The story of Bengaluru FC – The Revolutionaries of Indian football

In Bengaluru FC, India have found a club who have set themselves a target of transforming Indian football from the roots.
Bengaluru FC
Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli

The Kanteerava doesn’t quite strike you as ominous. Located centrally in Bengaluru, adjacent to its busiest streets, it is as structurally prosaic as public arenas can possibly become. It lacks in bulk, and the surrounding aesthetics don’t quite inspire awe. On the first look from the outside, you’d think it is one of those enclosures where athletes come to be forgotten.

But you don’t judge a theatre for the gloss on its seat covers.

Mornings are a good time to visit stadiums. The only occupants are a few drifting security guards seeing out time, waiting for the sun to set and their shift to end. If you are good with words and persuasion, you’ll probably be allowed to walk inside and see the stadium at its emptiest yet its most expansive.

The morning of my visit was, as October mornings in Bengaluru go, a little chilly, but just the right, calming amount. The seats at Kanteerava, including the cement ledges on a couple of stands, are predominantly white, often giving the feeling that a giant sheet has been spread over them. The only audible sound is from birds passing by in search of civilisation.

The decision for this visit was made the previous evening, when the legend of Kanteerava grew as tall as the Camp Nou, as wide as the Maracana. Trashed soda cups and stray ticker tape gave me company as residues from a night when, and this is no exaggeration, Indian football turned a corner.

Every living moment, in some way, contributes to the history of the future, but rarely do you witness an entire page getting written a few metres away from you.

***

There is a place for football in India, even as rhetoric, hyperbole and an age-old, convenient narrative might tell you otherwise. It has stumbled, staggered and tripped over itself, failing to pick up real pace, but football has always been allowed freedom of movement in the country.

Well before cricket started growing into the behemoth it is now, football was already catching public attention. The stories, myths and explanations around the 1950 World Cup qualification and subsequent withdrawal from the tournament are enough to sustain your reading urges for an entire weekend. Long story short, India refused to board the ship to where the world was headed.

In the short term, it didn’t seem to hurt much. Over the next twelve years, India would win two Asian Games golds, reach the semi-finals twice more and finish fourth at the Melbourne Olympics of 1956. The 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta was their zenith in many ways, when they defeated a strong South Korea side in the finals.

The decay was slow, and only started to show with time. India’s national team coach, and a father figure to many, Syed Abdul Rahim, passed away in 1963, leaving an abyss that Indian football hasn’t been able to plug since. Rahim was a keen student of the game, and kept the operational and tactical running of the national team in sync with the patterns followed by the European and South American elite. The world was a much smaller place then, but India was part of the programme. With him, away went a drive to preserve the relevance in Indian football.

A sense of complacency and viruses of a deep rooted inward-looking culture crept in, eating away at a strong foundation painstakingly built over decades. Indian football had reached a launching pad, the first bar of a crescendo, and turned their backs on it all.

***

Even in decline, India won the bronze at the 1970 Asian Games, which should give an idea of the peaks it had once touched, but this wasn’t enough to spark hopes of a resurgent future. The country was completing a quarter of a century as an independent republic, and the sport of football didn’t look very likely to fulfil their ambitions of carving a global niche. World football had moved too far forward.

Slowly, through short glimpses, the sport of cricket showed India dreams of a successful future, one where they could be nearer to the top than football, helped in no small part by the mere handful of nations even playing that game at the highest level. Between 1968 and 1971, India won test series in New Zealand, West Indies and England, a feat previous generations hadn’t even bothered to entertain dreams of. Global domination was still some distance away, but this was enough to shift attention.

June 25th, 1983. Two decades to the month since Syed Abdul Rahim left for his eternal rest, Kapil Dev, a tall, strapping man from Haryana, who could get into the world’s best cricket teams based on batting, bowling or fielding, led India to a World Cup victory in England. Their victory in the final against the all-conquering, marauding West Indies almost amplified an already momentous achievement. India’s then economic turmoils taken into account, the triumph takes a justified mythical position in the minds of those old enough to have witnessed it.

Up until that afternoon in London, India were still the starry-eyed hopefuls of world cricket, decent on their day, eager to claim their place, but not quite the A-listers like West Indies, Australia or England. The World Cup victory in ’83 triggered an ascendancy that is yet to stop, 35 years since.

Reliance World Cup, 1987. The first cricket World Cup to be held outside the sport’s home base was hosted by India and Pakistan. Neither of the host nations could go beyond the semi-finals, ceding the final spots to England and Australia, but the Eden Gardens in Calcutta was filled to the brim with 120,000 fans on the day of the final.

The ’83 World Cup had given India its first breath of the rarified air of cricketing elite. Four years later, prime time cricket had arrived on its shores, and the country was ready to lean into a warm, long embrace.

