Bengaluru FC: The antithesis of Indian football

Mihir Vasavda traces Bengaluru FC's remarkable journey, which has seen them break several myths of Indian club football.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Updated: November 6, 2016 8:57 am
Bengaluru FC, Bengaluru FC AFC Cup, AFC Cup Final, AFCA Cup 2016 final, Bengaluru FC AFC Cup final, Sunil Chhetri, Sports Bengaluru FC reached the AFC Cup final but lost to Iraq’s Air Force Club in the title clash. (Source: Reuters)

When Bengaluru FC was formed in 2013, they set themselves a target of finishing in the top 3 of the I-League after three years. But they leapfrogged expectations, and after winning the domestic title twice and the Federation Cup once, the Southerners managed what no other club from the country had achieved before – reach the final of the AFC Cup. Mihir Vasavda traces their remarkable journey, which has seen them break several myths of Indian club football

During the 2013-14 season of the I-League, two young footballers from Kerala returned home from Kolkata, both more or less convinced that their careers had come to a premature end. A few hundred kilometres away, in Shillong, a brawny 24-year-old’s promise on the football field had stagnated after he’d gambled on his academics by dropping out of college to pursue his passion.

All that the three knew of each other was through intermittent meetings. Their paths and fates, though, were all set to cross serendipitously — and, as it would turn out memorably, in just over three years’ time — in a few months.
But back then, Rino Anto, CK Vineeth and Eugeneson Lyngdoh were more concerned about their respective careers. At that point, it seemed they headed to a football-shaped oblivion, in their heads anyway.

Anto’s career graph was already on the wane when Mohun Bagan picked him up in May 2013 for a ‘substantial’ sum. The right-back wasn’t considered talented enough by his former club, Kerala-based Quartz FC, to even make the playing XI for the second division I-League matches. His meagre wages too weren’t paid on time. Bagan, then coached by Karim Bencherifa, offered him a lifeline. But then 20 days later, he was sacked in a typical Mohun Bagan fashion – without any notice or logic.

Vineeth, on the other hand, was at his prime while playing for United SC. In the 2013 season, he was the I-League’s highest Indian goal scorer and touted as the ‘next big thing’. That is before the Saradha scam surfaced and subsequently left United SC in tatters literally, with the club left with no money to pay their players. But Vineeth, like a few other loyalists, waged on. Just around that time, his father met with an accident and he rushed to Kannur. He would call the club from his father’s bedside and inform them that his playing days were done. That he wasn’t coming back.

Lyngdoh, or Eugene as he’s known more fondly, had turned his back on an engineering degree. The diodes and transistors had never interested him as much as the dribbles and tiki-taka. He had one massive advantage over others of his football-fanatic ilk. His father owned a football club back in Shillong. And he immediately joined Ar Hima (later called Rangdajied United) and didn’t mind the fact that it left him stuck within the confines of the local Shillong league.

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The college dropout would soon become one of his region’s best playmakers. But in a crowded football space that is the North East, Eugene always carried the risk of getting lost, which is exactly what transpired.

There they were, separated by states but united by destinies, ones filled with misfortune and regret. If you’d told Anto, Vineeth and Eugene then that they would play an AFC Cup final, they might have even taken it as some form of sarcastic mockery.

But here they are now, having been at the heart of Bengaluru FC’s remarkable run that has seen them become the first Indian club to reach the final of the second-most important club championship in the continent.

Not just the players, it seemed far-fetched even for the club. Bengaluru FC itself was still just an ambitious project that had opened its eyes towards an uncertain future.

That they lost to the much-fancied Al Quwa Al Jawiya, which is Arabic for Air Force, from Iraq is only a footnote in their meteoric rise. They had already exceeded all expectations and rewritten Indian football’s history by then.

And in the process, Bengaluru revived floundering careers of some talented footballers, while also changing the way Indian football clubs were perceived not just in the country but also across Asia.

When Bengaluru FC was formed in 2013, they set themselves a target of finishing in the top three of the I-League at the end of the third year. But they leapfrogged their expectations, winning the domestic title twice and the Federation Cup once. Now, the Southerners have done what no other Indian club has done before — play in the final of a continental championship.

The AFC Cup has historically been dominated by the cash-rich and technically superior West Asian clubs, who have won every edition of the tournament since its inception in 2004. Their hegemony was broken last year by Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta’zim, the team that Bengaluru beat in the semi-finals to make history.

