It only takes one punch. Any fighter will tell you that. No matter how well prepared, how tactically aware, how well conditioned you are, all it takes is one punch. There will be that moment when you are caught flat-footed, making the wrong decision, swinging at the ball, thinking you will connect perfectly, but your opponent times his swing to perfection instead, and you are out cold.
It may seem that Bengaluru FC, who had done Indian football proud by reaching the final of the AFC Cup, were dealt a killer punch when Hamidi Ahmed scored his 16th goal of the tournament for Iraq's Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya club. Some analysts would argue that it happened in the 63rd minute, when Bengaluru coach Albert Roca erred with his substitutions, bringing on players who didn't fit his tactical plan. But it really happened when Bengaluru started to doubt themselves to win this. Make no mistake, it was the knockout punch.
In spite of fighting hard, Bengaluru lost by that solitary goal, and at the end of the day, perhaps the country that wanted it more won. The AFC Cup triumph is the first for an Iraqi team.
However, let's look at the many positives from Bengaluru's performance in the tournament. Roca took a bunch of players whom he met only five months ago to a continental final.
Bengaluru's performance over the past two rounds has been quite outstanding. They gave a good account of themselves against Singapore's Tampine Rovers - solid at the back and opportunistic upfront at home to win 1-0 and then put in a superb effort away for a 0-0 draw.
Against Johor Darul Ta'zim, it was the other way around. Roca showed his tactical astuteness, relying on a tight defence for the rewards.
It's the way most managers new to a team like to go. They lock down the defence, put in numbers at the back and try and get the team's confidence going. A few points later, the team members start trusting the man in charge, and then they are willing to do whatever it takes for him.
One of the big advantages that Roca had was inheriting a squad in incredible physical shape. As the minutes ticked by, the Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya players looked ragged, tired and out of shape. If the goal hadn't come for them, there was no question that Bengaluru would have made life difficult for them. Bengaluru would've lasted the fight, and could possibly even have sneaked to a victory.
One of the biggest assets of Bengaluru is that a number of their players are quite young. Looking at Alwyn George, Udanta Singh and even the consistent (but missing for the final) Amrinder Singh, it's hard to believe that they are only in their early 20s, still to hit what is known as peak form. And there is vital experience in the form of CK Vineeth, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Rino Anto and Sunil Chhetri.
Chhetri seemed a step ahead of everyone on Saturday, and there is the lingering suspicion that if Bengaluru's final chance had fallen to him instead of Vineeth, the result would have been different. When Ashley Westwood was the coach of the side, he had extracted the best from Chhetri, playing him upfront and then dropping him just a little deeper, to operate as a trequartista (a playmaker not restricted to a single position on the field). Roca has shifted him out wide on occasions. Wherever Chhetri plays next season, there is a responsibility anyone who plays with him has: put every pass he provides you to good use.
The I-League clubs will hopefully look at Bengaluru now and take some lessons on longevity. Moreover, the new AFC Cup format would be more accommodating. The new format will allow eastern Asian teams a better shot at glory as they won't meet their western counterparts till the final, done to promote the considerably weaker ones.
Bengaluru have shown in the past that resting on past glories is not their style. They won their first I-League in their first-ever season and didn't let go of that title till the last day of the second, eventually losing to Mohun Bagan. If that was a setback, it didn't bother them much. They stormed back and took back what was theirs this year.
Bengaluru will not let this final slip from their memory. There was not much to take away, other than perhaps big match memories and a couple of hard lessons. They will push harder and better soon. Under Roca, this team could play some glorious football with ability to lock the defence down. In the domestic circuit, they are quite easily the team to beat.
There will be several tough questions asked soon from those running the game in India. Continental dreams aside, the timing of the I-League will have to undergo a rethink. Bengaluru's I-League campaign finished so far back that it is hard to tell if the AFC Cup was their season-ender or season-opener.
How much more responsibility will the old clubs shrug off? Can they be held responsible now for the lack of infrastructure and programmes for youth development?
As a culture, we love telling the same tale a thousand times. Bengaluru have already brought about one revolution in the country. It is time for the others in the Indian football ecosystem to take a long hard look at themselves and decide whether this will be a story we will tell for a while, before letting it fade.
Published Date: Nov 06, 2016 10:34 am | Updated Date: Nov 06, 2016 10:34 am