Odisha have become India’s sports capital in recent years, creating a model worth emulating. The government has played an active role in bringing national and international tournaments to the region and the state has developed a great reputation for delivering on these events. There has also been a noticeable push on the infrastructure front and several high-performance centres have set up shop in the area.
In football, the state has played host to various competitions in recent years and hearteningly, has become a hub for the women’s game. The state hosted a four-nation tournament earlier this year to provide the women’s national team with preparation for Olympic qualifiers. While the state’s men’s teams have hardly made a dent on the national stage, the women’s game has exploded since the turn of the decade. Odisha are a formidable presence in the Senior Women’s National Football Championships and in Rising Student’s Club, have one of the best club sides in the country.
When the owners of the Dynamos found Delhi to be a difficult proposition (I have previously documented the national capital territory’s sporting woes on this site), Odisha was more than happy to provide the team with a new home.
On the sporting front, there aren’t too many changes and Josep Gombau remains at the helm of affairs. The franchise have been sticklers for player development and most of the young Indian players in the side have been together for three seasons now. The onus will be on the likes of Vinit Rai, Nandhakumar Sekar, Romeo Fernandes, Shubham Sarangi and Mohammad Sajid Dhot to finally deliver on the promise.
With one of the league’s smallest budgets, the club does not splurge on overseas talent either and this has created problems in the last couple of seasons. A young side have struggled in the first half of both campaigns, staying rooted to the bottom before late season revivals took them to the heady heights of eighth in the table. They have shown all the characteristics of a young side: an inability to find the back of the net, the concession of late equalisers or winners and most critically, a lack of belief in their own abilities.
Gombau has brought the principles of play he was schooled in at La Masia to the club and they play a very attractive brand of football. They lacked for a goal-scorer last season though with Andrija Kaludjerovic and Daniel Lalhlimpuia both struggling as number nines. Winger Lallianzuala Chhangte ended the season as top scorer with five goals and has since made the move to Chennaiyin FC.
None of the foreign players could make a sustained impact and most of them have been recycled out of the club. Goalkeeper Francisco Dorronsoro and midfielder Marcos Tébar remain but if Odisha have to do well this season, the new arrivals have to take ownership, especially in the attacking third. Xisco Hernández is a very good signing and should help create in advanced positions but the player everyone will watch with a keen eye is Spaniard Aridane. The centre-forward has to chip in with regular goals if the club have any playoff aspirations.
The Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar hosted Jamshedpur FC in the fourth season for a game against Bengaluru FC and that was a precursor for things to come. Football fans in the state now have a team to call their own. It is a reflection of the growing interest and involvement of many stakeholders in the region. Odisha FC are a welcome addition to the Indian Super League.