, Jahouh’s exquisite and mostly dependable distributive skills are capitalised on as he drops down towards the backline, with the CB stretching towards the side. This not only creates three passing options for goalie and captain Amrinder Singh but also enables the two full backs to charge forward, and be available for a lobbed pass if both wingers and the striker try to block the passing lanes to the 3 CBs. Ranawade and Jerry’s ability to progress down the wings enables Isak and/or Jerry to acquire more interior roles thus increasing further midfield dominance if there’s a 4 man midfield or preserving the 3 man midfield in case Jahouh has still not recovered from after dropping down.

Odisha FC’s pass map and Average formation in 1-0 win over NEUFC (Courtesy: @totalf0otball via X)

It is a fluid system of great understanding and the hundreds of hours dedicated to improvements in positioning and chemistry development is obvious as the movements are not necessarily predictable but justified and understandable once made. In the 1-0 win over NEUFC and the 5-2 win over MB, all the above observations are noticeable through the average formation and pass map. Diego Mauricio too has been asked to help out during build up by drawing defenders to the side while Isak and Jerry (the winger) and occupy central spaces to receive a cut back or a through on goal. Puitea’s surprise long rangers, Isak and Jerry popping seemingly out of nowhere, Mauricio using his physique to run through defenders and Cy Goddard’s cunning close space ball circulation has ensured multiple methods and options when it comes to finding the back of the net as Odisha have scored 12 goals in the league, the second highest after Kerala Blasters who have played two more games compared to them.

The biggest boon for this team is their effective coverage of space. The players are not often seen chasing behind the ball exhausting their stamina, but the cunning positioning where one covers the space created for when another attacks ensures the counter is slowed enough so that the players can arrange themselves in their defensive shell, where atleast 5 players would be ensured due to the understanding between Puitea and one of the full backs that only one of them would join the attacking line, so that 2 CBs, Jahouh, one full back and Puitea or the other full back would be available to block shots and cover spaces, and it has proven sufficient in most games. It is to be noted that the four goals conceded from MB in their season opener happened only after Mourtada Fall got the marching orders towards the end of the first half. 

Odisha FC organisation against MB (AFC Hub YT)

The remarkable surge of popularity of football in recent years, arguably totally attributed by an unparalleled enthusiasm from the State Government to connect themselves to the youth through sports is a commendable approach towards development of a game which is so much more than 22 men running around a ball. It is a source of entertainment, a source of employment, a source of making connections between the player, club and the fan and within the fans themselves. The success story of football in Odisha and its top division club was planned with a long-term vision and is being executed to near perfection. With the blessings of Lord Jagannath, the state dreams of establishing itself as a powerhouse of Indian football in the next few years and become a model and a source of inspiration of sustainable and inclusive football development for other states and clubs.

Tifo by The Juggernauts (Courtesy: sports_odisha)

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