There’s an inescapable sense of irony in Bengaluru FC (BFC) being heralded as the symbol of Indian football ahead of the AFC Cup final against Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in Doha on Saturday, for the club epitomises everything that Indian football is not — and hasn’t been for several decades.
BFC is remarkably professional and ambitious; unfailingly process-oriented and player-focused; and wonderfully community-driven and self-sustaining — all of which doesn’t at all encapsulate the actual state of football in the country. The Bengaluru-based club is a magnificent anomaly in India, achieving success swimming against the tide, and one that is deserving of far greener pastures, such as those seen in the Asian-level competitions, than what this country has to offer in its stifling ecosystem.
Its achievements have certainly led us to further rue years and years of missed opportunities. If a three-year-old institution, founded in 2013, can leave behind football clubs with decades of legacies, traditions and foundations, you cannot help but wonder: what could’ve been, eh, if only a sensible plan was set in motion by any of the sport’s main stakeholders during its stagnant and declining years?
If the rest of Asia does begin to take interest in Indian football, as some claim they might, and look under the carpet beyond this isolated fairytale, they’ll find a sport beset by confusion and conflict.
On a recent visit to England, a conversation with two prominent English football journalists naturally veered towards the state of football in India. BFC, of course, became a prominent part of that discussion.
This was apt, since no other Indian club comes close to being as European in its existence as BFC does via its training regimes, dietary focus, stats-driven analysis, video-driven match preparations, social media presence, young and modern fan base and even the sale of the club’s merchandise (in a country where the national team’s jersey is almost impossible to find and purchase).
It was understandably difficult, though, for the English journalists to comprehend the oddities of Indian football, where the champions of India, set to make the country’s first-ever continental final appearance in Asia’s version of the Europa League, aren’t part of the ongoing Indian Super League (ISL), and, in fact, finished their own league season in May earlier this year.
Until a few months back, I would firmly describe BFC as an ‘ISL-level club languishing in the I-league’, deserving of taking part in a competition that is run more professionally and promoted more aggressively than its counterpart. Nowadays, I’d be tempted to label BFC as an ‘Asia-level club languishing in India’.
The AFC Cup run has shown everything there is to admire about the Bengaluru-based club. A maiden managerial change in June, ahead of the quarter-final round, along with the exit of a few key players, was expected to throw the team off its game, especially since outgoing manager Ashley Westwood was widely acknowledged as the messiah who gave BFC its unique philosophy and identity.
But his departure only went on to showcase the strength of the groundwork in place at the club — a large portion of the credit for which must go to Westwood. Under its new manager Albert Roca, a former assistance coach at FC Barcelona, BFC has, quite extraordinarily, grown stronger. The team concedes fewer goals now and deploys better set-piece routines without compromising much on the flair upfront.
The club has upset the Asian apple cart with remarkable consistency in the knockout rounds this year. Kitchee, runners-up in the Hong Kong Premier League, and Tampines Rovers, the Singapore-based conquerors of Mohun Bagan, were dumped out against the odds before BFC produced its best ever result in the semi-finals by defeating defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) of Malaysia — a side that had won all of their matches prior to the semi-final, including beating BFC twice in the group stages, and looked rather invincible in scoring by far the most number of goals (28) in the competition.
The JDT fixture was testament to the spirit of the club as a whole. BFC players played out of their skin on the pitch, coming from a goal down against a team they hadn’t beaten in three attempts. Supporters turned out in heavy numbers at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, or ‘The Fortress’ as they like to call it, making an incredible spectacle off the match.
Even prior to the knockout rounds, BFC’s prowess, and the unique nature of its data-driven practicality, was evident. Two defeats in the first two group matches, away to Lao Toyota FC and home to JDT, didn’t fluster Westwood. The coach recently admitted that he "didn’t even plan to win the Johor (JDT) game" — an approach you could only take when you’re safe in the knowledge that there is unconditional backing from the club’s owners and its supporters.
With I-league games arriving thick and fast back then, there was balance to be struck and Westwood also admitted that the second position was the only realistic target with JDT too in the same group. This was typical of a manager who would frequently throw in percentages and numbers in press conferences and show little emotion both on and off the pitch.
As it turned out, Westwood’s BFC won the three matches he had set out to win — home to Lao Toyota and the two fixtures against Ayeyawady United — to finish second and qualify for the knockout rounds.
In the thrilling home win over Ayeyawady, a match which finished 5-3, the English manager even named an all-Indian starting XI — this, in a country where Indian coaches readily circumvent the I-league’s Under-22 rule (‘at least one U-22 Indian player must be in the starting XI’) and where all ISL teams play more foreigners than Indians in their starting XI (ISL teams are allowed up to six foreigners).
Skipper Sunil Chhetri best explains how being part of a professional club makes a difference: "You’re not worrying about anything that’s not football." To take a punt on the newly-formed club back in 2013 remains the best decision of his career. At BFC, India’s best footballer rejuvenated his flagging career following disappointing spells at Churchill Brothers and at Sporting Club de Portugal.
Chhetri calls the AFC Cup final "the biggest game of his club career". Other voices are calling it "the biggest game in Indian club football history". Whatever might be the result of the final on Saturday night, Indian football will ride the BFC wave into the Asian spotlight. But it will be hard to escape the irony that, in reality, Indian football isn’t anything like the picture BFC will, or already has, painted to an outsider.