Liberalisation, 1991. After years of economic turbulence, India opened arms to the world, allowing direct foreign investment in trade. The country was moving from fixed deposits and savings accounts to stock-market investments. Electronic media too, received an adrenaline shot, and there was a greater reward for merit. Around the same time, a shy, 18-year-old, curly-haired boy from Bombay would travel to Australia for a test series.

Australia is a hostile place to play cricket, even in its modern, 21st-century, multi-cultural form. Back in the days of thrash metal, it was a borderline nightmare. Bouncy pitches, a hard-as-nails cricket team, and a crowd happy to give you lip service, made for an experience that was best viewed from the other side of the grass. Sachin Tendulkar scored two test centuries on that tour.

A country had found its new cricketing hero. A recipe of youth, bewitching skill and humbling maturity could only lead to the most marketable cocktail you can find, and the advertising world was waiting on its toes.

All this time, Indian football had been in a free fall, not getting anywhere near the heights that were once routine, while the cricket, by now, had entered stratosphere.

***

About a couple of miles from the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bengaluru’s international cricket arena, is a street breaking away, known as Artillery Road. Army fields mark the left, and a military canteen on the right; it is almost as if the air becomes cleaner inside the alley. A few blocks ahead, you are greeted by a small enclosure housing three medium-sized statues, small enough to not attract unnecessary public attention, but big enough to stand out as significant homage. The first two busts in the field of sight belong to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mother Teresa, personalities who have left an indelible mark on this country and its making. It is the statue next to them that will always make you linger for a while longer. A strange man in a yellow shirt and blue shorts. “10, Pele”, it reads. Oh.

This locality is called Gowthampura, a small layout in a Bengaluru Cantonment suburb known as Austin Town. During World War I, the British army used it as a cellar where Italian prisoners were banished to. Football had already entered mainstream consciousness in Italy, and over time, the love was passed on to the Southern Indian natives.

A century later, Gowthampura and Austin Town still know and care for that one sport. The fields here have fostered Rovers Cup winning teams, India captains and Asian Games gold medalists.

Like the rest of the country, Bengaluru too had kept its love for football locked and hidden deep within its hearts, like an old box in an attic. Beautiful memories inside, rust marking the outside.

***

In early 2013, Indian football, in another attempt to punch its way up from the deepening limbo, applied for the hosting rights of the 2017 FIFA Under 17 World Cup. Around the same time, in an All India Football Federation meeting, it was decided that the federation would accept bids from corporates for creating a club and directly registering them for the first division I-League.

There were two conditions placed. One, the new owners would have to revamp football infrastructure in and around the club they’re forming/buying, and two, the home city could not be Kolkata or Goa, as eight of the thirteen total teams in the 2012-13 I-League were already from the two traditional hotbeds of Indian football. The sport needed more big dogs from outside the ‘hood.

Bengaluru is India’s fourth-most populated city, and was considered as a possible host station should the Under-17 bid materialise. On 28th May 2013, the same day that FIFA announced India as one in a shortlist of four possible hosts for the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, rights to form a new club from Bengaluru were granted to JSW, one of India’s largest business conglomerates and a world heavyweight in the steel and energy space.

Bengaluru FC’s first – and in hindsight, probably most decisive – statement was made through the hiring of Ashley Westwood as manager. Westwood had travelled the length and breadth of British football during his playing career, and the name Manchester United sticks out rather brightly in the early parts of his CV.

India had flirted with European coaches before, and the powers at Bengaluru FC seemed to precisely know the mistakes that had been made and an inward-looking culture’s failure to learn from the sophisticated west. Ashley Westwood was given full autonomy in setting up his coaching staff and training regimes from the get go, and it took him little time to realise that technique wasn’t the only area India had slipped behind on.

European football enjoys huge popularity in the Indian television market, and more than anything else, even skill levels, it is the difference in strength and fitness that bugs Indian players and fans the most. You cannot challenge a technically better team if you can’t run hard for 90 minutes. The players took to Westwood and his staff’s methods like gospel.

There were directives flying around regarding the basics of carbohydrate intake, sleeping patterns and heart rates that sounded like futuristic novelty to most of the Indian players. Inside one of the offices at the Bangalore Football Stadium, Bengaluru FC’s home for their debut season, a handmade graph perched on a wall. The office belonged to Malcolm Purchase, Bengaluru FC’s Sports Performance Coach, and he had setup that board to monitor the fat percentage of his players. In 2013, if you went to another Indian football club and uttered the words “fat percentage”, there was a big chance that a team official would reply with the ratio of hefty guys in the roster to the lean ones.

In July of 2013, two months from the start of the I-League season, Bengaluru Football Club was officially launched at the Bangalore Football Stadium. The assistant manager and scouts at the club could only put together a roster of twelve, hopefuls and rejects most of them. It was too close to a new season to lay hands on the top rung.

