Despite a population of over a billion people, India’s best ever national team performance has only been qualification for the 1950 World Cup. Even then, they pulled out because of a lack of funds and a misunderstanding of the importance of the tournament. Famously, they claimed they were unable to even spend money on football boots, although then-captain Sailen Manna has since stated that this was an excuse.
Despite witnessing first hand one of oldest cup competitions in the world – the Durand Cup, formed in 1888 by the Indian Army – the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has struggled to create proper infrastructure for the sport. As such, even with stadiums like the 68,000-seater Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, the sport has yet to pick up. That particular stadium was actually the second largest football arena in the world before 2011 as it used to hold 120,000 people. It was, and is, rarely filled to capacity during football matches.
In 2013, as it seemed like Indian footballing mediocrity would stretch on forever, a seismic change occurred. Jindal Steel Works, led by Parth Jindal, decided to set up a professional club. Taking advantage of one of the most glaring holes in the sport’s infrastructure, they decided to create this new club in the football-mad city of Bangalore
Inexplicably, Bangalore did not have a big club, even by Indian standards, and had not even had a team in the I-League, India’s premier division. While the enthusiastic coastal areas like Kolkata, Kerala and Goa all had their local teams, Bangaloreans had been starved of a side to support.
Jindal got to work immediately, and he hoped to have the club up and running by the start of the 2013-14 I-League season. While he was able to take care of the off-field problems, such as finding a stadium and setting up world-class facilities, he was having trouble finding enough players. At the unveiling of the club, he had only managed to round up 12 players, all of whom were only available because they had been rejected by other sides.
The arrival of Ashley Westwood, an FA Youth Cup winner with Manchester United in 1995, would help to solve these problems. He managed to convince foreign players, such as popular striker Sean Rooney, to join the club to make up the numbers and provide some quality. He also brought in qualified staff, such as fitness coach Malcolm Purchase.
Most importantly, his training methods and ambition convinced Sunil Chhetri, India’s captain and best player, to sign on after a failed stint at Sporting Clube de Portugal. In turn, this would convince other quality home-grown players such as Robin Singh to take a chance on this emerging club. As a result, by the first day of the season, Jindal had succeeded – Bengaluru FC (BFC) were born and ready to take on the I-League.
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Despite their low expectations, Bengaluru FC revolutionised the I-League. After a promising pre-season, they won four out of their first five league matches. The only anomaly in this run was a draw against Mohun Bagan, as the Bengali giants scored an equaliser deep into stoppage time.
By the start of December, Bengaluru had risen to the top of the league. They would largely hold onto their league advantage as they only lost three more matches until the end of the season in April. Improbably, Bengaluru FC, a team of misfits and unknowns, had won the I-League in their first season. However, this was to be only their second most surprising development of the season.
In an interview for the documentary Bengaluru FC: The Road Less Taken in Indian Football, Parth Jindal had claimed an altruistic motivation towards the setup of the club. Like most football watching Indians, he had been left frustrated by the efforts of the AIFF to promote the sport. Unlike most football watching Indians, however, he had the ability to positively affect the situation.
As the legacy to a super-wealthy steel industrialist, Jindal realised that the best path towards football development in India was to personally create the infrastructure. Like everything else in the nation, the private industry was far more likely to produce change.
According to Dhruv Nagarkatti, the BFC Operations Manager, Bengaluru has two aims: to eventually conquer Asia on the pitch, and to impact the city and unite people behind the BFC flag. While the first target only required the correct decisions and patience of a minority, the second represented a significant task to influence a majority. While Bangalore is a football loving city, many of its inhabitants have been turned off the local fare and prefer the European variety. Creating a community atmosphere off the pitch was not going to be easy.
Kunaal Majgaonkar, the Media Manager, found a simple solution: to go back to football’s roots. At the turn of the 20th century, football had undoubtedly been a sport for the working classes in Europe and the Americas. There were wage limits imposed and almost all players were considered amateurs because they had to supplement their salaries by working in the industries of the time.
This accessibility and off-pitch camaraderie of the players and their communities played a major part in the popularisation of the sport. Ironically, this incredible success led to its eventual wealth and the disenfranchisement of working-class fans. In a country where local football is only watched by diehard fans, Majgaonkar saw an opportunity. He would use modern technology and habits to create a century-old connection with fans.
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Besides the obvious creation of several social media accounts, Majgaonkar made sure the players themselves were involved in this online attraction. Many of the staff, both before and during the season, would take over the Twitter accounts and personally answer questions.
