It is either a measure of their overachievement or an index of where club football stands in India that Bengaluru Football Club (BFC), who turned three on Wednesday (July 20), are learning to fly. Watch out for them next year when the I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL) merge, said an official with a franchisee more clued to the developments in domestic football than most. Given the import of the statement, the official requested anonymity.
Before BFC hit the ground running -- to win the I-League in their debut season was remarkable given that teams had found survival impossible the first time they were in the top tier -- Pune FC were the template of how to run a club. The Pune FC management was clear that it would not follow the Indian model of investing all resources into building a strong first team every season for trophies. By nurturing an academy, Pune FC were merely replicating what had happened in football’s first world over a century ago but it seemed novel in India. When the All India Football Federation (AIFF) introduced league licensing criteria in 2013, Pune FC were the first to tick all the boxes. They even started a channel on YouTube and took the club to schools in the city.
But last year, Pune FC pulled out of the I-League apparently because they felt the competition had no future. Amid rumours about pressure from a new football team, two had come up in Pune in 2014, the club opted to not renew its licence. By then, having become the only club established this century to win India’s top competitions, Bengaluru FC had already become a big player. One with an aim to get bigger.
It is not just about the trophies, though two I-League titles and a Federation Cup in three years isn’t bad for a club’s reputation. Writing about the 2015-16 I-League experience, striker Sunil Chhetri had mentioned team spirit, the policy of promoting youngsters, players chipping in for each other when one was injured and bonding with the support staff as contributing to the winning cause. He also mentioned fans travelling for away games, a rarity outside Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in India.
Looking to Asia
But at a time when I-League clubs aren’t possibly even thinking of the 2016-17 edition given that it won’t happen till January, BFC are looking ahead. They have started with the first team though --- and this is important --- that’s not where the planning ends.
By giving Chhetri, the India captain and their highest scorer last term, a fresh contract, BFC secured the country’s all-time highest goal-scorer. In his fourth season, this would also be the longest Chhetri’s been with any club since 2008. Chhetri was loaned to Bengaluru FC by ISL franchise Mumbai City FC last season and was a free player by May-end. Bengaluru FC signed him within a week. That now means the club can loan him to an ISL team and recover a significant portion of his salary.
They can also do that with Rino Anto, Alwyn George, CK Vineet and Amrinder Singh, who is a product of the Pune FC academy and whose loan from that club has now been changed into a one-year contract, and youngsters such as Udanta Singh. As part of the I-League champions’ roster, these players would be in demand even though they might not be available till November 5 if BFC make the AFC Cup final.
With central defender John Johnson, the club has already signed a new two-year deal meaning he would be available when the leagues are supposed to merge.
“We’ve had a brilliant season and I’m really looking forward to build on it with the team,” Chhetri tweeted on Wednesday. That could start with the quarter-finals of the AFC Cup in September where Bengaluru FC will meet Singapore’s Tampines Rovers. By beating Hong Kong side Kitchee FC in the pre-quarter final, the club has already registered its best performance in the competition but they don’t want to stop just yet.
Most I-League clubs loan players from the ISL to save costs --- Mohun Bagan had eight in the last I-League and would have been challenged in trying to compete had they too qualified for the AFC Cup quarter-finals --- but by walking the opposite route, Bengaluru FC have shown they are serious about making a mark in Asia.
True, funds aren’t a problem for the team bankrolled by the JSW Group, the steel and energy industry giants, but it isn’t just about money. After all, nothing stopped some I-League clubs run by corporates to plan like BFC instead of constantly blaming the AIFF.
Sending Udanta, the I-League’s best young player, on a scholarship to England and appointing Albert Roca on a two-year deal this time are examples of how they continue ticking the right boxes. Roca, 53, replaces Ashley Westwood, the club’s first coach, and was Frank Rijkaard’s deputy at Barcelona from 2003-08 during which time they won the Champions League, the La Liga twice and the Super Cup twice. Roca was also assistant to Rijkaard at Galatasaray and national team coach with Saudi Arabia and El Salvador. His first assignment will be the AFC Cup.
“He is, what I would call, a major signing at the club. Albert has been with some of the best clubs in Europe as well as spent time in developing countries because of which he will have a great sense of the challenges India would bring,” said Parth Jindal, CEO, Bengaluru FC when the announcement was made.
And then there is the residential academy in Bellary nearly 300km from Bengaluru. The club has hired Dutchman John Kila as head of a fully-funded youth development programme of which the academy would be a part, according to a post on BFC’s website. On a two-year deal here with the possibility of an extension, Kila has been associated with youth development in Holland, Japan, New Zealand and Ghana, the club said in a release in June.
The academy will have licensed coaches, physio, strength and conditioning experts, a swimming pool, gymnasium and a flood-lit full length football pitch, the club has said. If you are under-15 or under-18, you can register on their website as a trialist. If you are good enough, you could be at the academy which is expected to be operational by November. Should that happen, BFC would have done in three years what most Indian clubs haven’t in 50. No ISL franchise is close to setting up one either.
“Youth Development has always been a part of the club’s philosophy and a residential academy is something we’ve wanted to put in place for quite a while now. John (Kila) comes with a rich experience of having implemented youth programs (sic) at various clubs and we are sure that under his guidance, our youngsters will progress through the ranks and make it to the club’s first team and in time, the Indian National Football Team as well,” said BFC COO Mustapha Ghouse.
None of this may translate into an improvement on last season but there is no denying that BFC are as focused on the process as on performance.