Six months later, Bengaluru FC were champions of the I-League, and they had Indian national team captain Sunil Chettri scoring the final goal at Goa to seal the title. In a matter of luck and fortune reserved for the very special, Bengaluru FC had caught Chettri in the middle of a flux in his career, and given him a home he has cherished since.

Bengaluru would win the I-League again in two years’ time, but pathmakers are rarely remembered for the milestones they collect. Many years from now, when newer books on the history of Indian football are written, men like Parth Jindal and Ashley Westwood will have entire chapters dedicated to them, but not merely for the trophies they won.

***

Ashley Westwood left Manchester United in 1995, the year Sir Alex Ferguson let go of many of the club’s fading stars, to much controversy and public backlash, just so he could make space for a batch of academy graduates. He was around when the metamorphosis of Manchester United was in the works.

In the aftermath of their surreal first season, Bengaluru FC announced BFC Soccer Schools, a programme where the club partners with schools across the city to scout, nurture and provide youngsters at the grassroots level an alternative pathway into the club’s youth academies and age-level teams.

“Our ulterior objective is to help Indian football by tapping into the grassroots. We want to be the best run club in the country where a large part of the focus is on developing the youth.”

– Parth Jindal, CEO of Bengaluru FC

The move was marketing genius, and placed the club into the field of sight of an entire city. India, as a country, has never been younger, and to involve the kids is to involve their parents, and as an extension, spread the catchment area for the club’s fanbase far beyond the stadium-frequenting devotee.

In an interview for a documentary, Parth speaks about how tickets for an entire stand were limited to 30 and 50 rupees (42 and 51 cents respectively) for the first season. Everyone associated with Bangalore District Football Association, the city’s governing body for the sport, got a free ticket too.

Ticket prices are a problem across the globe, across different sports too. You had to shell out 100 pounds to watch the first day at this summer’s test match at Lord’s between India and England. By eliminating the financial barrier, Bengaluru FC had pretty much opened their arms and gates to anyone who wanted to invest their time into the spectacle they offered on the pitch.

Parth is the heir to an organization that has been at the forefront of its domain for a good part of the last half century, and many of the initial moves he has made with Bengaluru FC had more than a touch of business expertise.

Involving fans from day zero was his shrewdest, and most perceptive, move. Bangalore Football Stadium, in its current state, can hold 8500. More than 7000 turned up for Bengaluru FC’s first-ever league game.

The club have since moved base to the Kanteerava Stadium, an 18000-capacity athletics stadium just a couple of miles west from their spiritual home, and the fans have poured in. The West Block at the BFS was initially allocated to corporates and the college-going adult, and a regular crowd in their first season has now grown into the behemoth that is West Block Blues, a fan group which takes up almost the entire West Stand at the Kanteerava.

Watching a Bengaluru FC home game from the West Block A should soon be listed among the things-to-do for tourists, such is the noise and intensity of the atmosphere they build. You hear a stadium, a city, a people, throbbing and almost willing their men forward. Unlike anywhere else in the country, the club has also carefully curated a stadium-going experience, involving match-day programmes, a merchandise store and the like. A lot like the city of Bengaluru itself, the club wants you to stay.

There is a lot Bengaluru FC have taken on, as a new football club with corporate backing, in a country which refuses to acknowledge its secret love for the sport. Building a club is the easy part, but BFC have executed the difficult bits with almost otherworldly courage and conviction. The result is a sense of respect that extends far beyond the city, even into the stands of other, rival clubs, and footballers who would run through walls for the blue jersey. The bond between those who walk out on the grass at Bengaluru FC, and those who watch from the stands, is almost familial.

***

On 19th October 2016, continental heavyweights Johor Darul Ta’zim came visiting for the second leg of the AFC Cup semi-finals. No Indian club had ever reached that far in Asia’s premier football competitions, and those with grey hair and wisened senses didn’t give three-year-old Bengaluru FC, with a small, nondescript stadium, much of a chance against the defending champions.

3-1.

The Kanteerava Stadium hasn’t been nondescript ever since, neither have the club. It isn’t every day that the cool and fashionable also becomes the fitting and correct. That evening, the torch for carrying Indian football forward was placed firmly into the hands of Bengaluru FC.

At the end of the game, the entire team came over towards the West Block, led by captain Sunil Chhetri. For a brief second, the men in mud-lined wet jerseys locked eyes with those with of us with hoarse throats. In that moment of silence, we knew and they knew what had been achieved. After a shy smile from Chhetri, the players and fans broke into a long, synchronised rendition of the Viking Clap. Loud, tribal, mesmeric; it was a celebration of what the club and the fans have pulled off in a meagre three years of alliance.

It was almost 10 pm by the time the crowd left the stadium. It will be a long time before the percussive resonance of that evening begins to fade. The next morning, in an empty stadium, it rang just about as loudly.

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Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.