Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Bengaluru FC: In a league of its own

In a country where football clubs bankrolled by corporate houses struggle to survive, let alone thrive, the Blues are rewriting the rules of the game

For decades now, Indian football has all but been a Grinch’s paradise, where the slightest hints of joy, hope, revival, sustenance and improvement have been snuffed out in a jiffy. If you are a long-time follower of football in India, you would have learned by now to cringe when terms like “revolution", “new dawn" and “new era" are repeatedly associated with the sport.

You would have also learned to welcome novelty with a great degree of caution and cynicism. And who could blame you? In the past 20 years, the suits at the All India Football Federation (AIFF) have hit the reset button no less than three times—with another huge overhaul, the controversial merger of the country’s football leagues, imminent in 2017.

Founded in 1996, the National Football League (NFL) showed early promise in its endeavour to make football a professional sport, but lost momentum after a couple of seasons.

Eleven years later, in 2007, it finally gave way to the I-League, which today is on its last legs—dwarfed by the conflict-strewn Indian Super League (ISL), which was born in 2014. All of these were created to revamp and revive an unproductive domestic ecosystem.

Several Indian clubs, especially those backed by corporate entities, offered hope in these years, but vanished soon after owing to financial woes, or simply due to disillusionment with the AIFF over the governing body’s vision, or rather lack thereof, for the future of Indian football.

FC Kochin, India’s first truly professional club, popped up with much fanfare in 1997, won the Durand Cup in its debut season, became the star-studded team everyone wanted to watch in the new NFL, but ran itself dry and then folded up a few years later.

Pune FC, which became the poster-boy of professionalism in Indian football, came up in 2007 and disbanded its senior team last year.

Viva Kerala (later rechristened Chirag United Club Kerala), founded in 2004 and widely touted to fill the shoes of FC Kochin, shut down in 2014.

Bharat FC, rather comically, shut up shop in 2015 after only one year in existence.

Meanwhile, icons with corporate backing like Mahindra United (shut down in 2010) and JCT (2011) ended their long-standing tryst with Indian football, and Mohammedan Sporting, a member-owned Kolkata club established in 1891, barely survived bankruptcy two years ago.

In recent weeks, even Dempo, Salgaocar and Sporting Club de Goa, three prominent Goan clubs that formed the spine of Indian football, pulled out of the 2016-17 I-League season in protest against the proposed restructuring of the domestic leagues.

Swimming against the tide

That three-year-old Bengaluru FC has flourished in this graveyard of football clubs tells you the enormity of the club’s feats.

Even in this remarkably uncertain and unsuitable climate, littered with stories of false dawns and horror shows, BFC has swooped in and taken Indian football to heights it had never scaled before, and done so in a manner it had never seen before.

All on its own, the club has managed to instil a sense of pride, optimism and euphoria around a sport that is largely seen as a matter of national shame today.

Trophies may quantify BFC’s success on paper and in boardrooms, but what truly defines the club today are the intangibles it has achieved by swimming against the near impossible tide: the ushering in of a feel-good factor that had become alien to a sport in tatters; the redefining of professionalism in Indian football, along with posing as a reference model for future clubs; the precious gift of hope for a whole generation of young footballers; the successful union with the local community; and, in the most revolutionary of ways, the mobilization of some of India’s younger TV generation—or “European generation"—of football fans.

On the surface, though, there was very little about BFC that felt romantic or unprecedented when it started operations in mid-2013.

Owned by the JSW Group, one of the country’s largest conglomerates, BFC had leapfrogged straight into the topmost tier, which was the first division of the I-League, and had also been granted immunity from relegation for the first three years.

The immunity clause was part of AIFF’s special scheme to woo corporate investment into the sport by safeguarding their interests in the short run.

BFC also has an agreement in place with the AIFF that prevents any other Bengaluru-based club from directly joining India’s top-tier league before 2018—a monopoly that would be frowned upon in business circles as an unethical practice.

BFC had money and ambition when it began, but no players. It had a plan, but no foundation. Another big corporate house flexing its financial muscle, said the cynic inside you, till things went south and the plug would inevitably be pulled. A miracle, you told yourself, if they lasted, let alone thrived, for a couple of seasons in an environment that was far from conducive for success.

JSW’s initiatives, across various sports including Olympic disciplines, are well-known today, but back then football was their first punt. While their credibility may have been untested, their intentions were always clear.

