Bengaluru FC: The dawn of a new era in Indian Football
I-League, the national football league in India, just saw a new champion. But Bengaluru FC, the winner in its debut season deserves a special mention for some reason off the field. Read to know more from Goalden Times.
The Airtel I-league has finally concluded with a new champion! The organizers must be heaving a sigh of relief! It has been a rather difficult one for them in terms of managing fixtures and keeping track of the league table. Until the last two rounds, there was always some team breathing down another’s neck with at least a couple of matches in hand. Each team was trying to catch up with the leader of the pack, I-league debutants Bengaluru Football Club (Bengaluru FC or BFC). Finally, under the leadership of their taciturn manager Ashley Westwood – a former Sheffield Wednesday, Northampton Town and Wrexham player and a Manchester United trainee – Bengaluru FC won the title with one match to spare. This feat has caught the imagination of the modest I-league viewers, especially since ithas been achieved playing a brand of football marked by creativity and grit in equal measures. And yet, it’s not only the crown that is the talk of the town in the legions of sports pubs and cafes in the tech city of Bengaluru. The unit has adopted a very modern approach towards building a football club and has attracted a lot of attention from both media and viewers. Here we discuss what it is that makes this new entrant – and the new Champions of the Airtel I-league so special.
With AIFF making public their intentions of allowing two corporate groups direct entry into the Airtel I-league 2013-14, the period between January and May 2013 was rife with speculations. A lot of corporate groups entered the fray but it came as no surprise when, on May 28 2013, Jindal Steel Works (JSW) group won the franchise rights to own a football club in the city of Bengaluru. A family based conglomerate, JSW have considerable interest in sports and have made significant donations to the Gold Quest, India’s Olympic gold mission. But there are much more subtleties to the ownership than mere sports enthusiasm.
Get the Right People IN
Bengaluru FC’s young CEO, Parth Jindal, an Arsenal fan, has considerable knowledge of European football having spent a semester in UK, while studying at Rhodes University, and travelled for most of Arsenal’s away matches. Now while this fact might get lost in a barrage of details the actual nuance lies in the passion for the sport and the vision to run a club. At a tender age, Parth has already shown enormous intellect and vision in hiring the right people for the job as was exemplified when BFC signed former Manchester United youth player and Blackburn Rovers assistant coach Ashley Westwood as the first ever manager of the team. He didn’t hesitate to flex his enormous financial muscle when he signed former Premier league defender John Johnson and India captain Sunil Chettri.
Bengaluru FC management decided one thing at the very onset – they were not going to break the bank for any player. So they did not run after the local players who were demanding astronomical amounts nor did they seek marquee, well-known foreign players vying their trades in the Indian domestic circuit. Rather, they brought in a couple of foreign centre-backs to lay a solid foundation, put faith in the India captain to lead the line and roped in a bunch of youngsters to work their socks off– a team with the correct blend of youth and experience. Thus they saved wisely for infrastructure, youth development programs and facilities for players and club members – surely they are here to stay with an eye on the future.
Make an Impression
And, while the club was building its foundation, they were also tapping in the enormous marketing potential that a cosmopolitan city like Bangalore offers. From the use of popular outlets like Coffee Day to sell its match-day tickets at discounted prices to roping in a corporate like Wipro to sell their corporate tickets, the management was adopting a lot of popular measures to market the club. Keeping in mind the fact that many people loose out on the match day experience owing to heavy ticket demands, the club announced its partnership with Arbor Brewery Company, an extremely popular brew pub in the heart of the Garden City of India, to screen live matches and sell its official merchandise. The club started its Facebook page and Twitter account to connect with fans via social media where they post regular updates about match day, tickets, player interviews and match highlights.
Their UK contingent certainly brought in the flavour of the Premier League – the most watched and best marketed league –with them and results have been nothing short of spectacular.To connect to the fans and make them feel a part of the club, the management has come up with a unique initiative -“March to the stadium-where the fans gather at a distance from the stadium and walk towards the stadium together in solidarity.The chants of “When the Blues go marching in”, going on non-stop for the entire duration of the match,perplexed all who had never heard such war cries in the Indian football scene. For the first time in Indian football, a sizeable portion of football followers, who were more attracted to Chelsea and the Manchester United till now, began discussing Dempo, East Bengal and all other Indian Clubs.
