CHENNAI: It was January 2014 and Bengaluru FC was only a few months old. Ashley Westwood’s men were coming off a surprisingly good start to life, topping the table before the I-League went into recess. Now they were at the Federation Cup in Manjeri. Tiny Manjeri had only a few hotels and the likes of East Bengal and Dempo were staying relatively close to the stadium.
Bengaluru had set up base 30-40km away. Why so far? “This was the nearest place that fulfilled our dietary requirements,” a team official said. Before that, not many times in Indian football did anyone speak about ‘dietary requirements’.
That moment, as well as countless others, are all links in a chain that now extends to the Saoud bin Abdulrahman Stadium in Doha — venue for the AFC Cup final. It is one of those achievements that can only be compared to the sepia-toned, time-eroded ones that East Bengal and Mohun Bagan hold up, whenever someone questions the way they are run.
It took BFC a day shy of three years and three months to top a 100 years worth of legacy. To understand how they did it, one only needs to look at how the club — not the team — turned up for the semifinal against Johor.
On Wednesday, fans had converted the main entrance of the Kanteerava into a riot of blue, a full 3-4 hours before kickoff. The ‘West Block Blues’, the fan club encouraged none too subtly by the club, were in full force, holding up flags and blue smoke-sticks.
Nearby, a club-operated stall sold merchandise, from jerseys to ‘anthem jackets’. Elsewhere a bench manned by officials were directing people to ticket-counters and gates. Inside, the stands had been draped in banners. It was a far cry from the usual ‘making-it-up-as-we-go’ attitude that Indian football often adopts.
This professionalism is no accident. “While the idea of starting a club was one that was pulled out of thin air, an impulsive call, how to run it was something we spent much time on,” remembers club COO Mustafa Ghouse. “The idea was to bring about the kind of difference that had never been seen before. It involved us studying the best practices from the world over and adapting them.
Every single thing, right from the crest, colours, the way we communicate digitally, has been thought about a hundred times over.”
No other Indian footballer has perhaps seen as much as Sunil Chhetri. He has turned up for big guns like Bagan, East Bengal and Dempo.
Yet nothing compares to what they do at BFC, Chhetri says. “You will be surprised to know how much difference being a part of club run professionally makes. I’m saying this from a player’s perspective. You’re not worrying about anything that’s not football. I often walk into the office, and everyone’s doing something and having a good time.
The whiteboards are always full of stuff, there’s con calls happening. All that translates to what you eventually see. There’s never a hassle with contracts, payments and facilities. It’s a big reason why we perform the way we do on the pitch.”
In their short existence, BFC have two I-League titles, a Federation Cup and an AFC Cup final. But their achievements extend far beyond the trophy cabinet. On Wednesday night, after the game, every pub or eatery in Bengaluru, a city not known for its football culture, was packed with people in blue jerseys. If you were wearing blue, a knowing wink from someone in similar attire or a shout of ‘BFC’ from a passing car was never far off. That marks the start of Bengaluru FC’s true legacy.