In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the public-sector institutions, seen as the bulwark of the Indian economy, that supported football in Bengaluru. The club teams had lost their appeal and could not garner enough finance or sponsorship to build competitive sides. It was CIL, ITI, HAL and Electronics and Radar Development Establishment that recruited talented players from the city, provided them job security and enabled them to play football. In 1977, ITI Bangalore won the inaugural Federation Cup in Ernakulam upsetting star-studded Mohun Bagan 1-0 in the final. The superior players from these teams often took the plunge and shifted to Kolkata or Goa for better financial prospects.
The professionalism of the Bengaluru teams was, however, beneficial to players only during their active footballing years. This is best exemplified by the plight of defender Mohan Kumar of ITI. A sturdy right-back, he represented India at international tournaments in Malaysia, Afghanistan and South Korea in the mid-1970s. He was part of the ITI team that reached the Stafford Cup2 final in 1980 and lost a memorable match 2-4 to the powerful Iraqi Youth team. After retirement, he tried to become a coach but did not succeed. Cast aside and forgotten, today he works as a security guard and survives on fond memories of playing internationally. He says sportingly, ‘I don’t look at [my job] as something that is below my dignity. It’s still a job and I enjoy it.’
In the new millennium, the character of Bengaluru changed. It became the hub of information technology companies and a new generation of young, upwardly mobile people flocked to the city. The football lovers amongst them were unaware of Bengaluru’s football culture. It is this vacuum which Bengaluru FC has successfully filled.
On 28 May 2013, the AIFF awarded the Bengaluru franchise of I-League to JSW Sports. They soon signed on Ashley Westwood as coach as well as ace striker Sunil Chhetri. The club Bengaluru FC was officially launched on 20 July 2013, with only twelve players. In their first season, the team consisted of a number of young players like Thoi Singh and Siam Hanghal who were trying to become established in domestic football. Westwood made wise selections and honed the skills of his players, making Bengaluru FC one of the strongest clubs in Indian football.
When Rino Anto joined the club in 2013, his career had come to a standstill. With Westwood’s encouragement and astute coaching, he became a hard-tackling right-back, effective in overlapping. A TFA product, Anto improved by leaps and bounds in the professional atmosphere at Bengaluru FC, and by 2015 made his international debut.
One of the best strikers in the country, C.K. Vineeth was on the verge of giving up football when he was picked by the club. From early on in his career Vineeth had played as a winger but Westwood persuaded him to play as a striker, to utilize his speed and thrust. Now a versatile player, Vineeth plays a roving game. He drifts to the flanks to shake off his marker and, when required, charges into the box to score goals with crisp volleys and angular placements. He is the first player from Bengaluru FC to score a hat-trick, a feat achieved against Mumbai FC in 2017 in a third round match of the I-League. Vineeth made his international debut against Palestine in 2012. He is at peak form and very prolific, so national coach Constantine used him well for the Asian Cup qualifiers in 2017.
The dynamic Eugeneson Lyngdoh joined Bengaluru FC in July 2014. Westwood transformed him into a box-to-box midfielder who also excelled in taking all the free kicks and corner kicks. Westwood said, ‘Eugeneson’s work rate is admirable. He runs 12– 14 kilometres in every match, similar to the distances covered by some of the best midfielders of the English Premier League.’5 A late developer, Lyngdoh has become a reliable player and an established international. He was the best midfielder of the 2014–15 I-League and was auctioned for over a crore for the ISL in 2015.
Former footballer and coach Englishman Ashley Westwood spotted the potential of these players, developed their skills and, above all, instilled self-belief in them. Under Westwood—who had played for the Manchester United youth teams—Bengaluru FC developed as a modern, professional side. He brought in methods that are commonplace in European clubs and saw to it that his players got the best possible care with professional training and facilities. Their diet was well-regulated with proper nutrition and fitness levels being consistently monitored. Following strict discipline, the players were trained to be responsible and professional off the field as well.
Bengaluru FC also used social media to interact with the local community and ‘made going to the stadium cool’. The club have been able to garner a dedicated group of young supporters who replicate the English Premier League atmosphere at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, waving banners and chanting catchy team songs. These supporters, comprising a number of women, have come to be known as the West Block Blues and they travel to away matches as well. Their witty banners—like ‘We are not out of the Westwoods yet’—enhance the atmosphere during matches and have added a new dimension amongst football supporters in the country.
Debutants Bengaluru FC wrapped up the 2013–14 I-League with a round of matches still to be played. They won it in grand style finishing with 47 points from 24 matches, 4 points ahead of their nearest rivals East Bengal. Bengaluru also won the maximum matches (14) and scored the highest number of goals (42), largely due to their trio of attackers: internationals Sunil Chhetri, Robin Singh and the Australian Sean Rooney.
Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House from the book “Barefoot to Boots” by Novy Kapadia.
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