Kick-starting a football revolution

Reaping the rewards... Bengaluru FC has heavily invested in improving fan experience and the club’s home games at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium have drawn huge crowds.-PICS: K MURALI KUMAR

It would be easy to assume that given the financial constraints faced by many Indian football clubs, elaborate ventures like youth development, fan engagement can only be undertaken by a club blessed with unlimited resources. People at the helm of Bengaluru Football Club say the answer is not in how much money is available, but in how efficiently it is used. By Ashwin Achal.

Bengaluru Football Club’s (BFC) season ended in heartbreak at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium as the team lost its I-League crown to Mohun Bagan following a 1-1 draw with the Kolkata side. The stadium was filled to the brim and 21,000-odd fans were there to see the final clash of the season, making the event a victory for football in the country, irrespective of the final result.

The passionate support — which included a 1000-strong Mohun Bagan contingent — rightly earned a word of praise from BFC owner Parth Jindal, the man behind the club’s meteoric rise. This was indeed not the time to sulk over one missed opportunity on the field.

“We’ve all grown up hearing stories about the atmosphere during the Kolkata derbies, but that night was pretty special too,” says BFC COO Mustafa Ghouse. The big turnout, however, did not come as a surprise.

While it is true that the season finale recorded the highest attendance of 2014-15, BFC’s home games have regularly drawn healthy numbers. “From the time we started the club in 2013, there has been a conscious effort to attract fans to the stadium. Nobody has come to a BFC game and not wanted to come back again. We take pride in that. A lot of work has gone into every aspect — security, cleanliness, food, clean toilets etc. at the venue,” Ghouse states.

Barring a few unintelligent obscene chants, the match-day experience is quite the family affair in Bengaluru. Matches are heavily promoted on social media — the club’s Facebook and twitter pages have around 72,000 and 10,000 followers respectively.

“It’s the way the world works now. We’ve used social media effectively,” Ghouse says. And it isn’t just the club that is taking an active interest on online platforms, fan-created pages — the intensely-passionate West Block Blues is a good example — whip up support on their own too.

That BFC was even in contention for the I-League title until its final fixture deserves praise. The players had a long season, with strenuous campaigns in the Durand Cup, Federation Cup, AFC Cup and the national league. The grind could have caused many an injury, but the squad remained fit.

Fighting fit... The fitness regimen undertaken by the club management has helped BFC to excel both at the national and continental levels.-

It is hard to recall an Indian side, in recent times, which has been able to juggle the demands of both domestic and international competitions as efficiently. Credit must be given to the management, led by coach Ashley Westwood, for employing a good support staff for this purpose. Experienced sports performance coach Malcolm Purchase heads the strength and conditioning department, with assistance from Irish physiotherapist Stephen Corner. The club has also entered into an agreement with the HEAL Institute (Mumbai) as its official medicine and high performance partner, and overall, the players are looked after well.

The management’s long-term vision also manifests in the youth academy. The goal here is to produce the next BFC senior team star. “The youth academy is headed by Richard Hood, who is extremely qualified. Winning junior tournaments is not our priority. We want our footballers to graduate and make it to the first team. In this aspect, we are modelled on European clubs,” Ghouse explains. The facility is currently located at the Bangalore Football Stadium, but the club is likely to shift the academy to a larger space, where the ready availability of practice pitches will not be a problem.

It would be easy to assume that given the financial constraints faced by many Indian football clubs, these elaborate ventures can only be undertaken by a club blessed with unlimited resources. Ghouse takes exception to this suggestion. He believes that the answer is not in how much money is available, but in how efficiently it is used.

“We have to work within a fixed budget, just like any other club. If you do the math, you will find that we are not the biggest spender among Indian clubs. We have a good idea on what to spend on, and what not to spend on. We do not spend much on the players, but we do spend heavily on match-day experience. It is all about how you allocate the funds,” the former tennis professional says.

Asked if BFC’s success can be replicated by competitors in the country, Ghouse says: “It is flattering, when people say that BFC is promoting football well. The key to success for any club is to implement systems that work. A club must establish an identity, based on its own management and coaching style. It is important to have an overall goal — in the big picture — before entering the field.”