The conversation about whether the twain shall meet didn’t develop after starting mid-year but what united Bengaluru FC (BFC) and Atletico de Kolkata (AFC) was a strong Spanish connection that ensured the teams’ efficiency wasn’t lost in transition.
Not part of the extravagant festival the Indian Super League (ISL) is, BFC created the biggest bang in the sport when, on October 19, they became the first from India to qualify for the final of an Asian tournament. Fittingly, it was skipper Sunil Chhetri who led the charge, helping BFC overcome defending AFC Cup champions Johor Darul Ta’zim 4-3 on aggregate in the semifinals.
Before that match, Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik had wished the team. From then to the final on November 5 in Doha, even though the ISL marched on schedule across eight cities, it was BFC that united India. Before an away game, ATK goalie Debjit Majumder said he was a BFC supporter for the moment. Ravichandran Ashwin, Somdev Devvarman, Rohan Bopanna and Aswhini Ponnappa; they were all talking about the final against Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya. As was Turkey and Barca midfielder Arda Turan.
From starting a residential academy under supervision of John Kila, a Dutch who has worked with youth teams in different countries, to being the first movers in retaining players such as John Johnson, Chhetri, Amrinder Singh, CK Vineeth, Rino Anto and Alwyn George, BFC have shown that while you can’t ensure success, some planning does go a long way in helping teams get there.
“Bengaluru making it this far has been a very special landmark for football in the country,” said new coach Albert Roca, whose first game in charge was a knockout quarterfinal fixture in the AFC Cup.
Passing the baton
The way the baton passed from Ashley Westwood, who coached the club from its first day, to Roca was integral to BFC’s success. “We are here to build on the success that Bengaluru has had. Each coach brings his own style to a club and that’s no different in my case,” said Roca.
If Roca had a Barcelona connection in that he was Frank Rijkaard’s deputy when they won the Champions League, Jose Molina had played 189 games for Atletico Madrid. Replacing Antonio Lopez Habas who was described last season by Sourav Ganguly, one of ATK’s owners, as the team’s heartbeat wouldn’t be easy and from the first day, Molina was compared with his predecessor. His responses weren’t too different from what Roca had said.
Like Roca, Molina inherited most of squad. And just as BFC got defender Juanan and midfielder Alvaro Rubio, both Spaniards, before the AFC Cup knockout rounds, to complement the core they retained, ATK kept the faith in their international players even as they overhauled the Indians on the roster. Skipper Borja Fernandez has been with the franchise since 2014 and of the 11 foreigners permissible, ATK retained seven. Five of the imports this term were from Spain.
“At a club, you need to take control of many things but for me, the group (of players) is the most important,” ATK sports director Alberto Marrero had said before the ISL3 final.
Whether ATK and BFC will play in one league is one reason to look at 2017. The arrival of new I-League teams from Chennai and Chandigarh is another. The 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers is a third. But the biggest is that it would be the year of the U-17 World Cup. “The U-17 World Cup is a great experience because an India team would get to know what it means to play at that age. This group would then be hungry for more,” said Roy Millar, former director of coaching at Northern Ireland, during a visit to Kolkata last September.
For football in India to take-off, Millar will need to be right.