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In a remarkable story, and a new sense of hope for Indian football, newly formed club Bengaluru FC have won the country’s top division, the I-League, in their debut season.
Football has never received the platform the country’s most popular sport, cricket, has with a lack of interest, sponsorship, infrastructure and quality. But Bengaluru FC were a fresh change for Indian football, bringing in a professional set-up off the field, quality football on the field and quite spectacularly, die hard passionate support in the stands. More recently the club have also taken to improving the future of the sport, setting up a system to promote grassroots football.
Led by Indian team captain Sunil Chhetri, who has played for the likes of Sporting Clube de Portugal & Kansas City Wizards (MLS) while failing to secure a work permit to play with QPR, Bengaluru FC took the league by storm and surprised many as they toppled the Goan hold of football in the sub-continent. More remarkably, the Bengal clubs like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan (who play their home matches at the Salt Lake Stadium, the second largest capacity football stadium in the World) who are traditionally the most successful football clubs in India, are yet to win the I-League; the league in its current format debuted in 2007, replacing the old national league.
But more importantly, a new club needed a figurehead to organise every aspect of the team and ensure the set-up replicates those we seen in Europe. And Bengaluru FC’s Ashley Westwood did exactly that. The man who has been guided by Sir Alex Ferguson in his younger days, did an incredible job with this young crop of players. He controlled every aspect of the club, from the tactics to their diet and even incorporated sports science into their assessment.
Ashley Westwood became the youngest manager, at 37, to win the I-League, after previously only managing Kettering Town for 4 months in a caretaker’s role. The effect he has had on the team, the sport and the fans is immense. This title is a testament to his abilities.
Bengaluru FC were helped by their foreign stars as well, and they have been the more popular players among the squad. Sean Rooney (from Australia) has formed a formidable understanding with Robin Singh, prompting fans to suggest they too have a Robin and Rooney in attack. John Johnson who played one Premier League game as a teenager for Middlesbrough is also in the squad and was actually Coach Westwood’s team-mate at Northampton Town. Fans have jokingly suggested “John Johnson for England” ahead of the World Cup. Not quite, but he has been solid, partnering with ex-Reading man, Curtis Osano in the back four. John Menyongar is the other foreigner, who plays a Pirlo-like role in midfield. Incredibly calm and smooth on the ball.
But alongwith Sunil Chhetri, captain of the club, and Robin Singh, there are a whole host of Indian starts on show. Sam Hanghal is still only 21 while the likes of Beikhokhei Beingaichho, Pawan Kumar, Thoi Singh and Robin Singh himself are still below the age of 23 while Rino Anto and Darren Caldeira are in the peaks of their career.
The JSW Group owned side had an objective of improving the sport in the country, and specifically the city, they’ve done just that.
The title was won with one game to spare as Bengaluru FC won 4-2 away to Dempo. A comfortable 3-0 lead was made nervy when Dempo struck twice in 5 minutes. But a stoppage time goal from Sunil Chhetri, that saw him equal Baichung Bhutia’s goal-scoring record, was enough to earn them all three points, and a maiden title.
Bengaluru FC will now look towards a heroes’ reception when they return to the Bengaluru, something previously not seen in the region. More importantly, the sky seems to be the limit for the club, with possible AFC Champions League participation next season.