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 last July, are learning to fly. Watch out for them when the I-League and the Indian Super League (ISL) merges, said an official with an ISL franchisee more clued to the developments in domestic football than most. Given the import of the statement, the official requested anonymity.
By getting to the final of the AFC Cup, they have already done a first for an Indian club and could actually improve on that in Doha on Saturday.
Before BFC hit the ground running --- to win the I-League in their debut season was remarkable given that teams often found survival impossible the first time they were in the top tier --- Pune FC were the template for how to run a club.
The Pune FC management was clear that it would not follow the Indian model of investing most, if not all, of its 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 Indian 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 Pune FC did not win either the I-League or the Federation Cup and, last year, disbanded its first team. Amid rumours about pressure from a new football team --- there are two more in Pune now --- the club opted to not renew its licence and its academy was taken over by FC Pune City. 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 last I-League experience, striker and skipper 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 started with the first team though --- and this is important --- that’s not where the planning ended.
It began with giving Chhetri, the India captain and their highest scorer last term, a fresh contract. In his fourth season, this would also be the longest Chhetri’s been with any club since 2008 and he has said he would like to retire from here.
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 Vineeth and Amrinder Singh, a product of the Pune FC academy whose loan from that club has now been changed into a one-year contract, and youngsters such as Udanta Singh.
With central defender John Johnson, Bengaluru FC did a new two-year deal meaning he would be available should the leagues merge next season.
“We’ve had a brilliant season and I’m really looking forward to build on it with the team,” Chhetri tweeted when the club turned three. That started with the quarter-finals of the AFC Cup in September where Bengaluru FC beat Singapore’s Tampines Rovers 1-0 on aggregate.
Having joined East Bengal and Dempo as teams from India to have made it to the penultimate round of the AFC Cup, Bengaluru FC then did one better by beating defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim of Malaysia 4-2 in the two-leg semi-final.
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 but it always isn’t just about money. After all, nothing stopped some I-League clubs owned by corporate houses 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, replaced 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 each. Roca was also assistant to Rijkaard at Galatasaray and national team coach with Saudi Arabia and El Salvador. The AFC Cup is his first assignment and he is unbeaten after four games in charge. How Roca will hope to extend the run by at least one more game!
“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 their 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. With 30 boys, the academy is now operational, meaning BFC have done in three years what most Indian clubs haven’t in 50. No ISL franchise too is close to setting up one.
“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.
For Bengaluru FC, the process is as important as the performance. For football in India to develop, clubs and ISL franchises will have to walk this path.