Bengaluru Football Club’s title winning debut I-League season may have come as a surprise to many. But behind the scenes, it was an array of systematic processes fuelled by a strong Pune connection that seemed to create the perfect conditions for the club’s success on and off the field.
Pune’s Mandar Tamhane, the treasurer of Pune District Football Association, made his mark on the national scene by playing a pivotal role off the field and was the first person inducted into the Bengaluru FC set up. “Initially, as the team was a start-up, my role was to set up the on and off field teams at the club. This included the coaching staff, players and key personnel in various departments of the club,” he says.
Bengaluru FC finished the campaign with 14 wins from 24 games, accumulating a total of 47 points. The team clinched the title on April 21 with a 4-2 victory against Dempo FC in Margao. Winning the league was almost a speck on the horizon when the club was founded just months before the season kicked off. “We were never expected to win the League but we always aimed to put in a solid foundation for the club and do the basic things involved with running a football club correctly. Other than Sunil Chhetri and Robin Singh, our team did not have any so-called big names in Indian football, but we were pretty sure that by putting in the correct systems in the club we would certainly do well,” he says.
Tamhane had earlier served as a logistics manager and this experience had afforded him a certain understanding of the football scenario in India. But it was his vision and shrewdness that played an important part in delivering results for BFC. Along with Chief Operating Officer Mustafa Ghouse, Tamhane was keen on bringing a foreign head coach on board. But an important corollary was the appointment of an Indian assistant coach to bring out the best of ideas from the world and from Indian football. Ashley Westwood, the former Manchester United youth player and the Scottish-born Pradhyum Reddy were subsequently hired.
Interestingly, by the time the All India Football Federation confirmed their entry into the I-League, the rest of the 12 teams had already completed their player rosters.
Assistant coach Reddy, who has previously coached Pune’s DSK Shivijians and guided Shillong Lajong to the top-tier in his first season, understands the perils of splashing cash on players indiscriminately.
“One thing we wanted to address was that Indian teams spend a very big chunk of their budget on first team players. The reason teams opt for it is to ensure that those players do not go elsewhere and play against them. The second reason is that teams are used to having massive injury issues where players miss out the entire season. Clubs spend 30-40 lakh on a player who doesn’t play a single game the entire season. There is a lot of wastage of resources,” Reddy says.
I-League clubs often look outside of India to add value and diversity to the team. Players from Africa form the major chunk of foreign players in the I-League. But Reddy makes a crucial point dismissing the notion that Europeans fail to adapt to Indian conditions. He states that Europeans have a more professional outlook and expect to be treated in a similar fashion.
A lack of professionalism on and off the field has left the Europeans with a negative experience. “At most Indian grounds, players kit-up on the side of the ground. There is no dressing room. It is not up to the standards abroad. The players are dumped in an apartment. A washing machine and dishwasher are basic requirements for them which are not provided,” Reddy says.
When it comes to African players, Reddy plays out a keen observation. “The Africans coming in are those who never had a professional career in Africa. They don’t have too many demands,” he says.
The recruitment strategy was based on extensive research to find the hidden gems in the coalmine. While the rest of the clubs focussed on adding numbers to the squad, Bengaluru took out their magnifying glasses to handpick young, talented and versatile players who can play at the club for many more years to come.
The club believed in the philosophy of spending wisely and allocating resources to various departments instead of just player wages. “We wanted to concentrate on other things which are equally important like players’ comfort, nutrition, scientific approach for training, injury recovery and rehabilitation, and training and match analysis of individual players,” Tamhane says.
Along with their performances on the field, Bengaluru FC have been notable for the treatment of their players and staff.
Regular outings beyond the football field such as dinners, movies, karting sessions and paintball battles allowed the players to relax as well as bond with their teammates. BFC also had a strong belief in treating all players, young or experienced, foreign or Indian, equally.
“There is one apartment block where Sunil Chhetri stays. In the same block, all the youngsters and the foreigners have their apartments. We don’t treat one person differently than the others when it comes to these things. All the players felt comfortable and they felt they’ve come into a normal football club,” Reddy says.
The club’s success on the field has been matched by the fans’ voices in the stadiums. Whether the team was playing its first home game against Mohun Bagan AC or travelling to Goa for the title-clinching game against Dempo FC, the Bengaluru faithful have always been on the team’s side. “The fans were our 12th man. The open bus parade that we had last week after winning the I-League trophy was a justification of the massive support given to us by the city,” Tamhane says.