Bengaluru FC: Torchbearer of Indian football

Ever since it was formed in 2013, Bengaluru FC has been India’s leading light. With the run to the AFC Cup final, it has proved that it continues to be so. If even such an enormous achievement doesn’t open the eyes of clubs and authorities alike, probably nothing will.

Bengaluru FC players celebrate after defeating Johor Darul Ta’zim (Malaysia) in the semifinal second leg of the 2016 Asian Football Confederation Cup. BFC became the first Indian club to enter the final of the tournament. Though BFC lost to Air Force Club, Iraq, in the final, coach Albert Roca (below) said, “We have to be honest and say that if you are in the final, the guys deserved that.”   -  AFP

In 2013, when Bengaluru FC was formed, its owner, the Jindal Steel Works Group, set itself a target of finishing in the Top 3 of the I-League in three years’ time. There was a buzz, as they had won the bid to the All India Football Federation for a ‘corporate’ team, but under the prevailing circumstances, it led to some cautious optimism. For, the league was largely dull and meant little to the country beyond the confines of Kolkata and Goa. Money was beginning to dry up and clubs found the going increasingly tough.



 

Locating the team in Bengaluru seemed a gamble too. The city had always had a decent football culture but not a glorious history for the fans to peep into. If anything, the whole project was a giant step into the unknown.

If anybody had said then that the club, in three years’ time, would hold multiple I-League titles, come within minutes of winning another, claim a Federation Cup and make a run to the AFC Cup final, it would have been nothing short of mockery.

Yet, having done all that and more, Bengaluru FC has emerged out of the unknown as the torchbearer of Indian football. It would not be an exaggeration if one credits the club for first single-handedly reinvigorating the football scene with a triumph in its maiden year and then for continuing to give hope amidst floundering steps by all those around it. That it came without the glitz, glamour, cricket and movie stars should convey a forceful message.

“We have to be honest and say that if you are in the final, the guys deserved that,” coach Albert Roca said after Bengaluru FC’s defeat to Air Force Club, Iraq, in the AFC Cup final in Doha on November 5. “It was perhaps not enough for us to win the title, but we have achieved a level which has permitted us to see the future with more enthusiasm.”

In fact, this is a trend the club has set since its inception with the promise of an even better future for the sport in the country with each passing year. In the Ashley Westwood days, the club instilled in its players a sort of professionalism unseen in Indian football.

“Every player has to report an hour-and-a-half early and we have breakfast and lunch together — no excuses,” Sunil Chhetri had said after Bengaluru FC won its first I-League crown. “We pay fines if we’re not on time. Not to demean anyone, I’ve played in many clubs and not seen this. Have you heard of heart-rate monitors in India? This is all normal European stuff — not as posh perhaps but everything is proper.”

Backed by a willing owner, it has thus far resulted in handsome on-field success. With that has grown the fan base — quite an alien thing for anything not named cricket. In its debut year, the average attendance was 7000, which included the young, the urbane, women and children. Against Johor Darul Taz’im in the semifinals at home, there were more than 20,000 cheering for Bengaluru FC.

It’s a sort of structure that appealed to Albert Roca, the club’s new coach, as well. Under Westwood, Bengaluru FC played a more direct brand of football and found a winning formula. That Roca, who is from the possession-heavy Barcelona school, did not see this as an impediment is more than an honest acknowledgement of the good work done by his predecessor. That the owner did not bat an eyelid before appointing a coach with an entirely different philosophy shows the insatiable desire to improve further.

 

“The work done before us coming was very good,” said Carles Cuadrat, Roca’s long-term assistant since their Barcelona days under Dutchman Frank Rijkaard.

“The players are better professionals. They understand that we are demanding a different kind of game and from the first day, they were helping us. I also have to say that there is one player like Sunil (Chhetri), who is natural leader and understands how the game works from inside. The players are like a big family and they do things the right way.”

“It’s not at all easy,” Cuadrat went on. “The club was working with a coach who brought a lot of success. So, it means that the players have to change one kind of winner mentality to another. You lose one game at home and you can start ‘Oh ho, we are not in the right way’. But we trust our style. The players trust it and we feel really happy that we have reached the final.”

About the owner, Cuadrat had even more glowing words to say. “In Barcelona, before Frank Rijkaard came, the team had gone five years without a title. A big club like Barca, supporting that style, even without any titles, means that the board members, people taking decisions have enough passion to believe in that kind of project.

“Here, in the club, the decisions people like Mandar (Tamhane, the Chief Technical Officer) and Mustafa (Ghouse, the Chief Operating Officer) are like that. They are not very anxious about the results. They have an idea and they work in that way. It makes things easy for those working daily in the training sessions. India needs that kind of way of work.”

Sadly, what Bengaluru FC, its owner and coaches realise, the rest of Indian football still does not. The club’s methods were a novelty in 2013. The fact that it is still considered as such should be disconcerting to say the least.

“Over the years, we have done a lot of little, little things which have improved us massively,” Chhetri said on the eve of the AFC Cup final. “We now think most of them as basics. But a lot of clubs in India don’t even do that.”

It will be at Indian football’s peril if it doesn’t learn the lessons quickly. It’s tough for a team to motivate itself continuously in the absence of serious competition. The current domestic calendar is such that Bengaluru FC played all of four matches in the two-and-half months before the final. Amidst this, the Indian Super League chugged along merrily, completely oblivious to the world outside of it.

And Roca said as much after the defeat in Doha. “The kids here have never been in direct confrontation with tough teams,” he noted. “One day they are in the I-League and one day in the ISL. They deserved to be in the final. But we should not stop (at that). We have to be honest about the reality. Air Force played a kind of football which we never had any experience of before.”

In the time since 2013, Bengaluru FC has been India’s leading light. With the run to the Cup final, it has proved that it continues to be so. If even such an enormous achievement doesn’t open the eyes of clubs and authorities alike, probably nothing will.