“If we lose some money every year, we are OK with that," Parth Jindal, CEO of BFC, had told Mint in 2013. “We are willing to take that hit for Indian football."

It was left up to you whether to believe the man behind the corporate veil.

Three years later, those who did now feel vindicated. The club is the toast of Indian football. With two I-League titles, one Federation Cup triumph and a historic runners-up place in the AFC Cup—the first such achievement by an Indian club in a continental competition—to its name, BFC has become the most celebrated and talked about club in football circles.

The simplicity behind its success has been astounding. It has centred on doing basic things in the right manner, and repeatedly so, to achieve spectacular results. There’s no magic formula with the Blues; just a remarkable adherence to the processes that have been put in place.

BFC has cultivated a unique player-focused environment where footballers, as club captain Sunil Chhetri once described, “have nothing else to worry about" other than playing football. This may sound straightforward, but isn’t the case at other Indian clubs.

From daily dietary needs to travel arrangements, each element of a player’s life is fine-tuned for them to deliver on the pitch. Training equipment and methods are modern. Discipline is given utmost importance—players are penalized for offences varying from arriving late for meals (eating and living together is key to inculcating team spirit) to even urinating in public.

Choices in personnel have played a key role in BFC’s growth. The club’s first-ever manager, Ashley Westwood, a former Manchester United youth team player, is credited with laying down the blueprint for the club’s philosophy and methodology; one which mirrors that of a European club.

The Englishman, a symbol of data-driven practicality and attention to detail, micromanaged all aspects of the club that directly affected his squad—even if it meant flying out early to Laos, well ahead of BFC’s away fixture, to hunt for the right hotels for his players.

Westwood insisted throughout his reign that the ultimate goal of BFC’s philosophy wasn’t to win titles but rather to develop players for the future of Indian football. He would vindicate his claims by handing opportunities to and developing several young players such as winger Udanta Singh and midfielder Malsawmzuala.

He would also remarkably put out an all-Indian starting XI in a vital AFC Cup encounter against Burmese club Ayeyawady United. In going about their business in the right manner, BFC endeared itself to fans and neutrals alike.

Meanwhile, Chhetri, the skipper of the national team, was the perfect leader to build a team around, while Spaniard Albert Roca, a former assistant coach at FC Barcelona, has proven to be a great replacement for Westwood by taking over mid-campaign and guiding BFC to the AFC Cup final—the smooth transition between managers testament to the club’s structure.

BFC’s rise has been a masterclass in the efficient utilization of resources, enabling it to move swiftly to the summit of Indian football. But financial prowess and success on the pitch don’t always ensure survival, because one cannot assume that running a football club in India, or anywhere in the world, will be a worthwhile profitable venture in the future.

So, what is the guarantee that BFC, however implausible it may seem at this moment in time, will not shut down in the future—like several of its predecessors in the past decades?

More than just a business

As journalist Simon Kuper and economist Stefan Szymanski point out in their popular book Socceronomics, football isn’t really about big businesses and corporations—in fact, it’s a terrible business to run for profit.

It is really about clubs and communities. Success on the pitch doesn’t guarantee sustenance; a huge following along with a valuable place in the community does.

This is what dissuades creditors from playing villains and persuades investors to play heroes. “Society can keep unprofitable football clubs going fairly cheaply," the duo write, citing examples from the English game, where football clubs are a matter of local pride and identity.

“Tinpot losses of clubs hardly matter when set beside the enormous love they command," the authors conclude. “No matter how much money they waste, someone will always bail them out."

Immediately, some of India’s inefficiently run legacy clubs come to mind: member-owned institutions such as Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting and the aforementioned Goan clubs, which are run by business families.

Broadly speaking, these clubs have been too significant in their respective communities to fall easily. They have had huge fan bases for decades and have thus survived the tougher times—though the Goan clubs, with dwindling audiences, appear more and more dispensable today.

This is where BFC’s rise has been truly revolutionary and unlike any other club in the past. If there is one reason for you to believe with certainty that BFC will survive in the long run, it’s the size and the contemporary nature of the club’s ever-growing fan base and how much the club has come to mean to these fans in such a short span of time.

Similar clubs in the past have failed to develop this much-needed fan base—a cardinal sin that has led to their downfall. Those that did, like FC Kochin, had other problems. The Kerala-based club, for instance, banked on the popularity of the NFL and came up financially short when the new league began to flag. There was nothing efficient or self-sufficient about its existence.

