The last time Ajay Khabra flew to Madrid he didn’t think twice.
Atlético Ottawa’s newly-minted assistant coach first travelled to the Spanish capital as a player for club pre-season last March when the COVID-19 pandemic halted proceedings and sent him and his side back to Canada earlier than expected.
Khabra left for Madrid again last week, this time as a coach, with Atlético Ottawa to begin its pre-season training camp for the 2021 CPL campaign. Ottawa players will make use of Atlético Madrid’s training facilities, including Alcalá de Henares, a new facility that was inaugurated in 2019.
“The way staff handled the COVID shutdown was great,” Khabra said of the shortened 2020 camp. “It was tough for everybody and such a surprise but there was no real concern for us, we knew we were going to be taken care of.”
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Turns out that relationship between Khabra, 25, and Atlético Ottawa has transcended even more than a worldwide pandemic in the past 12 months. The former University of Alberta grad was prepared to step away from the game this fall to pursue schooling until Ottawa CEO Fernando Lopez gave him a call.
“I had a great couple years and I experienced quite a bit in the CPL but I was ready to focus on my studies,” said Khabra, who holds a biology major. “It was a little bit of a surprise to hear from Fernando but it was a great opportunity and I had such a great experience last year.
“I knew coaching was in my future at some point. This came up a bit sooner than expected and I had such a great experience last year so it worked out.”
Khabra made six appearances for Ottawa at The Island Games as a member of the team’s inaugural roster before recently being released by the club.
Khabra was a product of the FC Edmonton Academy and spent five seasons with the University of Alberta Golden Bears, winning a U SPORTS national title in 2016. The Edmonton native made his professional debut with FC Edmonton in 2019, the CPL’s inaugural season, when he made 24 appearances, 21 as a starter, totalling 1,730 minutes.
Khabra expects to offer the “unique player’s perspective” to Ottawa’s coaching staff, which is headed by former Atlético Madrid and Spain striker Mista. He also understands the greater connection Ottawa has with Madrid, citing a familial atmosphere he experienced from that shortened March trip.
“You now belong to a bigger family, a bigger club,” Khabra said. “You have a tie. They want us to really embrace that, that culture that Madrid has – we’re going to learn their values properly this time.”