Bengaluru FC’s loss to Johor Darul Ta’zim saw their AFC Champions League aspirations dashed. The side will come back to India with their heads held high and display the same determination and grit as they look to resurrect their title challenge says Arnab Ray.
Football and culture have always been tightly interwoven. If you’re looking to prove various cultural stereotypes, then you’d be well served looking for examples in football. Perhaps it’s the football romantic in me trying to manufacture a narrative but there’s something apt about the fact that Brazil is the origin of both the famed Rio Carnival and Joga Bonito. Or the fact that Germany are particularly efficient when it comes to penalty shootouts. England? The old fashioned big number 9 along with fish and chips please.
The above stereotypes are of course at the end of the day only stereotypes. The World Cup last summer saw Brazil veer towards the ugly as opposed to the beautiful but I digress. The point is that a team’s style of play tends to be influenced by external factors and at the club level it is invariably the Manager who has the biggest say in this. There are notable exceptions but more often than not, the Manager’s personality is reflected by his team on the pitch. This is something that goes beyond simply the style of play. A “football philosophy” is borne out of the the Manager’s thoughts on football, his mentors during the playing career, and so forth whereas other qualities of a team are the by-product of the Manager’s personality. Consider the example of Sir Alex Ferguson. The former Manchester United boss was understandably not everyone’s cup of tea but the force of his personality cannot be denied. The Scotsman’s hunger for victory was insatiable and that manifested itself on the pitch in the form of his team’s desire.
There’s a similar single-mindedness and combative spirit when it comes to Bengaluru FC Manager Ashley Westwood. Loved by his Blue Army, Westwood wouldn’t perhaps be high on the Christmas card list of some of his peers or indeed too many of I-League’s 4th officials. It thus comes as no surprise that the Champions play with the same grit and determination on the pitch. The Bengaluru FC side’s never-say-die spirit is something that has served them time and again as they’ve marched their way to glory. Coming out on top in what was a tight title race in their inaugural campaign was a testament to their mental strength. Following it up with a successful Federation Cup campaign was simply their way of underlining the fact that they’re here to stay.
A season to remember culminated in domestic glory and gave the side a shot at AFC Champions League qualification. No Indian club has ever qualified for the group stage of Asia’s elite club competition and the current Indian Champions were faced with a daunting task of winning 3 away playoffs. Westwood’s men fell at the first hurdle against Malaysian Champions Johor Darul Ta’zim FC but not before forcing the game into Extra Time. The Indian side came into the game as the underdogs but certainly held their own. They rode their luck at times but showed plenty of the above mentioned determination to eke out an equalizer courtesy Eugeneson Lyngdoh’s goal directly from a corner in the 90th minute. Having hit the post on 2 occasions, the away side return to India with a feeling of what might have been but with their heads held high.
Truth be told chances of qualification to the AFC Champions League were slender at best and the JSW owned team can look forward to the AFC Cup group stages. A chance to create history by being the first Indian side to feature in the Champions League may have been appealing but perhaps the side is better served enjoying their first foray into continental football in the AFC Cup. A pre-season tour to China and the playoff against JDT has already served as good exposure for the side and they’ve proven that they can hold their own against foreign sides. Simply appearing in the AFC Cup in their 2nd season of existence will be a feather in the cap. But make no mistake, Bengaluru FC will give their all and back themselves to qualify for the next round.
So what now for the reigning Champions? The immediate future involves continuing their recovery from a rocky start to the I-League campaign. A haul of 4 points in 4 games is not the most impressive and in a league that spans only 20 games, staying within touching distance of the top is vital for title contenders. An impressive 4-0 win away to the high flying Royal Wahingdoh FC before their playoff against JDT was a timely and not so gentle reminder to their rivals. The upcoming game against Bharat FC gives them an opportunity to notch up their first victory at the Sree Kanteerva Stadium. Whatever the result against Bharat FC or indeed regardless of what they do or don’t achieve this season, nobody can accuse them of not trying hard enough. A victory against Bengaluru FC has to be earned. After all settling for second best is simply not the Westwood and Bengaluru FC way.
Written by Arnab Ray