Kolkata: There are any number of examples in international football where a legend has gone on to take up the top administrative job there - be it a Franz Beckenbauer as the President of Bayern Munich or Emilio Butragueno as the Director of Football in Real Madrid. Odisha FC, a team in the new Indian Super League, has decided to walk the path when they roped in David Villa, a World Cup winner for Spain as their Director of Global Operations - a move which the club management is bullish about.
“Villa’s arrival is a big statement of intent for the club, it’s supporters and of course, the ISL in general,” said club president Raj Athwal, a football administrator who brings with him a rich experience of working with clubs like Scotland’s Glasgow Rangers, Coventry City and Watford in England. Athwal himself took charge in his new role in January and started working overtime on working on a blueprint for the club, which finished at the bottom of the table in 2020-21 season.
Speaking to Gulf News during an exclusive interview on zoom from the UK, Athwal said that the induction of Villa is but one of the steps to chart a roadmap for the future. ‘‘While the presence of a World Cup and Euro winner like David is going to raise the club’s brand value and global presence, our plan is to have a football committee where he will have a key role to play. Our plan is to now focus on building a team with the right blend of youth and experience,’’ Athwal, who has spent 26 years in football administration and worked with coaches like , Brendan Rodgers, Gordon Strachan, Sean Dyche, Ally McCoist, Gary McAllister, Peter Reid, Rob Page (current Wales manager) and Nigel Clough, said.
“I will try to bring my experience. Obviously, I didn’t play in India but I played soccer for 20 years as a professional and before that in the academy,” Villa had said when he was unveiled in May. “And in all of the projects that we are involved in, I try to give all of my experience that I have in soccer.”
It’s an imperative that Odisha FC, which enjoys a commendable backing from the government of this eastern state, has to invest well in the transfer window to make an impact in the new season. Asked if Villa’s presence may cast a tangible Spanish flavour in their recruitment and playing style, Athwal said: ‘‘See, the style of football we had been trying to play was more Spanish - an exciting one. We will be open in terms of coaches and players, but the Spanish flavour could well be present.’’
The veteran football administrator is aware of the fledgling league’s history which saw a series of big names - past their prime - joining the ISL bandwagon to make a quick buck.
‘‘I am not an advocate of players coming in for a pension. The recruitment will depend on the elgibility of a marquee player - whoever comes in will have to respect the shirt. Ultimately, our aim is to make it to the AFC Champions League,’’ he said.
How feasible is the idea of the Odisha club tying up with an UK outfit to facilitate training and exposure trips, given Athwal’s connections? ‘‘Covid-pending, yes but I would not like to give away more than this. At the end of the day, I am not a miracle worker but certainly hope that I can make some significant changes,’’ he said.
Asked how challenging will the job to take the club forward in a country which is too cricket-centric, Athwal dropped the example of the game’s development in the US. ‘‘When MLS (Major League Soccer) first began in the US, the response was honestly lukewarm but it has changed over the years. In the US, American football, baseball are so big but there is still room for football. Why can’t the same thing happen in India?’’ Athwal ended on an optimistic note.