Sunil Chhetri is talking about pre-game rituals; giving juicy tidbits into what has gone behind the making of India’s most successful football team of this decade. “There are charts in the bathroom. Before we go to a match, 20 minutes everyone has to stand there,” Chhetri says, minutes after Bengaluru won the Indian Super League title on Sunday.
On that chart is an illustration of every set-piece situation practiced along with all codes and signs that players are expected to use while communicating on field. “Every freekick, every corner has a different sign, and you forget. Most of the times, you’ll see me asking (defender) Juanan or (forward) Miku. Today, when I asked Juanan (what a particular set piece sign meant) and he said, ‘you know what, even I don’t know,’” Chhetri adds, breaking into laughter.
Whatever it may have been, it worked. The tired minds and heavy legs of FC Goa’s players were already preparing for penalties. Neither team had been enterprising enough to go for a goal in a cagey final – which was ironic because both the teams were playing with a lot of attacking flair. So when Dimas Delgado, Bengaluru’s feisty midfielder, floated in a harmless-looking corner towards the top of the box – away from the crowded six-yard area – not many expected it to turn into something dangerous. Goa, however, made the same mistake that many in Indian football have been committing frequently through this season – ignore and underestimate Rahul Bheke.
In a starry Bengaluru line-up, Bheke often goes unnoticed. But on Sunday, the man from Mumbai’s outer suburbs yet again reminded all of his versatility. His header may have won Bengaluru an ISL title but Bheke’s bigger contribution came in his own box – partnering Spain’s Juanan Gonzalez for almost two hours to keep a lid on Goa’s talisman, and one of the better foreigners to play in India, Ferran Corominas.
Bengaluru played with three Indians in the four-man defence. It is a risk not many clubs take in a high-stakes match because of the tactical inferiority but Bengaluru have shown they aren’t afraid to throw the inexperienced Indian players into the deep end – in 2016, they dared to field an all-Indian starting XI in the AFC Cup, a step no Indian team has ever taken.
Bengaluru’s defence held a high line and operated with a synergy of syncronised swimmers – holding a tight, uniform line to catch Goan forwards off side 8 times. The full-backs, Nishu Kumar and Harmanjot Khabra, closing down Goa’s most favoured pattern of scoring – through crosses (they’d scored 16 like that, highest this season). But that’s been the Bengaluru way — to punt on Indians at a time when most use them as fillers. “Foreign players can win you matches but eventually, Indians are going to win you championships because they form the majority on the field,” Bengaluru’s chief technical officer Mandar Tamhane says. “It’s good to see that Carles trusts them.”
Carles Cuadrat, Bengaluru’s Spanish manager, was not even eligible to be in charge of an ISL side. He had been a conditioning coach with Turkish giants Galatasaray and was Saudi Arabia’s assistant coach, but those roles did not meet the league’s criteria, which are supposedly designed to ensure the quality of managers does not dip. After Alberto Roca left Bengaluru last season, the team had identified Cuadrat – his assistant – as the successor to ensure continuity. According to those in know, it took a lot of convincing for the league to modify the rules. Eventually, the league relented and allowed those who’ve been assistant coaches in ISL for one full season to take full charge (NorthEast United, the semifinalists coached by Eelco Schatorrie), were other beneficiaries of this).
Cuadrat’s impact on the team has been profound. “For us, the change under Carles was more progressive,” Chhetri says. “Everything was more or less the same (in the ways Roca and Cuadrat operate, but) he had his more detailing.” Like on the set-pieces. “There have been 14 goals scored in ISL finals and seven are from set pieces. It shows how important they are and we work a lot on that,” Cuadrat says. Every week, one-and-a-half days are spent just on practicing the defensive as well as attacking drills from dead-ball situations.
The impact is evident – Bengaluru have conceded least goals this season from set-pieces and are among the highest scorers. “It’s good with the kind of threats we have. Dimas is really good with deliveries, we have very good headers in Khabra, Bheke and I would call myself in that list as well,” Chhetri says. “Miku is good, Erik (Paartalu) has been tremendous, Juanan is great… It’s not by chance.”
With Bengaluru, nothing ever really has been by chance. This has been a decade where Indian football has slumped from one big uncertainty to another and the larger threat of the wheels coming off any moment has always remained. Bengaluru have risen above all the crisis and controversies — be it in the way they have been managed on field or the manner in which they have set standards off it.
In terms of continuity, the contribution to national team and sheer dominance, they have been to Indian football this decade what Armando Colaco’s Dempo were in the previous one. It does not matter if it’s I-League or the ISL; it does not matter if it’s one league or two; no promotion/relegation; it does not matter that a league ends with a strange as a Cup-tournament like format. In Indian football’s most confounding era, Bengaluru have been a beautiful anomaly.