It was one of the most memorable nights of Indian club football — two Lyngdoh assists and two Sunil Chhetri goals ensuring a 4-2 aggregate win. It’s remarkable to think that Bengaluru have existed for just three years, especially when you compare that to the likes of the two other Indian teams to have made the AFC Cup semi-finals before them.

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East Bengal, in its decades of existence, reached that far only in 2013 while Dempo got there in just over 40 years since being founded. And both had failed to shake the status quo of the tournament, going down to much superior clubs from the Gulf. Bengaluru’s feat also comes at a time when Indian football is going through one of its most turbulent phases, with clubs shutting shops and the national league mired in such uncertainty that it’s anybody’s guess whether it’ll even be held next year.

But none of this mattered when the final whistle blew at Sree Kanteerva Stadium in Bangalore on October 19. Anto, Vineeth and Eugene embraced each other, unable to fathom the magnanimity of their achievement. They weren’t the only ones overcome by elation that night. Sunil Chhetri, fast acquiring legendary status himself as India’s foremost poacher, was quick to rate it higher than the AFC Challenge Cup win in 2008, which ensured the national team’s first-ever Asian Cup participation in more than three decades.

On the touchline, the club’s owner Parth Jindal and a few players tossed coach Albert Roca in the air. And in the stands, the fans unfurled a giant banner: “You are not out of the Westwoods yet.” It was a sign that on Bengaluru’s most important night, the former coach’s contribution hadn’t been forgotten.

From the comfort of his plush central Mumbai hotel room, Ashley Westwood had watched his team and his players reach the summit. Like most of his players, Westwood too had hit a roadblock before he came to India. Assistant to Mike Appleton at Blackburn Rovers, the Englishman was sacked along with the head coach by the club’s Indian owners Venky’s during one its most forgettable eras.

While one Indian club owner slammed the door shut on him, another would open a little window of redemption, though that meant him diving head-long into the unknown. In May 2013, Westwood took charge of India’s newest football club. But there was one tiny hurdle he faced. “There was no football club. It was just a building with an office in it. We had to start from scratch,” he says.

Westwood is a product of Manchester United’s Class of ’92, the batch made famous by David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and the rest though he never made it big like his world-renowned batchmates. But spending his formative years under Alex Ferguson gave him an unmatched insight into managing a club. “During my younger days at Manchester United, I would see him at work even before I started the day’s training. When I left for the day, he’d still be around,” he says.

Westwood did just that. He brought to the club a system that was considered quite common in Europe but was not tried in India before. It was about doing the simple things right.

Players’ fitness was monitored with heart-rate, recovery and sleep monitors – equipment that was not even used by the national team back then, let alone other clubs. “We gave them electrolyte drinks and protein shakes. We had breakfast together an hour before training. We had lunch together and the boys had four chefs at the apartment where they all lived together,” Westwood adds.

Strict disciplinary measures were put in place. A player visiting one of Bangalore’s famous pubs 48 hours before a game would be charged a whole’s week’s salary or being late for a team meeting would cost him Rs 1,000. Picking up a card or being sent off during games carried hefty fines too. There were a set of rules for fitness-related issues as well. You couldn’t get away with putting on even one additional kilo or not reporting an injury.

It was a token amount for players who earn lakhs (some in crores) per season. But it brought a sense of equality, says a member of the team management. “It also helped in team bonding, which was visible every time they played.”

Off the field, the club partnered with a local brewery, got its own brand of beer, managed to get celebrities and other sportsmen to talk and write about them, and even made an Indian mongrel, Dimi (named after Dimitar Berbatov), their unofficial mascot. Then there were the catchy team songs that the fans would sing along and the witty banners that would add a very European-flair to proceedings whenever the team played at home.

In a city with no local football culture, Bengaluru made going to the stadium cool. The latest start-up appealed to the urbane population of a city that boasts of a start-up on virtually every roof top. Thousands started flocking through the turnstiles. The numbers kept on multiplying as the team made winning a habit. And although it can be argued that the level of fanaticism is yet to match what’s enjoyed by East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, Bengaluru in its short span has developed a loyal set of fans. For the record, 21,000 turned up to watch them upstage Johor.

