New Odisha FC coach Stuart Baxter hopes to emulate South African success in ISL

South Africa midfielder Bongani Zungu (2nd-L) celebrates his goal with his coach Stuart Baxter during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations quarters against Nigeria, at Cairo international stadium on July 9, 2019. KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images

Indian Super League (ISL) club Odisha FC have made quite a few signings this summer, but none are as indicative of the change in guard as South Africa's Cole Alexander, signed from the now-defunct Bidvest Wits FC.

This is, after all, a signing purely driven by their new head coach Stuart Baxter.

Baxter has cult status in South Africa. On his 67th birthday recently, Bafana Bafana superstars took to social media to express their love -- Siphiwe Tshabalala referred to him as "dad", Shaun Bartlett described him as an "inspiring and motivating" figure.

Alexander may just be the beginning of the exodus from South Africa to India. Talking to ESPN, Baxter revealed that he has a number of South African players on his transfer radar at Odisha, but declined to reveal names.

What awaits him in India is a fresh challenge. His predecessor, Josep Gombau, had worked within FC Barcelona's academy system from 2003-09, and had imported that style wholeheartedly to Odisha. During his tenure, they played fast, free-flowing, if not always very successful, football. They scored lots of goals, they conceded even more.

Baxter's footballing philosophy is rather different.

More Klopp than Mourinho

His AIK won the 1998 Allsvenskan despite scoring the fewest goals in the league (25 in 26 games). His Kaizer Chiefs had the best defensive record in South Africa in each of his three seasons in charge, two of which ended in title triumphs. This included a campaign (2014-15) in which they conceded just 14 goals in 30 matches. Under his guidance, South Africa made the quarterfinals of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations [AFCON] despite only scoring three goals in five matches.

Even so, Baxter tells ESPN that it would not be completely correct to describe him as a "pragmatist".

"If 'pragmatist' means 'boring', then no, I wouldn't like that stamp. I like players to play, feel that they are enjoying playing, and feel inspired," Baxter says over a Zoom call from Sweden. "Would I liken myself to a [José] Mourinho or a [Jürgen] Klopp? I think Jürgen Klopp. I think Mourinho is more of a pragmatist than I am."

One category Baxter trumps both in is variety of experience, though.

South Africa and Sweden aside, his coaching career has included clubs in Portugal, Japan, Norway, and Turkey. He has also coached the England U19s and the Finland national team. India, however, is uncharted territory.

"My thinking was: Look, I want to be working," he says about the offer from India. "I don't want to be sitting doing nothing while the football world starts moving again. This is a definite offer. It's an interesting league. I haven't worked there. It's another challenge, so let me take this. It's a very short season... and then we'll make a decision on where we go from there," he says.

He's ready for it, despite knowing little about the league. "I've studied my own players more than I've studied the league itself -- I have to admit. I've got a pre-season when I get down there to look a little bit more at the opponents," Baxter says. "I have to say, in my experience, I'm sure that chairmen in boardrooms all over the world look at coaches sometimes and say, 'No, I won't take him because he doesn't know anything about the league, or he doesn't know anything about our club.' I have to tell them that, sometimes, not knowing is an advantage."

"When I came to South Africa the first time, I thought I'd studied. I read lots of literature on the struggles and [Nelson] Mandela and South African society. I thought that I had prepared myself, but I hadn't. It's like describing chocolates to someone... Until you eat the chocolate, you don't really know."

Marrying entertainment and discipline

Baxter prefers his learning process to take place organically. "I think that I want to know enough, but I don't want to become obsessed with having more information. Sometimes, you start reading into things that are not really there."

In South Africa, his robust, structured style of football met a population with a particular love of trickery and entertainment. From an outsider's perspective, it may have appeared that he stubbornly stuck to his guns, but Baxter insisted he learned from his players in South Africa.

"When you work in Scandinavia, for example, everything is well-organised. People will stand at a crossing and the little man will come on [indicating that they can walk]. You can look and see that there isn't a car coming for six miles and they will stand there and wait for the green man to come on. Everything is disciplined," he says. "That would not happen [in South Africa]. Cars fly backwards and forwards, but people still try to get across through the side, tragically sometimes. But, you know, the chaos of everyday life stimulates their creative brains to make a plan. That's reflected on the football field."

"They can make a plan on the football field when Swedes struggle to find that creativity, but lo and behold, describing a 4-4-2 with distances between defenders and the organisational skills is playtime for them. What it's taught me [is to find] how far you go with your creativity in Sweden without making them uncomfortable because you've pulled away all their organisation, and on the opposite hand, how much creativity you can take away without a South African player feeling like you're stifling them."

This is where he insists that he is not going to turn Odisha's football style on its head.

"Players that have worked with me will tell you that we worked equally as much on our attacking play as we did on our defending," Baxter said. "As a coach, you've got to address attacking a compact defence. Now, when you're attacking a compact defence, really, you should be talking about a possession-based game. That means changing sides quickly, playing through lines quickly, penetrating whenever possible, and having good movement both behind and through the opponent. But if you're on the transition, you don't want a possession-based game, because that doesn't win games; that doesn't score goals."

Baxter admitted that finding a balance between style and substance was not always simple, but during South Africa's 1-0 win over hosts Egypt in the last 16 of last year's AFCON, he finally cracked the code.

"For me, one of the most pleasing nights, obviously, in my time in football, was in Egypt. We had two days to put together a game plan and the South African players told me with everything they did on the field in Cairo that South Africans can accept information and retain that inspiration to play and to get on the ball and express themselves."

Mission India 2020

This is reflected in the arrival of Alexander, and his targeting of more South African players at his new club. However, Odisha has -- in its short history -- prided itself on providing an opportunity for youngsters. "Yes, the clear message is that we are not going to be the team that only uses a chequebook and buys the best Indian players. We're going to be about development, empowerment and youth."

Odisha narrowly missed out on the playoffs last season and are not among the major established forces in the league. Baxter is hoping to use the league's structure to his advantage in order to spring a surprise or two.

"That [causing an upset after making the playoffs] is what we're hoping for. [Odisha] have never finished in the top four [they did in 2015 and 2016 as a franchise based out of Delhi, the Dynamos], so let's break that barrier first. [After that] the inspiration that I'm sure everyone will be feeling going into the playoffs could make things take on their own life a little bit," he says.

"You see this in the World Cups. Someone that's not fancied scrapes through the group and suddenly they're reaching the semi-finals on pure impetus, so we're hoping for that."

Come what may, it's safe to say that Baxter will give his all. He has, after all, done it before. In their decisive 2019 AFCON qualifier, Baxter led South Africa to a 2-1 win over Libya in Tunisia despite having been warned at the time that his blood tests suggested he might have cancer. Only later did he find out that he had received a favourable result in the biopsy and did not have the illness.

Despite his age, Baxter is confident that his two-year contract with Odisha will not be his last in football.

"I've got a plan that when the India thing is finished, I would like to have one shot again at either the African or European Champions League at club level. Then, I promised my wife that we would take one of the places that we've already been that the family was happy in and we'll try and settle there."

"I will try to give back something tangible into the game. For example, to have a coach education academy in South Africa, or young players -- trying to find a sponsor... It could be homeless kids in India or whatever. That would be my last job in football. But before then, I've got a couple of things I need to do," he says.