When star forward Hammadi Ahmed Abdullah rolled the ball in at the back of the net for Air Force Club in the 71st minute, you could almost hear the collective exasperated gasp from the thousand or so Indian supporters seated at the Qatar Sports Club Stadium. For as long as possible, Bengaluru FC had managed to prevent the invincible, but their defence had finally faltered. And you just knew that there was no way back for them now. At the end of 90 minutes, the team from India had lost the AFC Cup final, but that would in no way reflect the reality. For they had won the hearts of billions from all across the world, and especially from their own country.
Despite being the 2nd most populated country in the world and being home to one of the world’s oldest cup competitions that is the Durand Cup, India never really had much of a presence in the world footballing scenario. Although we did qualify for the 1950 World Cup, we never participated in it because of social stigma and lack of finances. Even the 1962 Asian Cup win could not ignite the flames of passion for the game in the nation. Sport in the country was still limited to a few regional pockets, namely Kolkata, Kerala and Goa.
Bengaluru FC, down the lane.
All that was about to change though. In 2013, Parth Jindal, the owner of Jindal Steel Works, decided to set up a professional football club in the city of Bengaluru. He vowed to combine professionalism with the right amount of passion, something that had never been seen in Indian football before. Convincing Ashley Westwood, the 1995 FA Youth Cup winner with Manchester United to come on board was probably the hardest task that Jindal had to execute, but he did it and the results followed. What had started off as a club for I League rejects soon became a haven for India’s best footballers, as national team captain and talismanic striker Sunil Chettri joined soon after. While Ashley bought reputed players, physios and coaching staff, the Bengaluru management procured the Sree Kantaveera stadium and developed world class facilities. All in all, the dream had finally become a team.
No one really had made much of Bengaluru FC in the initial days. The All India Football Federation had several fielded several franchise clubs before, but none of them had really challenged the hegemony of the Goan or the Bengal clubs.
However, all that changed soon. The men in blue and white strips stitched together a phenomenal run in the league, that saw them losing only three games all season and topping the league all the way from December to April. The dream had come true , the team of rejects and castaways had won the league under the most spectacular of circumstances!
Bengaluru FC’s rise to the top and the fan community
After pocketing the title in their debut season, Bengaluru FC decided to take it further. The next season, they went on to win the Federation Cup and lost out on the league only marginally to Mohun Bagan. They corrected it the next year though, as they were crowned champions once again for the second time in just three years. The revolution that was heralded as nothing more than a corporate whim had grown like a forest fire and consumed Indian football as a whole.
If on-field success is one of the departments that they have achieved overwhelmingly, the club’s off-field activities have garnered an incredible set of supporters who are can rival the fans of the likes of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan FC, Indian football’s traditional powerhouses. Through a set of incredible community building activities, like arranging photo sessions with the players, installing a giant flat screen TV in the stadium, keeping ticket prices very low, using social media to a fantastic effect and so on and so forth, Bengaluru FC has managed to develop an extremely loyal fan base who go by the name of West Block Blues. These guys are present in every game, create amazing Tifos, banners and chants, which makes the Sree Kantaveera a daunting place to visit for any team. No wonder they call it “The Fortress”.
The Dream Run
With Ashley Westwood calling it quits in July, many predicted that Bengaluru would find it difficult to replace someone who had won them so much. But the club from Karnataka again proved everyone wrong, as under the tutelage of Albert Roca, they put together a spectacular run in the AFC Cup, which is the Asian equivalent of the Europa League as they became the first Indian club to reach the finals. On the way , they beat defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim of Malaysia 4-2 in the two-legged semi-final. For large parts in the finals which was played in Doha and was attended by a vociferous set of traveling fans from India, Bengaluru did their best in holding away the mighty Iraqi club but finally broke down under the relentless pressure. As the final whistle blew, a few of their players broke down on the pitch but in reality, they had ushered in a new age in the history of Indian football.
Although they craved to create history, yet what Bengaluru FC ended up achieving is no less. It is hard to imagine any football club in India refusing ISL clubs their players on loan or plan their season according to the competition they might play in, but that is exactly how BFC go about their business . Even their players, most of whom have played in other Indian clubs, acknowledge that it is the best club they have played in, both in terms of professionalism and fan base. A perfect amalgamation of quality players like Chettri, Cameron Watson and John Johnson, exciting Indian players like CK Vineeth, Eugenson Lynghdoh and Rino Anto, experienced backroom staff and ambitious owners have made Bengaluru FC a model to follow.
One hopes that they can build on this and go on to establish Indian dominance over Asia once again, and that their run in the Cup this season inspires a generation of young players all over India.