On the field, Westwood’s army of discards dispelled several myths. “The biggest myth was that we were a club with deep pockets. In truth, we signed the cheapest players, if anything,” Westwood says. “There were young boys from the AIFF academy — Malsawmzuala, Daniel (Lalhlimpuia), Nishu (Kumar). We never went out for big names apart from Sunil Chhetri. The rest were all cleverly scouted,” he adds.

Before Westwood came, the scouting was done primarily by the club’s chief technical officer Mandar Tamhane and former assistant coach Pradyum Reddy. During the club’s official launch, they had just 12 players. And only one – Chhetri – was part of the national team. Today, more than half of India’s squad is made up of Bengaluru FC players.
Westwood never won any popularity contests with his counterparts—who labelled him arrogant. His players too had to endure some tough love at times. Chhetri, who had spent his entire career playing either in the centre or behind the striker, was moved to left flank to fit into Westwood’s 4-3-3 formation, a move that saw him go goalless for seven games.

During that phase, the club’s senior-most player was replaced by young striker Malemnganba Meitei, who had been one of the best performers during the pre-season (Westwood took that decision after consulting Alex Ferguson over a phone call). Recalling a conversation with Westwood, Chhetri had said back then: “Ashley told me, ‘show me something good while training and I’ll put you there.”

The trick worked. It didn’t take Chhetri to long show his worth, going through a purple patch in his career.

Westwood left the club after guiding Bengaluru to their second I-League title earlier this year. Under his successor Albert Roca, Chhetri is back to playing the role he enjoys the most – as a striker.

Following Westwood’s departure, the club looked vulnerable for the first time. But Roca has made sure that the transition has been seamless.

Roca was most recently in charge of El Salvador but is perhaps best known as Dutchman Frank Rijkaard’s long-time assistant at Barcelona — where he won two La Liga titles and a Champions League crown — and then at Galatasaray and Saudi Arabia. He is also credited with expediting Lionel Messi’s promotion to Barcelona’s senior team.

The Spaniard is a lot calmer in comparison to the aggressive Westwood. And it reflects in the playing style, which the Spaniard has tinkered a bit — making them build from the back with more attacking mindset rather than the direct approach Westwood adopted.

Roca, scarily for their opponents, believes Bengaluru are still a ‘work in progress.’ “It was never going to be easy given the team has been comfortable with set systems for three seasons. But they’ve been really responsive to everything we’ve introduced them to,” he says. “Bengaluru FC is still a work in progress. It will be a while before the team sets into a more solid rhythm but that will come with time.”

The fact is Bengaluru have overachieved. And even those who have been around from the start aren’t hiding their amazement. Tamhane puts it best when he says, “You don’t start a club and in three years be in an Asian Cup final. If you do that, you bloody well be surprised.”

Road to glory

May 28, 2013

All India Football Federation award the Bangalore franchise of the I-League to JSW Sports.

July 2, 2013

JSW announce the signing of former Manchester United youth player Ashley Westwood as their coach. They also sign India captain Sunil Chhetri.

July 20, 2013

The owners officially launch Bengaluru FC at the Bangalore Football Stadium, which would be their home ground for that season.

September 22, 2013

Bengaluru play their first I-League match, a home fixture against Mohun Bagan. Their Australian striker Sean Rooney scores in the 1-1 draw.

September 29, 2013

They win their first match, a comfortable 3-0 victory over Rangdajied United. Rooney, John Johnson and Chhetri find target.

October 26, 2013

Bengaluru’s first away match, and also their first defeat — a 2-0 loss to East Bengal at Kalyani Stadium.

April 21, 2014

Bengaluru claim their first I-League title with one match to go in their very first season, beating five-time champions Dempo 4-2 away in Goa. They finish the season by beating Sporting Clube de Goa 2-1 a week later.

January 11, 2015

After wrapping up the league, Bengaluru win another title. They beat Dempo once again to win their maiden Federation Cup. Chhetri and Robin Singh score in their 2-1 win.

February 4, 2015

Bengaluru make their continental debut, an away match of the AFC Champions League play-off match against Johor Darul Ta’zim. They lose 2-1 after extra time.

May 31, 2015

They are dethroned as I-League champions by Mohun Bagan following a dramatic 1-1 draw at their new home, the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, in the final match of the season.

April 17, 2016

Bengaluru reclaim their crown by beating Salgaocar 2-0, a result that helps them take an unassailable lead over defending champions Mohun Bagan.