It was a Sunday morning like no other. For once, European football wasn’t the foremost thing on my mind. Instead, the OOTB boys were going to make a trip to the stadium to (finally) watch our home-town club.
Bengaluru FC is the newest addition to Indian football, and one that has taken the most professional approach yet. The attraction the club has drawn, the excitement it has created is unmatched in most of India and especially the city of Bangalore (aka Bengaluru). The city, which has always had a strong football following, finally has a football club of its own.
The most frequently asked question about Indian football is “There are a billion people, surely eleven can get together and form a decent team?” Well as we all know, it isn’t that easy. But given that there are a billion people, there is bound to be a strong following for the “World game”, despite it being a cricket-loving nation. The city of Bangalore itself has always had good football support. From pubs, to sports cafes, to your very own couch, and onto social media post-match, football has always been discussed among the masses in the city of Bangalore. I, for one, have been a football follower nearly all my life. This despite growing up in a cricket-loving environment. Football came to me much before cricket did; in fact cricket never came to me and I intend to keep it that way. But like me, most other football fans in Bangalore, or indeed India, will probably name all of Chelsea’s recent managers (a sizable feat given the revolving managerial door at the Bridge), they will also probably name all of Manchester United’s top scorers over the last few seasons, they would have no hesitation in outlining Real Madrid’s tactical game plan against Barcelona, and they’ll all understand jokes based on Luis Suarez biting Branislav Ivanovic. This is the common trend of football support in India, the traditional Premier League big four and the Spanish giants are greatly followed and adored by millions. Ask these same people the defending I-League champions, and you’re bound to get blank faces.
One can’t blame them though; it’s difficult for domestic Indian football to grow when European leagues are given so much exposure. There’s a good chance you’ll catch Crystal Palace taking on Hull City live on ESPN, but the opening day of the I-League this season wasn’t telecast anywhere. The preference to watch European football is also understandable, the level of football and the competition is unmatched in the World. But while watching Liverpool play Manchester United at home or in a Sports cafe is immensely gratifying, watching a game unfold live in front of your eyes with fellow supporters is an entirely different experience. It is this aspect of football support that was lacking among Bangaloreans, and it is this exact void that JSW’s Bengaluru FC is attempting to fill (and doing a good job of it).
The market for football has always been there; but for most of the individuals who could afford to tap the market, didn’t find it profitable enough to do so. Jindal Steel Works (JSW) did take that leap of faith and delivered to Bangaloreans their very own football club. We’ve seen the togetherness and faithful support Indians have (just like those in Europe) for their respective clubs, in the popular Indian Premier League (cricket). Despite not being a cricket fan, watching Royal Challengers Bangalore at the stadium was an experience to savour. I naturally compared it to what Dortmund’s intimidating and passionate support, or Liverpool’s faithful kopites but the sense of togetherness in football is a whole different playing field.
This is what I have been able to experience with Bengaluru FC. A football stadium that has long been deserted is filled with support, stands that have never been occupied are now packed week after week, the lowly gloom over the pitch at the Bangalore Football Stadium has been lifted as thousands of fans sing in praise of Ashley Westwood, or celebrate ex-Middlesbrough man John Johnson’s deadly headers. The constant “BFC” chants remind the players that unlike most of the games they’ve played in Bangalore, they’re now accompanied by thousands of onlookers for this one. The excitement and popularity around a football club in Bangalore is a dream come true.
When I made the trip for my first Bengaluru FC game (and the club’s second ever encounter) vs Rangdajied United, I did so in an auto-rickshaw. We were met by a huge crowd gathered outside the stadium waiting to enter the stadium. The rickshaw driver has probably passed by the stadium a thousand times without paying any attention. This was the first time he witnessed a crowd and what seemed to be an abandoned building for an outsider; decked in blue and white, the stadium now stood out, images of Bengaluru FC all over and eager fans beaming with excitement. It prompted him to ask me what exactly was going on. When I explained that there was a Bangalore match, he seemed perplexed; “Isn’t the cricket stadium all the way on the other end” he probably thought. It was then that I had to explain to him that the city finally had a football club. This is an example of the popularity of the sport. It is well and truly the talk of the town, and for once it isn’t cricket. Young 6-7 years olds are making trips to the stadium, chanting (Sean) Rooney and Sunil Chhetri’s names. The popularity of an Indian football club among young kids is rare for the country, something that was missing from the previous generation. But the next generation of football fans will have “FC Barcelona and Bengaluru FC fan” in their twitter handles. This is where football in the country is headed.
There has been a raging debate in Sports circles in India about why football hasn’t ever really grown? India is home to the 3rd oldest football tournament in the World, but where did it all go wrong? Below-par infrastructure, lack of importance, red-tapism etc have all been cited as possible reasons for failure. But when you realise that a country like Afghanistan can win a football tournament with nothing more than passion and commitment, all excuses are just that- excuses. Before trying to qualify for a World Cup, before trying to attract big names, Indian first needs to clean up its domestic game. It needs more professionally set up clubs in the line of Bengaluru FC, Pune FC, Mumbai FC along with the already well set-up clubs like Mohun Bagan & East Bengal. The intense promotion being done across the city by Bengaluru FC is what every club should do. Raising the popularity of the sport among the masses will bring the biggest change to football in the country. More sponsors, better players, better coaches and ultimately a better national team, all will divulge out of professionally run clubs with good fan support and thriving youth academies.
Bengaluru FC is sitting pretty at the top of the I-League with superb displays on the football pitch, but they’ve set the real bench mark off it.