Bengaluru also held open training sessions during pre-season and often invited fans to interact with the staff in person. After these sessions, and even matches sometimes, the players would often go to Arbor, a local brewery, to meet fans. Additionally, many of the players were encouraged to explore the city without escorts in an attempt to both help these players understand Bangalore and ingratiate themselves with the local population.
BFC also tied up with several non-profit and private organisations to both help their community and publicise their club. As they started to see a rise in interest, the BFC administration made their most important decision – to price half the stadium at either INR 30 or 50, equivalent 45 or 75 US cents. Even in a largely poor country like India, this was an incredibly cheap valuation.
Their marketing tactics seemed to have worked as around 7,500 people showed up for their first match. This attendance number would reach a high of 8,216 in December, and average out to 7,038 by the end of the season, the sixth-highest total in the I-League in 2013-14.
In addition to the pre-season attempts, Bengaluru FC also instituted several practices during the season to endear themselves to the fans. Their twitter account ran minute-by-minute reports during matches, unheard of in Indian football, while their Facebook account uploaded high definition highlights after each match. The refreshments were cheap for most stands, and even free with the priciest tickets of INR 500 (approximately, USD 7.45).
Importantly, and in a further attempt to emulate their Europeans counterparts, Jindal installed a large screen for in-game replays in the stadium. Bengaluru FC also created matchday pamphlets for each fan, with information about the history of the club and players, their recent form, and words to some of the popular chants. This meant that even fans that had become involved at a later stage were able to feel like a part of the audience. They weren’t tourists like they would have been in European stadiums.
These attempts by the club were highly appreciated by the fans. The players’ actions were reciprocated tenfold by grateful Bangaloreans, who finally had a chance to witness good football at their doorstep. Every player has their own chant, which is catered to personal traits and events. For example John Johnson is celebrated for his prolificacy from corners, while Curtis Osano was wished happy birthday with a giant homemade banner.
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Unlike in Europe where the player would smile and walk off the pitch, Osano made the effort to go and personally thank the fans who made the banner. Popular striker Robin Singh summed up the relationship when he stated that he would rather have 8,000 diehard fans chanting his name at BFC than the thousands more that were relatively passive at his previous club East Bengal.
As the club finally sealed their I-League victory away to Dempo FC with a match to spare, two bus loads of fans travelled to the airport to give their returning heroes a proper welcome. Their presence had dragged along the local media, but the Bengaluru staff made a point to prioritise the fans who had made their way out.
The players enthusiastically took selfies and signed shirts, as the media waited their turn. Days later, with the league season officially over, the fans put on an even bigger spectacle. BFC had cautiously decided to organise a public open-top bus celebration, the first of its kind in India. Not only did the fans appear in droves to applaud their champions, but they also followed the bus on its short tour in the centre of the city. As a Bangalorean stuck halfway across the world, I’ve never missed home as much as I did that day.
What’s important to understand about this community feeling was that it flowed both ways. While the fans finally had a team worthy of their support, the players finally had an atmosphere they had dreamed of. At no other Indian club would they be granted the facilities and off-field technical support as they did at BFC, and for no other side would they be granted the personal adulation of the masses. Sunil Chhetri, the BFC captain, and only player to have played in Europe and America, summed it up with his end of season speech.
He stated that God gave a man three wishes. The man wished for money, a successful football club and great fans. At this point, the fans erupted, assuming he was talking about them. After hushing them down, he continued. God granted the man the first two wishes but claimed he could do nothing about the last. The best fans already belonged to Bengaluru FC. Much like the inside jokes of a couple, it’s a corny line that only brings a grimace from an outsider. However, if you are the intended recipient, it’s perfect.
Bengaluru FC have continued to overachieve in the succeeding years. They won the Federation Cup in 2014-15 and only lost the league because of a late goal in their final match against eventual champions Mohun Bagan. The returned strongly in 2015-16 to win the I-League again, and are currently in quarter-finals of the AFC Cup, the Asian equivalent of the Europa League. However, as successful as they have been in the last two years, they will never be able to replicate the magic of 2013-14.
It was the perfect storm of incredible fans, an ambitious ownership, quality staff and passionate players. For a year, Bengaluru FC managed to stretch into the past to recapture what had originally made football great. For one season, there were no expectations, no gripes and no pressure. There was only unexpected joy.
By Tarutr Malhotra. Follow @sixthfebblog