Bengaluru FC, the trend-setting serial winners of the decade
When it came to deciding the various "best of the decade" candidates, discussions in the ESPN India office were long, taxing, and not often resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Few objections, though, were raised when Bengaluru Football Club's (BFC) name was put forward for the team award.
They may only have been established mid-way through 2013, but no one team has grabbed Indian sport by the scruff of its collective collar, this decade, quite like BFC. We look back at a select few dates that highlight the aspects that see them being crowned ESPN.in's Team of the Decade.
October 19, 2016. Few goals in Indian club football history have slammed into the net quite as loud as Sunil Chhetri's belter which put Bengaluru up 3-2 on aggregate against Johor Darul Ta'zim the 2016 AFC Cup semifinal. Having been on the verge of being knocked out, Chhetri had pulled it all back. Juanan Gonzalez would add another late on to ensure BFC became the first Indian team to qualify for the final of a continental knockout competition.
Success. Instant, emphatic, sustained.
Everything the club has done until now has been defined, underlined, by their on-field success. From the I-league win in their debut season to the ISL triumph in 2018-19, BFC have won six trophies in the six full seasons they have played. They made that historic AFC Cup final in just the third year of their existence.
The owners, JSW Group, have provided unstinting support, financially and otherwise. What has stood out is also how they have allowed the football professionals to go about their job without much interference. And that bit's important. You see, the bedrock for this massive success has been that much overused, almost clichéd word -- professionalism.
January 21, 2014. The 2013-14 Federation Cup was held in the small, football-mad, town of Manjeri in north Kerala. While all the participating teams set up camp in town, Ashley Westwood - head coach of BFC at the time - kicked up a fuss. He said the facilities there just weren't good enough to meet the dietary requirements of his players. They shifted nearly fifty kilometers off-site to a hotel in Kozhikode.
That they didn't progress to the knockout stages of the competition is, in the bigger picture, irrelevant. In Indian football, the concept of 'moving base to ensure the dietary requirements of athletes are taken care of' was more or less unheard of at that point, and that the club supported Westwood's decision to do so was a mark of their commitment to the cause.
Westwood's finicky attention-to-detail permeated through the club and his successors have kept those standards at the highest the domestic circuit has seen.
The choice of successors, meanwhile, highlights just how forward thinking the management has been.
Where Westwood was the perfect coach for a newly formed club to make a mark in the kick-and-rush, hurly-burly world of I-league football, the appointment of Albert Roca, and later Carles Cuadrat, laid the platform for the identity that we associate with the club today. The two Spaniards have overseen some of the most beautiful football this country has ever seen.
Throughout this period, the management has been supportive of their appointments, backing their plans in the transfer market (for instance, signing 38-year-old Alvaro Rubio almost exclusively for that run to the AFC Cup final), allowing them to shape pre-season training, and backing them even during the rare dry spells. As current head coach Cuadrat told ESPN a while back, "when we started out, we went eight games without a win and had a lot of meetings with Mustafa [Ghouse, CEO at the time] and Mandar [Tamhane, Technical Director at the time]. They told us 'don't worry, we believe in you and what you want to do'." They would go on to win the Federation Cup later that year.
They have a vision, and they believe in it completely.
Outside of the senior team, BFC have started 21 "Soccer Schools" across four cities. Their Academy, a residential campus near Bellary in north Karnataka, houses four age group teams, the U-18s, the U-13s, U-9s and the U-7s. Establishing a concrete pipeline from those teams, and the wildly successful B-team, to the senior squad is their next great footballing challenge.
September 27, 2018. Bengaluru FC announces a three-year partnership with Japanese food producer Nissin. You know Nissin - the people who invented the ready-to-eat-just-pour-hot-water cup noodles. Bengaluru FC now have an Instant Noodles Partner.
An Instant Noodles Partner. For a football club. In India.
Taking a leaf out of the Manchester-United-book-of-commercial-success, BFC now have 13 commercial partners - ranging from steel pipes to internet service providers, from Jockey to Radio City. Parth Jindal - scion of the JSW Group -- had earlier this year, told ESPN that "everyone in Indian football is losing money hand over fist," but as United have shown, this method of commercial exploitation is the way forward for any club that wants to sustain its own finances.
January 07, 2017. No one deserves to live a life of fear." A week after disturbing incidents of sexual harassment occurred at the city's famous New Year's Eve celebrations on Brigade Road, BFC released a video with the players, led by Sunil Chhetri, denouncing the incidents and beseeching the viewers to be "better men". The next match they played wearing pink. They would repeat the gesture come March for International Women's Day.
The video, the message, was beautiful. Sure, it was a small gesture - like when they wore all green to promote awareness of climate change and the need to protect the environment -- but in a world where the silence of those who are larger-than-life is often deafening, these small gestures matter.
They feel authentic, too.
For instance, when they talk about providing everyone a chance, they mean it - Noushad Moosa, an assistant to Cuadrat and head of the 'B' team, travels across India in search of talent for the Academy age-group sides. Once within the embrace of the club, individuals are treated as one part of a larger family.
From players to kitmen, from the media team to senior management, they have grown as the club have grown.
The steady development of the commercial side of the club, meanwhile, has not detracted from them developing and sustaining a die-hard fan base. Vociferous, loyal, omnipresent, the fans are front-and-centre in the club's vision. Speak to them and you can feel it -- the attachment they have to this club of theirs is deep, visceral.
There are, of course, issues. The club have had a bit of a tough time in reaching out to the traditional bastions of football in the city. But there is a strong push to embrace local, native, culture into the fan base. Be it the club or the fans, at times some of the arguments they have put forward have sounded high-handed and a bit holier-than-thou. But that comes, more often than not, from the passion engendered within everyone associated with the club. That passion is real.
There is an emotion of one-ness within the club that, in this franchisee era of Indian sport, feels endearingly old school.
October 15, 2019. The press conference ahead of India's WC qualifier against Bangladesh. A journalist, seeking to play on the narrative of Chhetri coming back to play for India in the city his wife hails from, asked him how felt to play in Kolkata. Chhetri talked for a bit; about how thrilled he was to be playing in the city, in front of its passionate fans. In the middle of all that, though, he deadpanned, "my wife and family, they travel wherever I play, [this] is just another away game for them... because Bangalore is home."
BFC have been smart in capitalizing on having THE face of Indian football, one of the best-recognized athletes and most-admired characters in the nation across sport, on their side. It gave them instant visibility and a publicity they've used as a foundation to build their image. That Chhetri has felt comfortable enough for his own personality to shine through (see, for example, that tweet ahead of the India match in Mumbai) is a mark of how the club have embraced their captain, their leader. Indeed, BFC's influence in how he has grown into the role of India's talisman cannot be overlooked.
The quote from the press conference was a throwaway comment, but it spoke to something deeper. It spoke to how Sunil Chhetri - the single biggest name in Indian football -- has adopted the club as his. To how, for him and many of his teammates, Bengaluru FC - and by extension the city itself -- is home.
Now, that is special.