ISL: Bengaluru FC embarking on a new adventure

In the four years of its existence, Bengaluru FC has won the I-League and the Federation Cup two times each, and reached the AFC Cup final once; this is a club accustomed to success.

With most of the other teams reshuffling squads, BFC has an advantage having managed to retain or reacquire 12 players from last season’s roster.   -  V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

After having observed the Indian Super League from the outside for three seasons, Bengaluru FC has finally taken the plunge. The tournament may be familiar territory for some of its players but for the club, it is a new adventure.

Expectations, though, will continue to be high. In the four years of its existence, BFC has won the I-League and the Federation Cup two times each, and reached the AFC Cup final once; this is a club accustomed to success.

“From the competition view of things, the challenge is going to be massive given we’ve never played any of the teams involved, before,” says head coach Albert Roca. “I wouldn’t really say this is a step into the unknown entirely, it’s just a new jigsaw puzzle that we cannot waste any time in figuring out.”

CELEBRITIES SPEAK

S. K. Uthappa (hockey)

“I have been following BFC from their inception. I kept track of all their matches in the I-League. I followed the action on Twitter, and whenever games were broadcast on TV, I watched. I have been to a couple of matches with friends two years ago. The atmosphere at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium was awesome. The West Block stand made me feel as if I was at some European league game. You can’t get better fans than those.

“My favourite BFC player was Eugeneson Lyngdoh. But now he’s gone to ATK. I’m a midfielder too; so I really appreciate what Eugene does. He goes unnoticed because he doesn’t score many goals but I love his game. He has great vision and makes great passes. Chhetri is a legend. He scores some spectacular goals. I like Udanta too.”

The reshuffling of all squads ahead of this season means that none of the old franchises can truly claim to have settled units. This is where BFC has an advantage, having managed to retain or reacquire 12 players from last season’s roster. Further, some of the new arrivals — the likes of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Erik Paartalu, Dimas Delgado, and Rahul Bheke — have been part of the club’s AFC Cup campaign. “We were lucky in a way that this squad was involved in the AFC Cup which means we have started working together earlier than all other clubs in the ISL and I’m sure that will work in our favour,” says Roca.

CAPTAIN SPEAKS: 'We want to win the ISL'

BFC gave a good account of itself in the AFC Cup, losing in the semifinals last month despite a valiant performance in the second leg. That squad will be further strengthened for the ISL, with the addition of strikers Braulio Nobrega and Miku, both of whom have shown good form in pre-season friendly matches. John Johnson, who missed the club’s AFC Cup campaign for personal reasons, has rejoined the side to quash rumours of his departure.

Gurpreet was not part of BFC’s original ISL squad but is eligible to play as a replacement. Daniel Lalhlimpuia did not feature in the ISL draft either but remains a BFC player; he is among the team’s reserves too and is certain to be involved at some stage.

CELEBRITIES SPEAK

P. R. Sreejesh (hockey)

“Earlier, BFC was in the I-League and Kerala Blasters was in the ISL. So I could support both teams. But now with both in the same competition, I have this big doubt. I guess when the two teams play in Kerala, I will support Blasters and when the game is in Bangalore, I will support BFC.

“BFC has invited me to a couple of matches, so I’ve watched them at the stadium. That West Block stand is crazy. As a player, when you’re out there on the pitch, that’s what you play for...that crowd. How dedicated those fans are...how passionate they are throughout the game! Even Kerala has similarly passionate fans; Blasters games are always packed. So I want to see how the BFC-Kerala games will be.

“Chhetri is India’s top-scorer...so definitely he’s BFC’s main man. Kerala has Vineeth, who is the big star there. So I want to watch both these players. If I get an opportunity this year, I’d love to go to the Kanteerava Stadium again.

“I recently played a charity football match (‘Celebrity Clasico’) and even there I was a goalkeeper. The basics are actually the same. You need to have good reactions. But in football, the ’keepers have to work really hard because the goal is huge. But at the same time the ball in hockey is a lot smaller. And then there are the rules: in football, you can shoot from anywhere but in hockey you can only score from inside the circle. Goalkeepers in both sports have a difficult job.”

Sunil Chhetri, the team’s talismanic captain, continues to be a force even at 33. Udanta Singh, with his pace, will also be a handful in a front three that could include Nobrega or the Venezuelan Miku; what the team cannot do without is composure in front of goal. Paartalu, Delgado and Lenny Rodrigues will continue to be important in midfield while at the back, Johnson’s return could send the excellent Bheke to right-back and Harmanjot Khabra to the bench.

For Roca, this is a fresh challenge. In his first few months in charge, the Spaniard led the team to the final of the AFC Cup. The season after, he presided over a Federation Cup victory and a semifinal run in Asia. Participation in the next edition of the AFC Cup now rests on triumph in the ISL. Roca has to shoulder this burden of expectation; after all, he has set the bar rather high.

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