Arnab Ray sits down with Bengaluru FC and Indian International midfielder, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, ahead of the second leg of the AFC Cup semifinal against JDT.
With the afternoon sun beating down at the Bangalore Football Stadium, one could not help but think back to the first season of Bengaluru FC’s existence. The Bengaluru based side played their home games here before moving to the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. Eugeneson Lyngdoh was not a part of the club’s framework at the time and few would have predicted that the midfield maestro would go on to become an integral part of the Blues’ set-up as they strive to make history in the AFC Cup in their fourth year of existence. The midfielder has made himself a fan favourite but his connection with the city of Bengaluru was made pretty early in life. “I came here when I was in 8th Standard you know,” he says. “I was in boarding [school] and had a lot of friends in school, day scholars along with other boarders as well. There was a different feeling back then. It was a second home after Shillong. I would get to go home once a year.”
The midfielder was then signed by Ashley Westwood as the latter added to the squad ahead of the club’s first foray into continental football. “After I came back, it became an adopted home again as I was part of Bengaluru FC. I always feel like I’m a part of Bangalore. I’ve always been in touch with the friends I have here so it feels like I’ve come back home.”
Lyngdoh is a player whose aesthetic style has endeared himself to supporters and football aficionados alike. His technical ability often shines through in games with a passing ability perhaps unmatched by any current Indian player. After an almost apologetic laugh at the compliment, he says, “I don’t know, I’ve always played in midfield and I always studied matches when I was young. I looked at players who played in my position such as Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, and others and tried to learn from them. During my school days, I put that into my system.”
The midfielder has seen recognition come relatively late in his career as he had to wait until his late 20’s for his first national call-up. He points to his move to the current I-League Champions as a turning point in his career. “I would say coming to Bengaluru FC obviously and being coached by Ashley [Westwood] contributed to 80 – 90% of what I have achieved,” he says. “I think being at a top club, being coached by one of the best coaches has helped me. I always felt I had the ability but I only had confidence in my ability after I came to Bengaluru FC. That is when everything felt right. That [the confidence] is what Ashley and the club gave me.”
Having now emerged as a senior player and an established Indian International, the midfielder finds himself as one of the older players in a squad filled with promising, young Indian talent. So is he adopting more of a senior role and guiding the junior players? In his trademark fashion, the midfielder is quick to dispel the idea that he is beyond learning, “I’m always learning. Even though I’m one of the senior guys at the club but obviously we learn from young guys too and we teach them as well. When we train and something happens, when a young guy does something well, you learn from it. When we do something good, the young guys look up to us. We do mentor them every now and then especially when they come to us for help.”
Westwood’s time at the club was appreciated by all, especially Lyngdoh. His replacement, Albert Roca had big shoes to fill but has come in with a strong philosophy and a new set of ideas for the players to adapt to. “It’s challenging to adjust from one system to another and to a new coach,” admits Lyngdoh. “Things are slowly coming together now. We’re understanding what he [Roca] wants. And this is only the fourth game that we’re going to play. We’re learning in every training session and hopefully we will achieve what he wants us to.” It has been especially challenging for Eugeneson as he has been deployed in a wider role as compared to the central midfield one he made his own in the past couple of seasons. “I had played on the wing when I was at [Shillong] Lajong under Pradhyum Reddy. A part of being a footballer is to adjust to different positions and I want myself to be versatile. I’m trying to do my best. It’s more of a tactical thing so it’s something I need to adapt to quickly. I always want to get involved [in the build-up play] but tactically the position demands a different thing. If I’m playing wide, I have to use my brains and think that I should be there [in a certain position]. It’s all about tactics. I want to [get involved in the build-up] but I shouldn’t. If I come inside, it gets crowded. It’s a matter of maintaining discipline and [following] what the coach has instructed.”
The AFC Cup season spans across the calendar year and thus the Indian side had their off-season in between the Round of 16 fixture and the quarter-finals against Tampines Rovers. The fact that new manager, Albert Roca’s first game in charge was the first leg of a high profile knockout game only compounded matters. So how hard was it to get back into the swing of things and hit the ground running against Tampines? “I think the key thing was that every player was given a programme to follow in the off-season that served as a foundation for the coming season so the players had a decent level of fitness. But when it comes to the tactical part, it was hard. We had a couple of friendly matches but the opposition wasn’t as tough as what we were supposed to be facing. The moment we played a competitive match, it was a completely different scenario. Hats off to all the players for adapting well to the system and being able to execute what he [Roca] wants. We are not 100% but we are almost there. It’s just that his coaching and what he wants to instill in us is very specific. That is the key; he being specific in each player’s position. We’re just out there, remembering what we have to do.”
