Who are Bengaluru FC? Meet the new kids on the block who took Indian football by storm
Who are they?
February 4th will observe another landmark in the extraordinary story of Bengaluru FC, one that is still only in its preliminary stages. The Indian club will make its debut in the AFC Champions League, a truly momentous occasion given that two years ago, they didn’t even exist. Such has been their remarkable journey.
In January 2013, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided to accept bids from corporate groups for direct-entry clubs for the 2013-14 I-League season, the top tier of Indian football. JSW Group won the franchise rights and launched Bengaluru FC.
The club appointed former Manchester United youth player and Blackburn Rovers assistant manager Ashley Westwood as their head coach. They made a couple of illustrious signings such as former Premier League defender John Johnson and India captain Sunil Chhetri.
Despite having a squad largely comprised of players who were discarded by other I-League clubs or who weren’t performing particularly well, Westwood worked wonders with what he had at his disposal, and thus began the fairytale.
In their first ever season, the Blues didn’t resort to keeping up with the pack, but instead set the bar and went on to win the league title. They were crowned the champions of India, having finished four points ahead of East Bengal and even received a special congratulatory message from FIFA president Sepp Blatter for their remarkable feat.
Bengaluru followed their league triumph by winning the 2015 Federation Cup.
The team’s togetherness and belief is undoubtedly one of their best assets. They are a young squad full of energy and always work hard to meet their manager’s expectations. Their willingness to attack puts them on the front foot rather than allowing the opposition to dictate play.
In Johnson and Curtis Osano, Bengaluru have a strong central defensive pairing that gives them a solid foundation. With plenty of forward runners, they are renowned for their swift attacks, often utilising early crosses or quick through balls to catch the opposing defence off-guard.
A huge disadvantage for Bengaluru is that they are novices, in every sense of the word. They have no experience whatsoever in the AFC Champions League and very little outside of it as well. They are led by a young and inexperienced manager, while skipper Chhetri, at just 30, is the oldest player in the squad.
Bengaluru set up in a 4-3-3 formation with their attacking play largely dependent on their three frontmen. Sean Rooney spearheads the front line and is the focal point of the attack.
Chhetri operates down the left from where he attempts to make diagonal runs into the area or drop off to influence play in the final third.
Either Robin Singh or Beikhokhei Beingaichho features on the right. English midfielder Josh Walker anchors the midfield and orchestrates their build-up play, while Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Thoi Singh are tasked with more dynamic roles.
Integral to the side is their inspirational captain, Chhetri. The diminutive forward is India's all-time top scorer with 45 goals in 81 appearances and has had brief forays into football overseas with stints at Kansas City Wizards and Sporting CP ‘B’.
Westwood uses him as a left-winger to fit into the 4-3-3 system and Chhetri has reinvented himself out wide while maintaining his efficiency in front of goal. Last season, he finished as the league’s joint-top scorer with 14 goals and provided 14 assists. He also led his side to Federation Cup glory, once again finishing as the joint-top scorer with six strikes to his name.
Bengaluru’s claim to fame isn’t just their immediate and historical success, but also what transpires off the pitch that unmistakably contributes to their triumphs on it. They are renowned for being a progressive and organised club in a league that sadly falls woefully short of modern football standards.
The club’s infrastructure emulates that adopted across Europe and as a result, they have laid down a blueprint for other I-League teams to follow. The launch of the first BFC Soccer School last year was a statement to their commitment towards developing football within the country. No other I-League club has a youth academy program.
From their annual ‘BFC Day Out’ event to playing classic rock at their stadium to their open-top bus parade, the club have a knack for doing things differently in the Indian football circuit and that sets them apart. They’re also the first Indian team to travel abroad for pre-season, playing three matches in China ahead of the current campaign.
They’re always looking ahead, moving from the Bangalore Football Stadium (15,000 capacity) to the Sree Kanteerava Stadium (24,000 capacity) this season. They’ve also managed to land Puma as their official kit manufacturers this year.
Finally, with the help of unofficial mascot Dimi, an Indian mongrel the club adopted and named after Dimitar Berbatov due to his lackadaisical yet elegant and loveable nature, Bengaluru have earned a reputation for being, to put it quite simply, cool.
As one would imagine, for a club in its infancy, the presence of legendary figures would be rather premature. The good news for those who have made it to the ground floor at Bengaluru, however, is that legendary status is up for grabs.
With hard work and loyalty, a few of the current players could well leave their mark on the club’s history, but one man who seems to be on the fast track to becoming an icon is the manager, Ashley Westwood.
Assuming the responsibility of being the club’s first ever manager, the Englishman ventured into unchartered territory and had to contend with completely new surroundings and a vastly different footballing environment than what he was used to.
He has done so with aplomb though, as he has produced an attractive brand of football, got the most out of his squad and brought the club instant success. Forget Jose Mourinho; as far as the Bengaluru fans are concerned, managers don’t come any more special than their very own gaffer. Unsurprisingly, chants of ‘Westwood’s Blue Army’ have become a fixture at every Bengaluru game.