Meanwhile, BFC has thrived at a time when the league itself has run in crisis mode. The club has become a symbol of modernity both on and off the pitch. It has achieved what no other club—or even the AIFF, despite its efforts for years now—could manage before it, which is to grab the attention of India’s younger “European" generation of football fans.

Vijay Bharadwaj, a 23-year-old student of chartered accountancy, is one such fan. For years, until BFC popped up in his city, his love for German champions Bayern Munich remained uncontested.

In December 2013, midway through BFC’s debut season, Bharadwaj ventured out to watch his local team—and, coincidentally, found himself in the West Block A stand, in the midst of the now-famous group of raucous BFC supporters, the West Block Blues.

“The atmosphere was something different. I was blown away by it," he recalls. “I watched Bayern week in, week out on television and admired the atmosphere at the German club... the chanting, the screaming. BFC gave me a chance to live that experience in Bengaluru itself."

Like Bharadwaj, now a proud West Block Blue, there are thousands who don the BFC colours in tandem with those of their favourite European clubs. BFC has induced this fandom in a remarkably organic manner, unlike the promotion-crazy blitz of the ISL.

A young and diverse set of supporters, across ages and genders, has brought with it a special mix of fan culture. Large slogan-bearing banners are made by hand, the result of a collective effort that often takes days and huge personal sacrifice with zero monetary benefits. This has even spilled over to the national team’s games that are played in Bengaluru.

Songs and chants, in both English and Kannada, emanate from the stands virtually non-stop. Several of these, such as “when the Blues go marching in", are adapted from English football and easy to recognize. The club itself would often print flyers with, among other things, lyrics of popular songs and chants in order to make a first-time visitor feel at home.

Integration with the local community and engagement with fans has been among the topmost priorities from day one. Open training sessions are held every pre-season and an open culture at the club sees players mixing freely with fans. Kit launches have involved the supporters too, while a “BFC Day Out" saw a select group of fans being coached by their favourite players.

Coaching clinics have been conducted for local kids and NGOs have been partnered with. The club merchandise has been easily available for purchase—this, in a country where the national team’s jersey is still almost impossible to find—while local colleges have been used as platforms to rally a young and vibrant crowd behind the team.

On the social media front, the club is extremely active. Video highlights of every match are available soon after the game ends, which isn’t a practice at most clubs. Fans are frequently recognized by their names and photos in BFC colours, flaunting which has become quite a fad. Player interactions are frequent, while a light moment too is shared every now and then.

In short, BFC is the most accessible of clubs for its supporters at a time when fans have grown accustomed to seeing their heroes buried in layers of security or promotional branding.

As a result, the bond between the players and the fans is truly remarkable. Bharadwaj was one of 100-odd supporters who welcomed BFC’s champions at the Bengaluru airport, when they returned from Siliguri with the I-League trophy in April. Chhetri, who rarely finishes an interview without marvelling at his club’s supporters, handed the trophy over to the fans—a gesture that firmly acknowledged their contribution in the title-winning season.

“I was one of the few lucky people who got to hold the trophy that night," Bharadwaj proudly recalls. “It was incredible to see the smiles on the players’ faces when they saw the fans which, in turn, brought smiles to our faces as well—we live for them and they do so much for us."

It was a night of redemption too. Almost a year prior to that night, BFC had conceded the title to Mohun Bagan in the dying moments of the season in front of a massive home crowd. “The Fortress", as the fans like to call their home ground, the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, had been breached and emotions had run high after the game.

“Hundreds around me, including myself, were crying their hearts out that night," Bharadwaj sheepishly remembers. “It was the most heartbreaking of moments." But one that defined the fans’ deep relationship with the club.

From Shillong to Singapore, from Hong Kong to Qatar (the venue for the AFC Cup final), BFC supporters have been in attendance to back their team.

How the club’s dynamics alter after the imminent merger will be interesting to see. But BFC’s core philosophy, and the club staying true to it, should see it overcome any new challenges.

Indian football might be at the crossroads, but Bengaluru FC has stood as a beacon of hope. In the Grinch’s paradise, something pleasant is blossoming and it promises to last for a while.

Akarsh Sharma is a New Delhi-based writer who contributes to various publications. His work is collated on akarshsharma.com and he occasionally tweets here.

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