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Sunil Chhetri paints a fence of the Bangalore Football Stadium as part of a campaign. (Photo courtesy: BFC Media)
Sunil Chhetri paints a fence of the Bangalore Football Stadium as part of a campaign. (Photo courtesy: BFC Media)

The rise of Bengaluru FC

  • A combination of good coaching, focus on players’ wellbeing, wellbeing and diet has turned the club into a success story
  • BFC has won six major honours in the past six years, and it remains the only unbeaten team in the Indian Super League this season

If there’s one thing Sunil Chhetri hates, it’s losing—whether it’s on or off the field. Once, when he was playing carrom with a few friends, things didn’t go his way.That evening ended in one lost carrom counter, a broken television and a hairline fracture. As always, he had wanted to end the session with a win.

It’s a reflection of the hunger that has spurred on the Bengaluru Football Club (BFC) since its inception in 2013. 1-in-1, 2-in-2, 3-in-3…6-in-6—that’s a piece of silverware each year, even as BFC remain the only unbeaten team in the Indian Super League (ISL) this season.

While the success is evident on screen, what’s kept the wheels turning at the club is the supporting cast and its indefatigable efforts behind the scenes.

Children of the BFC Soccer School celebrate a goal during a tournament
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Children of the BFC Soccer School celebrate a goal during a tournament (Photo courtesy: BFC Media)

On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, club CEO Mandar Tamhane occupies a corner table at the Bombay Cycle & Motor Poona Agency—a garage started by his grandfather and now run by him—and narrates how he got into football administration.

As a student, he used to play for the Deccan XI Football Club in his hometown Pune, and began overseeing its operations as secretary after suffering an injury. He went on to help organize the Abhijeet Kadam Memorial Football Cup in Pune and coordinate an India camp for an Asian Football Confederation tournament in 2010, going on to become the manager of the national football team. Once the concept of a club based in Bengaluru had been finalized, he was entrusted with the task of laying the foundation. As manager, he had a simple mantra—get the right people for each job. When it came to a leader, Chhetri was a no-brainer. “People cannot imagine how much he adds to this club. He knows it and he’s still humble and grounded. He’s a fighter and that mentality trickles down to the bottom," Tamhane says. He struck gold again with Ashley Westwood—a graduate of the Manchester United academy who has played over 400 games in England—as coach.

Westwood ensured the players stayed together at an apartment complex at Lingarajapuram. For their first training session, the dining area and dressing room were decorated with the club’s banners. “A complete go-getter, who had no idea about Indian football and came with fresh ideas, some of which we continue with even today," Tamhane says of Westwood.

Everyone did everything in those early days. Media manager Kunaal Majgaonkar would receive players and spend the first few days with them. They would also be given a starter pack that contained a SIM card, hard cash to spend and a list of restaurants and utility services in the vicinity.

“Miku needed tennis classes for his kid, Erik Paartalu, and his wife wanted help with grocery shopping and John Johnson and Curtis Osana were fed chicken curry and rice at my aunt’s home. We like to make them feel at home. This is family," Majgaonkar says.

While the grind of games was relentless, the rewards were generous. Tamhane introduced an annual bonus system based on where the team finished on the league table, realizing it had done wonders for his automobile business.

Westwood would get the team together for “Shit Shirt Days", where players would don the most grotesque shirts, fancy dress Christmas dinners and screenings of movies such as Lone Survivor.

“We booked out a theatre for that movie and guess who paid for it—two players who had visited a pub within 48 hours of a game earlier that week. Ashley had the bouncers on speed dial. And on match days, all fines (for such lapses) were double," Majgaonkar says.

Alwin Lawrence was hired as a video analyst, who came armed with world-class game analysis software. Food was customized to each player’s needs, one of the many jobs manager Rosewall Da Cunha juggles today.

Da Cunha’s earlier role required him to deal with merchandise, laundry and dhobis—these days he has hotel chefs on his phone list. “Some (players) are vegan, others vegetarian, while a few like their meat, so I need to figure out the right balance that also fits the budget. The entire process with the chef starts on the phone even before we land in the city," he adds.

“We were once in Odisha at the same hotel as another team. The food was terrible and I picked a fight with the chef, which sorted it out. The following day, the other team’s coach thanked me because he had been trying to fix the food for over a week," Da Cunha says.

After three seasons under Westwood, when they won the I-League twice (2013-14 and 2015-16) and a Federation Cup (2014-15), the club readied for its first transition under Spaniard Albert Roca. Roca had worked from 2003-08 as an assistant to Frank Rijkaard at Barcelona, and he brought Barca’s possession football to the BFC.

His first assignment in 2016 was an AFC Cup quarter-final tie against Tampines Rovers from Singapore. Majgaonkar remembers a goalless first half, with the players uncertain of the style of play.

“The Cauvery verdict (on the water dispute) was around the same time and we had to play the game at an empty 30,000-seater Kanteerava Stadium. Roca was fuming at half-time, ‘We play the way we have trained. If you lose, I don’t care.’ This was someone who would take a 5-4 over a 1-0, but it had to be art at the end of the day," adds Majgaonkar.

Over the next few weeks, Majgaonkar would be off for Spanish lessons, though he admits that the Spaniards led by Juanan—the oldest member of the Spanish brigade at the club—got better with English sooner than he did with their language. Yet teething problems remained and they finished fourth that season.

“We struggled despite having the best Indian players on paper. But I had seen the hard work during pre-season and realized it was only a matter of time. We reached the AFC Cup final that season and went on to win the Federation Cup," Tamhane says.

The club also realized the importance of the 12th man, the fans. Kanteerava began to fill up with crowds and chants. Kannada made it to the banners and club communication, and the cult song from the 1980s, Santoshakke Haddu, would blast over the speakers after each BFC goal.

“We still have the Blue Huddle each season where we ask fans where we can improve. We have given our team bus to take them to away games, handed them paints for the banners and got them to meet our players," Majgaonkar says.

After the team had won two trophies in as many seasons, Roca’s assistant Carles Cuadrat took over as head coach, in 2018. He guided Bengaluru to their first ISL title to make it 6-in-6.

What has kept the club ticking are the strong bonds within the team. When English midfielder Joshua Walker’s season ended prematurely due to injury, the club flew him down for the final game when they won the I-League in 2015-16. Another time, Miku asked masseur Manu Prasad AN to join him during the presentation ceremony to thank him for getting him match-ready.

The non-technical staff adds up to 32 members today. The responsibilities have only increased after a residential academy was set up in Bellary in 2017 and the club started a reserve team as feeder for the senior squad.

“I am now tending to the needs of 55 players, two coaches and their support staff, besides communicating with the management," Da Cunha says. “And yes, the bus not arriving on time or undercooked chicken is still my problem," he adds.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer.

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