The Odisha capital being the hosts of the Final Round of the 76th National Football Championship for the Santosh Trophy, which kicks off on February 10, there will be increased eyeballs on the performance of the home side.
It was a near miss for Odisha last season, as they missed out on a semifinal spot to Karnataka on goal difference.
“Coming so close to making it to the knockouts last time and missing out only because of goal difference, has given us a lot of motivation,” Salim Pathan, head coach of the Odisha team says. “It has lit a fire within the boys. Seeing something snatched away at the last instance has proved to be a catalyst to do better and leave nothing to chance.”
Pathan’s wards will look to use that to their benefit. The 42-year-old has been in his current role for over a year now, a small fact he hopes to use to the team’s benefit when the tournament begins.
“For a lot of these boys, the tournament is a chance to shine, to get noticed and experience things they otherwise wouldn’t get to,” he says. “The Federation has put a renewed focus on this tournament, and the entire footballing fraternity is excited for that. We are looking forward to playing gracious hosts, but, and I cannot stress this enough, we hope to not be too gracious on the pitch.”
Odisha has always been a close partner of the All India Football Federation and has, in the past, hosted both editions of the Super Cup and the last edition of the Federation Cup.
The experience of hosting big-scale events is not new to anyone in the state and Avijit Pal, Joint Secretary of the Football Association of Odisha stresses on the importance they are giving to the prestigious event docking soon on their shores.
“The state government has always supported promoting sport, and AIFF and Odisha have been long term partners regarding hosting events here. We have offered our facilities for National camps, and have also hosted tournaments,” he said.
“The tournament will be played across three different venues, and we have ensured that visiting teams are provided the best training, accommodation, and auxiliary facilities to ensure peak performance.”
Pal is optimistic that the Santosh Trophy will draw fans in Bhubaneswar, and cites the city’s history with sports as a reason to believe that the tournament will be well attended. “The people of Bhubaneswar are passionate about the sport, and having the Odisha team is always a positive. We hope to see fans come and support football in a big way.”
Pathan, while acknowledging the importance of crowd support — and home support no less — is also keen to stress upon the pressure this gives the home team. “Obviously it will be a situation that many of these boys have never faced before,” he said. “But I’m sure they will be prepared mentally to perform in front of the support. Of course, our first game (against Maharashtra) is key to building confidence.”
For Pathan, that first game will be a battle between the professional and the personal. Originally from Maharashtra, the coach has earned his reputation in the state before migrating to the eastern seaboard. He laughs the conflict off, but also quite poignantly says that he “would like his boys to give him a win.”