All through Bengaluru FC’s I-League title-run, the team management never lost sight of the big picture. The short-term goal — to post victories — did not come at the cost of improving the standard of Indian football.
Clubs are required to field at least one under-22 player in the starting eleven — a rule introduced in the 2014-15 season to give the nation’s young footballers a chance to showcase their skills. There is, however, no stipulation on how long the junior should stay on the pitch.
Most sides use this loophole to substitute the player early, usually around 15 to 20 minutes. A fine initiative has thus been turned into a farcical exercise.
In BFC’s clash against Salgaocar FC here on Sunday, the visitor replaced 22-year-old Aslon Oliveira with Brian Mascarenhas in the 23rd minute. After the outing, Salgoacar coach Santosh Kashyap explained that Oliveira was hauled off because he “did not have enough exposure,” and this meant that he was unable to handle the big occasion. Oh, the irony.
One can only imagine the mindset of someone like Oliveira, as he enters the pitch. Twenty minutes is hardly enough time to make any sort of impression.
In contrast, BFC has consistently put upcoming talent to the test. Udanta Singh, Malswamzuala, Shankar Sampangiraj, Daniel Lalhlimpuia, Amrinder Singh — these are some of the under-22 names on the roster who have been given significant playing-time.
Udanta and Lalhlimpuia have completed an average of roughly 45 minutes per match, while Malswamzuala (60 minutes) and Sampangiraj (71 minutes) have enjoyed an even better return. There have also been several occasions when two or even three juniors have been on the pitch together.
Malswamzuala is a fine example of how BFC’s faith in its young guns has paid off. In a crucial outing against East Bengal, a poor pass from the midfielder led to BFC conceding the opening goal. “A young guy making a huge blunder like that in an important moment — I can bet that any other club would have taken him off then and there,” Chhetri would explain later.
“But immediately after that happened, we went up to him and asked him to cheer up. Minutes later, Malswamzuala took the ball from our goalkeeper and made a good run. I remember thinking that he was lucky to be part of this club.” The 19-year-old would, in fact, go on to score in BFC’s 3-1 win.
“Actually I was scared that my seniors and the coach would scold me, but they were quite nice,” Malswamzuala recalls.
BFC coach Ashley Westwood is an Englishman, who doesn’t necessarily need to develop Indian football to embellish his own credentials. Yet, he seems to care more than others. “We keep hearing about developing Indian football, but it seems like I am the only coach who is keen on this. I am not an Indian. Why should I develop Indian football? At the end of the day, Indian coaches have a duty to their country. If they want to concentrate just on winning, then it’s up to them.”
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