The inspiration to do something new always stems from path-breaking success. Cricket entered its religion-esque levels when a certain Kapil Dev lifted the 1983 World Cup. Even the recent boom in badminton came about due to the many achievements of Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth and others on the international stage.
In the case of club football in India, Bengaluru FC is leading the march towards footballing excellence. While the sport was a favourite in certain parts of the country, the lack of proper structure and infrastructure have dented rapid growth. No wonder the national team languishes around the 100-mark (97 as of 29th November 2018).
However, Bengaluru FC is cut from a different cloth right from their inception and continuously set the bar for a modern superclub in the country. The fact that the Bengaluru-based team turned into the gold standard in such a short period is noteworthy.
A New Dawn
It all began in 2013 when AIFF (All India Football Federation) welcomed bids for two new teams to join the 2013/14 I-League. The essential requirements were to create a group outside Kolkata and Goa and to build infrastructure in the city.
The JSW Group’s bid was accepted, and Bengaluru FC came to life on 20th July 2013. After the demise of KGF Academy and HAL S.C. in the city, there were question marks over how the new club would fare.
Furthermore, investing in Indian football was not profitable at all, with previous examples of Mahindra and JCT disbanding their clubs due to the same reason.
However, the ownership group showed passion, dedication and belief, epitomised by the club’s young CEO Parth Jindal.
A New Way
One of the best decisions the ownership group took was the appointment of Ashley Westwood as the head coach. Westwood started at Manchester United and then plied the rest of his career in England.
The former defender was backed thoroughly to implement his methods, and he went about setting the basics right. Westwood opined that the quality difference between Indian and European players arose from fitness and not technical skill.
He spent the first few months getting his players fitter than ever, introduced curated diets and rigorous training regimes. The decision was vindicated with the Southern Eagles visibly superior and fitter than their I-League counterparts in the debut season.
Further, Westwood used video analysis, got in a full-time analyst and emphasised on team-building more than at most other clubs.
Along with the ownership, the focus was firmly on processes, to develop the players and establish healthy daily routines. Westwood always reiterated that his job was to create footballers for the Indian team.
One of his most significant achievements as Bengaluru FC coach was fielding a team full of Indian players in a crucial AFC Cup tie against Burmese club Ayeyawady United. At a time when ISL and I-League teams looked to the field as many foreigners as possible, Bengaluru FC broadened their appeal and highlighted their core values.
While this structure and methodology are common at European clubs, Indian clubs could never replicate well, affecting players and their performances. In Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri’s own words, they had to worry about nothing else than football, a rarity in the country.
After a successful debut season, the club continued to underline their trust in the process by starting BFC Soccer Schools. This initiative aimed at providing high-quality football coaching to kids at centres near their homes.
This way, the club not only gained a young talent for their academy but also, importantly, started doing their bit for Indian football.
This was followed by the launch of their residential academy in 2016, another step towards encouraging football as a proper career.
Meanwhile, a managerial change in 2016 brought former Barcelona assistant, Albert Roca to the club. However, the results on the pitch were mostly unaffected, another anomaly, and a testament to the well-defined structure already in place.
Current manager Carles Cuadrat replaced Roca this year, and yet, the Southern Eagles are sitting at the top of the league after ten games.
Further, the Spaniard has promoted five players from the ‘B’ team, including U18 star Ajay Chhetri, another good sign of the club’s progress.
A New Culture
One of the defining moves made by Bengaluru FC was their commitment to fan engagement. While teams can win on the pitch, football clubs can only thrive when the community joins in.
All the top foreign clubs ensure they are accessible to fans in every possible way, whose contributions are intangibly priceless. To replicate the same, Bengaluru FC opened their doors to the fans.
Open training sessions, fan events and showcasing fan experiences brought the people closer. Simple moves such as making merchandise available at the stadium, players taking time out to meet fans built stronger bonds.
Further, Parth mentioned in a documentary how they set prices of ₹30 and ₹50 for an entire stand in their debut season. This broke the financial constraint toward attending live games, and the city responded with over 7000 people turning out for the first game itself.
The support for the club turned more vocal with the birth of the West Block Blues, Bengaluru FC’s ardent and passionate fanbase. Their songs and banners remind of the vociferous home support at foreign clubs, and they helped turn the Kanteerava Stadium into what it is called now as ‘The Fortress’.
After all, one of the hallmarks of a superclub is their invincibility in their backyard. The fanbase is vital to achieving it, and the West Block Blues are standard-bearers in this regard.
The sensational 3-1 win over defending champions Johor Darul Ta'zim F.C. in the 2016 AFC Cup semi-finals to script a piece of history could not have been achieved without the fans. The Viking Clap which ensued post-match between the players and fans stamped the importance of fan culture.
Thus, Bengaluru FC, recognising the importance of community from the get-go, set a template for other clubs, should they choose to follow.
A New History
All the right methodologies and intentions come to nought without success on the pitch. The processes need to end in results to trigger belief, to entice fans and to be spoken about on bigger stages.
Bengaluru FC is right on track in that aspect. In the five years of their existence, they have already scaled several heights. They won the I-League on debut and added another title two years later.
The Southern Eagles finished top of the league in their inaugural ISL last year, although they lost to Chennaiyin FC in the final stage.
Further, they won the Federation Cup in 2015 and 2017 and the Hero Super Cup in 2018.
While five trophies in as many years are fantastic for any club, it is their continental exploits which lifted them above peers and validated their status as India’s gold standard.
The JSW-owned club became the first Indian team ever to reach the finals of the AFC Cup in 2016. Their dream run to the finals brought the club’s player-first and fans-first approach into the spotlight and attracted eyeballs further.
A New Hope
Thus, Bengaluru FC got things right both on and off the pitch since their inception. Getting in the right leaders, sticking to their core values and remaining accessible helped the club quickly and sustainably rise to the top of the pile.
The Bengaluru club remains India’s best on the AFC ranking, sitting at a 32nd place, way ahead of the legendary Mohun Bagan (77th), the only two Indian teams in the top 100.
Another sign of their continuing rise is automobile giants Kia Motors becoming the title sponsors for the next four years until 2022.
The South Korean company is associated with FIFA, Europa League and the Australian Open among others and Bengaluru FC represent their first venture in India.
This sponsorship is another shot in the arm for both Bengaluru FC and Indian football as a gateway for high-profile investors backing non-cricketing sports in the country.
Thus, Bengaluru FC continues to show the way for all interested parties on how to run a football club in the country. Their methods and ideologies are nothing new when compared to foreign clubs.
However, their commitment to the cause, despite the lack of a nurturing environment, saw them succeed and in the process, separate themselves from the rest.
Therefore, Bengaluru FC’s relatively path-breaking approach to running a club and the stellar success they achieved so far turns them into the perfect role model for every other club in the country.