With a host of marketing gimmicks, the club was surely creating the right hype and it showed in the average stadium attendance. While established clubs like Salgaocar, Churchill Brothers have found it difficult to fill the stadium Bengaluru FC managed to fill in the stadium to its maximum capacity on all the occasions culminating in a record attendance of 8,256 in the home game against East Bengal. As per the club statements, the average attendance for the season has been 7,500 – the highest crowd at any football match in Bangalore in over 25 years.The spectators comprised not just young boys but even women who appeared to be avid followers –a refreshing fact for football in the country.These fans were not only there for home matches, nut also travelled with the team for away matches. It was during Bengaluru FC’s Federation Cup do-or-die match against East Bengal that some 50 odd supporters overwhelmed one and all in Manjeri.Even Bengaluru’s title clinching game was watched by 500 fans in Goa.
But it’s not only the numbers in the stadium that mattered. There is a unique feel to the atmosphere inside the stadium that can be categorized as somewhat in between the mildly hostile gatherings of Yuba Bharati Krirangan (home to traditional clubs East Bengal and Mohun Bagan) to the bizarrely drab stadiums of Goa. This also has something to do with the demographic advantage of Bengaluru. The tech city, being a job haven, attracts a lot of young population to the city who are passionate about football and love to frequent the city’s endless list of sports bars to catch the live screening of European matches. BFC’s unique appeal lies with this enthusiastic support base.The crowd comes up with its own chants inspiring the players and the manager. And while the visiting players and fans are not spared the occasional witty banter, they are always treated with respect and their quality of football appreciated. The club officials were in for a surprise testament of the stadium experience.A visiting German couple, who watched the match vs East Bengal, dropped by at the stadium and, , requested them for a pair of club jerseys which the officials were happy to provide.
Facilities have been also first of their kind – a corporate box, much like the hospitality boxes in Cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL),high-end tickets of Rs 500 packed with refreshments, and an Emcee – a public announcer cum entertainer rather than a mere announcer – for the home matches.
The BFC Bazaar is perhaps the best place where fans are greeted by their favorite players who get themselves involved in selling personalized Club merchandise. Open training sessions have been arranged for fans to meet and greet the players. Then there was the BFC Day Out where 750 supporters got the chance to play and be ‘coached’ by the players themselves.The ‘Thank You’ banner from the entire squad after the final home game perhaps emphasized the involvement of fans in BFC’s expedition. If club news is to be believed, new innovative offerings like BFC Care and BFC Awards are on the cards.
“I don’t think we have done something very special. These are things you as a fan expect in your favourite Club’s home games,” Club consultant Mandar Tamhane told www.the-aiff.com.
On the field
Proper marketing, an educated fan base and a devoted management were creating a buzz around the club. But all of it would have amounted to nothing had the results on the pitch not been positive for the new boys of Indian football. And this is where the club has surprised supporters and critics alike. They stumbled twice in the long campaign when they went winless for four games in a row. But when they got going, they ensured they won convincingly. Their bad days were numbered and every now and then they came up with thumping wins. Only second placed East Bengal did a double over them, but otherwise BFC looked champions’ material throughout the league. What has been most surprising is the quality of football that the team has put on display. Manager Westwood, with his experience in English football, has formed his team laying equal emphasis on youth and experience and has them playing beautiful football with the ball on the floor. He has also brought in a new training regime, whichemphasis on dietary nutrition and physical fitness. The club then bolstered its coaching prowess with foreign imports such as Malcolm Purchase and Ali Uzunhasanoglou. This bears testimony to the club management’s resolve to help the team play to their potential. While Purchase, who claims he rejected the offer of Premier League club to keep his word to Westwood, arrives as the sports performance and nutrition coach, Ali is a goalkeeping coach with vast foreign experience having trained the likes of John Ruddy in the past.
Till now, the story of Bengaluru FC has been one of immense romanticism, vision and a result-oriented approach. JSW group has taken every step with utmost precision that augments well for not only BFC but also Indian football as a whole, both on and – more importantly – off the field.
One cannot help but applaud BFC’s pragmatic approach towards building the club and the manner in which they have adjusted to the rigors of the league. The club has been a breath of fresh air in a league otherwise marred by the extremes of occasional fan violence and bizarre under-attendance. And, if they continue their current form, the fans have every right to dream of a successful run.
But this outstanding beginning also brings forth the question “What Next?”. Well, there are so many ways in which the club can improve. The start should be with a youth academy to manage the influx of players into the first team. Then they can address the need for a better stadium. While it has been easily glossed over in all the hype surrounding the club and its league position, there is no denying that the Bangalore Football Stadium, albeit a makeshift arena, is not one where a team from the premier division of Indian football should be playing. The dilapidated stadium doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the growing demand of tickets for BFC home games. Also the location of the stadium, close to MG Road, causes a lot of trouble for the administration to manage the heavy traffic before and after the games. The forthcoming 2017 FIFA World Cup and Reliance IMG League, proposed to start in 2014-15, should be good enough reasons for the owners to come up with a new stadium.