Bengaluru FC: A lesson in professionalism in Indian football

Rahul Bheke's 117th-minute header, and a first ISL crown, was nothing less than what Bengaluru FC deserved this season.

Bengaluru FC celebrate with fans after its ISL semifinal win against NorthEast United in Bengaluru.   -  Sportzpics

For all the skill of Bengaluru FC's attacking triumvirate, it took a defender to score the winning goal in the ISL final. But Rahul Bheke's 117th-minute header, and a first ISL crown, was nothing less than what Bengaluru FC deserved this season.

When a team wins six trophies in six years -- and it must not be forgotten that two more league titles and an AFC Cup were nearly secured -- luck has little role to play. This accumulation of silverware is reward for -- and simply a consequence of -- relentless professionalism and hard work. No Indian football club, it could be argued, has been run better on a consistent basis since BFC's inception in 2013.

READ | Bengaluru FC lifts maiden ISL title after late Bheke winner

“It all boils down to the recruitment,” Mandar Tamhane, BFC's Chief Technical Officer, had told Sportstar a year ago, on the eve of the 2018 ISL final. “And that means recruitment of the players, technical staff, support staff, operations staff. The whole system we have, the people we have at the club in various levels and positions, it all collectively adds to our success. It's all about having the right people in the right places, both on the pitch and off it.”

Two days ahead of this season's final, Mustafa Ghouse, CEO of JSW Sports (BFC's parent body), said much the same thing. "We put a lot of strong foundations in place. We got good people in to take ownership of their departments. Everyone comes to BFC and realizes there's a sense of pride involved in wearing the jersey. That trickles all the way down from the management to the media team, the operations team, the kit boy, the driver -- everybody knows there is something that is expected when you are part of a BFC set-up."

Bengaluru FC coach and players parade with the I-League trophy in Bengaluru in 2014 after winning the league in its first season.   -  K. Murali Kumar


Westwood's Overachievers

Ghouse had not foreseen this degree of success when the club was first established. In fact, the Ashley Westwood side that competed in the club's inaugural season -- the I-League campaign of 2013-14 -- had been promised bonuses for finishing seventh. Westwood's lot went and won the league by four points.

"We've overachieved by a long shot," Ghouse admitted. "We never thought when we set up the club that we would be aiming to win titles in the first year. Or the second. We actually had the intention of being title-contenders maybe in year three. Because that's the kind of road-map we thought it would take to develop. But Ashley and team had different ideas."

Much of what Westwood did that first season seemed revolutionary in the context of Indian football, even if it was routine work for the Englishman. He brought a rigorously scientific approach to training, insisting on complete professionalism. BFC had reached out to Westwood after he and Michael Appleton had been relieved of their duties by Blackburn Rovers. Tamhane -- an experienced football administrator from Maharashtra -- knew Blackburn's Pune-based owners. Appointing the former Manchester United academy graduate proved to be a masterstroke.

"There are no two or three hour days here; it’s a full-time job,” Westwood would later say, as the club closed in on a first league title. “I was up at 4 a.m. this morning watching videos. That’s the way football works, especially in England. We’ve brought that work ethic over and that’s a major part of our success. Some of our players normally did not get on till 4 o’clock on some days, so to ask them to come at 8 in the morning was new. We had to explain to them what it takes to be a professional footballer and a winner.”   

Much of what former Bengaluru FC head coach Ashley Westwood did the first season seemed revolutionary in the context of Indian football, even if it was routine work for the Englishman.   -  K. Murali Kumar


In assistant coach Pradhyum Reddy, who arrived from Shillong Lajong, and Youth Development head Richard Hood, who had previously worked with the Tata Football Academy, BFC had two people with extensive knowledge of Indian players. The signing of a star like Sunil Chhetri, who had come to the end of his loan spell with Churchill Brothers, was a definite coup.

READ | Sunil Chhetri revels in leading Bengaluru FC to title

Lesson in patience

Westwood departed after three years of success and BFC found itself hunting for a new manager. Albert Roca, assistant to Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona, Galatasaray and Saudi Arabia, had just left the El Salvador national team and was available.

BFC had a tough start to life under Roca, finishing fourth in the I-League, struggling away from home but the club gave him time. It paid off, as BFC advanced to the final of the AFC Cup and subsequently got to the final of the ISL too. As the hiring and firing of coaches elsewhere in the ISL has demonstrated, the patience and understanding BFC showed with Roca is not something his counterparts at other clubs could have hoped for.

Albert Roca and Carles Cuadrat joined Bengaluru FC in 2016 as head coach and assistant coach, respectively.   -  Sudhakara Jain


"We don't put targets in terms of results because you could have the best team and not win," Ghouse said of Roca's first year at the helm. "We thought we had the best set of Indian boys we could have got and we didn't win the I-League. There's no way you can predict results or put targets on them. But we do demand effort and commitment and focus on things, and they fared well on that front."

'No transition'

There was no hesitation, Ghouse revealed, in appointing Carles Cuadrat at Roca's exit. The two were products of the same footballing environment, had worked together for a number of years, and shared a common philosophy of football.  BFC's desire for continuity -- reflected in the multi-year contracts it has given its players from the beginning -- was fulfilled by promoting Roca's assistant to the top job. "It was an easy transition," Ghouse said. "In fact there was no transition."

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One thing was clear though: as assistant coach, Cuadrat had developed a close bond with his players, and was perhaps closer to them than Roca was.

"In terms of football, nothing has changed. Maybe we've improved. Because we've kept Albert's good things and added Carles' ideas," Miku pointed out in an interview with Sportstar at the start of this season. "But as a personality, Albert is a guy who keeps more of a distance between himself and his players, between his problems and players' problems. Carles is closer to the players; he understands you more, hears you more, gives you more support with things off the field.”

BFC's desire for continuity was fulfilled by promoting Albert Roca's assistant, Carles Cuadrat, to the top job.   -  Sportzpics


'Thank God Bheke was there'

Cuadrat was also someone who worked on set-piece routines with an obsessive dedication. So it was somehow poignant -- although not surprising -- that BFC, which had conceded two goals from set-pieces in the 2018 final, should score a winning goal a year later via a corner kick.

"Last year, losing the final the way we did, it is fitting that we won by scoring from a set-piece," Chhetri said after Sunday's final. "We work on set pieces alone for one and a half days. The coach has told us that five out of every 10 goals come from set pieces. There are charts in the bathroom before we go to the match and it takes 20 minutes to memorize those. Every free-kick and corner has its own sign and sometimes I forget. I asked Juanan and even he didn't know. I had to understand it from a third player."

Even so, Bheke's finish was not an easy one. His header looped towards the far corner of the goal, struck the inside of the post, and went in. "We were not sure where the goal was going to come from," said Chhetri. "Thank God Rahul Bheke was there."

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