The first leg in the semifinal against JDT was one that BFC had to approach with extreme caution. An away leg against the defending AFC Cup Champions is no stroll in the park and the I-League Champions would be forgiven for parking the bus for the entirety of the game. However much to the surprise of many and to the delight of the away fans, BFC started the game on the front foot with their high pressing game troubling the home side. As the game wore on, JDT did dominate possession and created a number of openings. So was it a case of fatigue or JDT stepping it up a gear? “I would say it was a combination of both,” says Lyngdoh. “Like I said it was only our third game and it was a different system we played. When you’re so accustomed to playing a system, it becomes natural. For example, if you walk everyday from here to Cubbon Park. For you, walking every day is not a hassle. But for a person who has not walked the same path, he could get tired half way. Similarly we always played 4-3-3 under Ashley so everyone is used to it. When we play a different formation [3-5-2], you need to cover a different distance so everything changes. For me, it was the first time I played in that formation. We started off very well but eventually JDT stepped up their game. So yes, a combination of both.”
The game of course looked like it could get away from the Blues before Lyngdoh stepped up with a fine strike from distance to not only level things on the night but ensure that the Indian side came back with an all-important away goal. Not his best goal ever maintains the midfielder but certainly the most valuable in terms of context. After the game, Roca made it clear that his side would go for the win in the return leg and sitting back against a team like JDT could prove to be foolhardy. Lyngdoh was in full agreement as well, “Attack is the best form of defence.”
Lyngdoh’s new wide role has come as a result of midfield reinforcement in the form of Cameron Watson and Alvario Rubio. So what does he make of the new recruits? “Alvaro Rubio is from the Spanish league and is a top class player. And Cameron as well…they’ve really made our midfield stronger. Cameron, coming from the A-League too. They’ve brought in experience having played at a higher level. I think Cameron has played in the AFC Champions League and Rubio in Spain. This is required in the semifinals.”
The prospect of being the first Indian club in history to reach the finals of the AFC Cup has dominated the build-up and it’s little wonder that in a country that has longed for success in football for so long, Bengaluru’s Cup run is one garnering plenty of attention. “There’s a lot of talk outside the field”, says Lyngdoh. “But the moment you enter the field, everything just disappears. In the game it’s 11 v 11 and you’re doing your best. There’s no pressure but we feel proud that we’re representing a country this big. Making the semifinals in three years [of existence] is something no other Indian club has achieved. We’re carrying the hopes of a nation but the moment we enter the field, it’s a completely different scenario.”
The shift from domestic to continental competition is vast especially for clubs from leagues such as the I-League. They may enter most games in the league as favourites but the AFC Cup is a different beast altogether. In the knockout stages especially, does being the underdog require some form of mental re-calibration? “In the I-League, we are confident. When you face a bigger opponent, it’s a different feeling. It’s not that you are not good. You’re good but the chances of them capitalizing on any mistake are more. That is the main difference between being the superior team here and going there. There it could be one chance, one goal. Like in the first leg, we were fortunate. JDT had a chance in the first half and we were very fortunate actually. When you keep playing against clubs of that calibre, you become accustomed to it. But when you’re playing them once in a while, you experience some fear. It sticks in the head that you can’t make a mistake, you know.”
Having said that, there’s no mistaking that this is a huge game for the players and the club. “This has to be the biggest game of my career. We’re one step away from history. It has to be our [the club] biggest and my biggest game.” As we came towards the end of the interview, it was only fitting that we spoke about the fans. The home side’s faithful, the West Block, have always been recognized as an important part of the club and Lyngdoh has fast emerged a fan favourite. “Bengaluru FC wouldn’t be the way it is if it wasn’t for them. We have a fanbase where the fans are really behind the players whether we win or lose. They give us added energy when we’re on the field; they’re the twelfth man of the club. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t play football. It’s a fan’s game. And to be honest I’ve never felt this before; until I came to Bengaluru FC and played in front of the fans. When you go out there, you do the best to make them happy. I’m hoping that each and everyone who supports Bengaluru FC does turn up for the game because it’s very important for us, for this team and for the country as well. It would be immense. When we played JDT [in the first leg], it was a packed stadium and it was a boost for the home team. I would love it to be the same for us.”
The word history is being thrown around a lot in the build-up to the return leg and there’s plenty of focus on the game among the Indian football fans. JDT come into the game with a couple of suspensions to key personnel in attack but this is far from a walk in the park for the home side. Regardless of the outcome, it’s been a Cup run to savour for the team and their midfield magician, Eugeneson Lyngdoh.
Images Courtesy: Bengaluru FC Media Team