Bengaluru FC and the renaissance of Indian Football

In early 2013, in an attempt to punch its way up from the increasing footballing limbo, India applied for the hosting rights of the 2017 FIFA Under 17 World Cup. Around the same time, the All India Football Federation meeting it decided that they would accept bids from corporates for forming a club and directly registering them for the first division I-League.

There were just two conditions placed by the federation. One, the home city could not be Goa or Kolkata, as eight out of the thirteen total teams in the 2012-13 I-League were already from the two traditional strongholds of Indian football, and two, the new owners would have to revamp the football infrastructure in and around the club they would create.

Bengaluru is one of the most populated cities of the country and it was considered as a possible host city should the Under-17 World Cup bid materialise. However, the technology capital of the country didn’t have a prominent football club before 2013. On 28th May 2013, the same day that FIFA announced India as one in a shortlist of four possible hosts for the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, rights to form a new club from Bengaluru were granted to JSW group, one of India’s largest business conglomerates and a heavyweight in the steel and energy industry.

One of the first moves Bengaluru FC make was appointing Englishman Ashley Westwood as their manager, which proved to be a master stroke. Westwood had travelled the length and breadth of British football during his playing career, he played for more than 10 clubs in Britain’s various leagues, and he had also worked as the assistant manager of Blackburn Rovers.

Westwood was given full autonomy in setting up his coaching staff and training regimes from the get-go, and it took him little time to realise that technique wasn’t the only area India had slipped behind in.

European football enjoys huge popularity in the Indian television market, and more than anything else, even skill levels, it is the difference in strength and fitness that bugs Indian players and fans the most. In order to challenge a technically superior team, a team must run nonstop for 90 minutes and outwork them. The players took to Westwood and his staff’s methods like gospel.

There were directives flying around regarding the diet of the players. the basics of carbohydrate intake, sleeping patterns and heart rates that sounded like futuristic novelty to most of the Indian players. Inside one of the offices at the Bangalore Football Stadium, Bengaluru FC’s home for their debut season, a handmade graph perched on a wall. The office belonged to Malcolm Purchase, Bengaluru FC’s Sports Performance Coach, and he had set up that board to monitor the fat percentage of his players, which was unheard of at that time in Indian football.

In July of 2013, two months from the start of the I-League season, Bengaluru FC was officially launched at the Bangalore Football Stadium. At that time, the players, the assistant manager and scouts at the club could only put together a roster of twelve. A month later, Bengaluru FC signed Indian national team captain Sunil Chettri in the middle of a flux in his career, and gave him a home he has cherished since.

Chettri’s signing become a major boost for the club and its ambitions, and it helped the club to attract other promising Indian players. Around five months later, Bengaluru FC were champions of the I-League, with the India captain scoring the final goal at Goa to seal the title.

In the aftermath of their surreal debut season, Bengaluru FC announced BFC Soccer Schools, a programme where the club partners with schools across the city to scout, nurture and provide youngsters at the grassroots level an alternative pathway into the club’s youth academies and age-level teams.

The move was marketing genius, and it placed the club into the field of sight of an entire city. India, as a country, has never been younger, and to involve the kids is to involve their parents, and as an extension, spread appeal for the club’s fanbase far beyond the stadium-frequenting devotee.

Ticket prices are a genuine problem across the globe, across different sports too. By eliminating the financial barrier, Bengaluru FC opened their arms and gates to anyone who wanted to invest their time into the spectacle they offered on the pitch. For the first season tickets for an entire stand, prices were limited to just 30 and 50 rupees. Bangalore Football Stadium, in its current state, can hold 8, 500 people. More than 7,000 turned up for Bengaluru FC’s first-ever league game.

The club have since moved base to the Kanteerava Stadium, an 18,000-capacity athletics stadium just a couple of miles west from their spiritual home, and the fans have poured in. The West Block at the BFS was initially allocated to corporates and the college-going adult, and a regular crowd in their first season has now grown into the behemoth that is West Block Blues, a fan group which takes up almost the entire West Stand at the Kanteerava.

Watching a Bengaluru FC home game from the West Block A should soon be listed among the things-to-do for tourists, such is the noise and intensity of the atmosphere. You hear a stadium, a city, a people, throbbing and almost willing their men forward. Unlike anywhere else in the country, the club has also carefully curated a stadium-going experience, involving match-day programmes, a merchandise store, and more. A lot like the city of Bengaluru itself, the club wants you to stay.

There is a lot that Bengaluru FC have taken on, as a new football club with corporate backing, in a country which refuses to acknowledge its secret love for the sport. Building a club is the easy part, but BFC have executed the difficult bits with almost otherworldly courage and conviction. The result is a sense of respect that extends far beyond the city, even into the stands of rival clubs, and footballers who would run through walls for the blue jersey. The bond between those who walk out on the grass at Bengaluru FC and those who watch from the stands is almost familial.

After three amazing seasons, Ashley Westwood parted ways from Bangalore FC. In 2016, the club appointed former FC Barcelona assistant coach Albert Roca as the head coach. On 19th October 2016, in only their third season, continental heavyweights Johor Darul Ta’zim came visiting from Malaysia for the second leg of the AFC Cup semi-finals. No Indian club had ever reached that far in Asia’s premier football competitions, and those with grey hair and wisened senses didn’t give Bengaluru FC, a young club with a small stadium, much of a chance against the defending champions.

The match ended with a 3-1 scoreline in favour of the Indian club, and the Kanteerava Stadium hasn’t been nondescript ever since, and neither have the club. It isn’t every day that the cool and fashionable also becomes the fitting and correct. That evening, the torch for carrying Indian football forward was placed firmly into the hands of Bengaluru FC.

At the end of the game, the entire team came over towards the West Block, led by captain Sunil Chhetri. For a brief second, the men in mud-lined wet jerseys locked eyes with those of us with hoarse throats. In that moment of silence, we knew and they knew what had been achieved. After a shy smile from Chhetri, the players and fans broke into a long, synchronised rendition of the Viking Clap. Loud, tribal, mesmeric; it was a celebration of what the club and the fans had pulled off in a meagre three years of alliance. Bengaluru FC became the first Indian club to reach the finals of a continental competition.

Under Roca, Bengaluru FC won their second Federation Cup. A year later, the club moved to the Indian Super League (ISL) in the 2017-18 season, a franchise-based tournament which has surpassed I-League to become the premier competition of the nation. In their first ever season at ISL, they finished as the runners-up.

The next season, Spaniard Carles Cuadrat took over the reigns of Bengaluru FC from his compatriot as they honed in on winning the ISL. New players arrived in order to freshen the squad, and the trick worked, as they lifted their maiden ISL trophy in their second-ever season by defeating FC Goa 1–0 in the final which was held on 17 March 2019.

In the last five years, since the inception of Bengaluru FC in 2013, the standards of football has improved not only on the pitch, but off of it as well. The JSW-group owned club has established a legacy of professionalism which was evidently missing from the Indian domestic circuit. This sense of professionalism has affected each and every footballer in the country. Every club is now putting special emphasis on fitness of the players. Bengaluru FC have truly changed the landscape of Indian football for good in the past few years.

By: Saikat Chakrobaty