Bengaluru FC made its Indian Super League (ISL) debut at the Kanteerava stadium on Sunday after a successful four-year spell in the I-League.
The support of 17,000 plus fans, one of the best turnouts it has had in the last three years at home, cheered the team on to a 2-0 victory over Mumbai City FC.
During the game, a large banner sprawling along the West Block read — "ARRIVED" — with the ISL trophy at its centre. But has it really been the dream switch to the big league the fans had hoped for?
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At the inception of ISL in 2014, many Indian football pundits and followers were skeptical about the idea of a celebrity-run franchise-based competition. Foremost among them were the fans of the then newly crowned I-League champion Bengaluru.
The West Block Blues (WBB), a group of the club's hardcore supporters, felt the wealthy resources flowing into ISL would have better served to revive the dwindling stature of the I-League.
And at one point during the match, chants of "We don't need ISL... ISL needs BFC!" rang out from the WBB.
'ISL will put Bengaluru on world football map'
Waseem Ahmed, a pioneer of the WBB, was among the supporters who were critical of the concept of ISL on social media during its founding years. The 26-year-old has been leading the singing and chanting in every BFC game right from its inception in 2013, which has earned appreciation from the team's captain Sunil Chhetri.
Waseem believes that his club is joining the revised version of the ISL as compared to the tribulations of its first three seasons. "When the national team used to play, the league used to go on. ISL was the only league in the world which used to go on during the international break. Now that’s not going to happen since ISL comes under AFC," Waseem told Sportstar .
“Secondly, with the AFC recognition, the ISL clubs have an opportunity to play in the AFC Cup.” He believes that the growing popularity of the ISL will help put Bengaluru on the world football map.
Interestingly, this was not the first time the club had its eyes set on joining forces with the ISL. In 2014, the JSW group — owners of BFC — and Sun Network came together to become one of the eight franchises to take part in the IMG-Reliance managed tournament. The club was set to be rechristened as Bangalore Titans but the deal, for unspecified reasons, ultimately fell through.
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Waseem closely followed the developments from 2014 but felt that the club's management was the final word on the matter. "I personally felt that when we joined the ISL it would be a merger of the ISL and the I-League."
The qualification for the AFC Cup and the ISL's new found prominence as the country's premier club competition served as key factors in the Blues coming on board for the tournament this time around. Parth Jindal, the owner of BFC, had said earlier this year, “I cannot imagine a Bengaluru FC season without AFC games in it!”
Playoff over Promotion & Relegation irks supporters
The fact that the two-time I-League champion will now pit its skill in a playoff structure as opposed to the system of promotion and relegation of a league format irks some of its followers. Fans still reminisce about the final day draw to Mohun Bagan which cost BFC the title in the 2014-15 season.
“If you look at leagues like Premier League and La Liga, nowhere does this happen. Only the MLS and the A-League follows the playoff format. Hopefully after the merger next season (of ISL and I-League), we could see a longer league format in place,” said Nisarg Vashist, an ardent supporter.
The followers also admit that they will miss the distinction that came with playing in the I-League. Shahbaz Wasee, a BFC regular at the Kanteerava told Sportstar , “If we win the ISL this year, we wouldn’t call ourselves the champions of India. Winning the I-League was special, especially in the first season (2014). We had to play 18-20 (24) games to win the title.” The expanded version of the ISL means each team will now play 18 leave games as opposed to 14 from previous seasons.
The 25-year-old also said he will miss the rivalry the fans shared with Kolkata giants, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal FC. For now, a new rivalry is in the offing. It is rumored that Kerala Blasters’ fan base Manjapadda has promised to fill up the stands at the West Block, making it an encounter worth keeping an eye out for in March next year.
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