For those who don’t know me well enough, the amount of time I spend reflecting on the result of the game I had last been involved in is the same as I would need to slip on a pair of football boots. Then whether it is a win, loss or a 4-4 draw is immaterial. However, that Wednesday, the 19th of October, changed that just a little bit. Bengaluru FC became the first club from the country to make the final of the AFC Cup. And it is more than just the feat that went into making me feel the way I did, even a good two days after the result.
We came back from Malaysia with a 1-1 result against the reigning champions, Johor Darul Ta’zim, and though it wasn’t a win, it strangely felt like one simply because of the way we battled on that night at the Larkin Stadium. To put a few things into perspective, Johor were crowned champions of the Malaysian Super League for the third time on the bounce, just before they played us. As if that wasn’t a big enough injection of confidence, they achieved the feat without being beaten all season. Their home stadium packed in excess of 20,000 very loud fans, who wouldn’t stop singing. In short, everything was against us. So, for Bengaluru FC to claw back into the game after going a goal down said so much about us as a team.
Our off-field team promised us a packed Kanteerava so that we would have the best possible chance to turn things our way. They went all over the place talking about the importance of the game, and how we were on the cusp of history, and all of a sudden, this stopped being a ‘Bengaluru FC’ or ‘Karnataka’ deal. It was about India and it was overwhelming to see support pouring in from all quarters.
We always back ourselves twice as much at home and not one face in the dressing room suggests otherwise. While a 0-0 result would send us to the final, the talk was about going out there and getting goals, because that is what wins you games. Outside, the stands were filling up quickly.
I am almost always overawed by the kind of atmosphere the ‘fortress’ throws at us on match day, but that Wednesday had a completely different air to it. The moment the team bus rolled into the stadium, the fans began marching towards it with flags, banners and flares. Looking at all those faces gave the boys a bigger sense of understanding of how much the game meant to the city.
The boss’ team talk too spoke about how much this meant to our fans and it was so fulfilling to be able to do this for them. One thing that stands out about the Blues’ faithful is the way they react when we concede. They get louder and I will tell you that it plays a big part in us wanting to go for an equaliser with so much more gusto.
We conceded early, but didn’t let our shoulders drop and that worked for us. We quickly reminded each other that we were having possession and all we had to do was to keep knocking and we would be rewarded sooner than later. We went into the break with a goal to show for and then got two more in the second half to finish off the job in style. I was thrilled to have played my part with a brace, and the pair will always be a special part of my memory for some time to come.
Bengaluru FC going through to the final is just the kind of advert the sport needed in India, and I am confident it has done more good than you will ever imagine. The single most-repeated question I have been asked is, when India will qualify for the World Cup. What people forget is the continent that we are part of — Asia. The logical step to realising a World Cup dream is to do well in Asia. We need to be consistently among the top 4-5 nations in Asia before we are taken seriously on the global stage.
Clubs from the country also need to be consistently in the reckoning for titles in Asia, which is why Bengaluru’s charge to the final is important. When we sealed a berth in the semifinals, we joined East Bengal and Dempo as only the third team from India to make this stage of the tournament. A stronger national league will see more teams from India making it to these stages often, and this is only the AFC Cup that we are talking about. The Asian Champions League is a different ball game altogether.
If we keep doing the right things, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be giving a good account of ourselves in the AFC Champions League alongside Asian powerhouses like Urawa Red Diamonds, Western Sydney Wanderers, Jeonbuk and Al Ain, in a few years from now.
While what we have achieved with Bengaluru FC is phenomenal, we have quickly reminded ourselves that the job is far from done. Yes, we have made history, but I don’t see why we should be satisfied with that. We have a final to look forward to and possibly have the chance to add another chapter in the history books if things go our way. Our opponents, Air Force Club (Iraq), are a very good team and we will have to raise our game by more than just a few notches if we are to let them know that we are in this with an equal chance.
A lot of things could change when we get on the pitch — strategies, formations, choices for the starting XI. But what I am sure will remain constant is the message from the coach. Before every single game he has asked us to be brave and we’ll heed that message now, more than ever.
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