Bengaluru FC, the AFC Cup final and the rise of football in India

Bengaluru FC are set to make footballing history on Saturday, by becoming the first Indian side to appear in a continental club final when they take on Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya of Iraq in the AFC Cup. In this momentous time for Indian football, Martin Lowe caught up with regular SFG contributor and dyed-in-the-wool Bengaluru fan Ahmed Hashim to discuss what this means for the team, the fan base and India as a whole, and what legacy this will have on the national team’s hopes of qualifying for 2019’s Asian Cup.

“It is no longer a hipster thing to be knowledgeable about Asian football.”

As remains the case in small portions of the continent, Asian football is way down the pecking order in terms of mainstream consciousness. However, with their run to the AFC Cup final this year, Indian pacesetters Bengaluru FC are slowly changing this within their country. Throughout this year’s campaign, they have steadily grown in popularity, with ever increasing attendances, an admirable work ethic but. most importantly, collecting the results needed along the way.

The AFC Cup, the Europa League equivalent in Asia, has one difference from its European counterpart: it focuses entry to lower ranked leagues rather than clubs. Whilst the AFC Champions League remains a closed shop to the top 10 leagues in Asia, the AFC Cup creates an organised competition, free from the stronger more resourceful leagues, ensuring a victor from outside the classical heavyweight nations. In a West Asian dominated field, Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim clinched the crown last year, and, in the same vein, Bengaluru will aim to retain an Eastern stranglehold on the trophy after beating the holders in this year’s semi-finals.

For a club that only came into existence 3 years ago, this is an incredible achievement. Last year they made it to the knockout stages before being comfortably beaten by South China of Hong Kong. Just 12 months later they overcame a similar challenge in another Cantonese outfit Kitchee, winning 3-2 at the same stage, and haven’t looked back since. Their progress, which hasn’t been easy by any stretch of the imagination, has instead been dramatic, pulling in yet more fans from across the region, something Ahmed discussed with me this week ahead of the final:

“The kind of success that they’ve attained in their three years of existence is so phenomenal that standards are being raised match on match. The ever-improving stature of the club means that its fan base keeps expanding, with every home match seeing a new fan enter the Sree Kanteerava Stadium.”

“For Indian football, this is a huge moment. Of course, when you look back at history, Indian football has seen great achievements on foreign soil, such as when Mysore State made it to the semi-finals of the 1969 Asian Club Championship or when East Bengal won the 2003 ASEAN Club Championship. But what makes Bengaluru’s success different is the fact that the AFC Cup in its present format brings together clubs from 23 countries and represents a real test of their mettle.”

Football in India, as is widely known has tended to be a side show on the sporting scene behind cricket and hockey. Where it has been embraced, the fans have tended to focus on the typical European leagues, with the domestic I-League usually playing second fiddle to its glamorous competitors from the West.

“Even among Indian football fans, the proportion who could name all 9 clubs in the I-League was infinitesimal. Consequently, few people cared about Asian football. The focus has always been on the European game, demonstrated by the big clubs from the West trying to capitalise on that potential fan base. But things are changing, slowly but surely. In Bengaluru, for instance, there will be a huge chunk of fans who have loyalty to European clubs but will now put BFC first.”

“With this AFC Cup run, BFC has captured the imagination of the wider sports-following public in India. Prominent celebrities from politics, film and sport have been witnesses to and become enthusiastic supporters of BFC’s success. This has helped spread the reach and name of the club and Indian domestic football.”

Bengaluru may now be guided by former Barcelona assistant Albert Roca, but the foundations can be credited fully to Englishman Ashley Westwood, as Ahmed attests to; “He (Westwood) has had an intergral part to play in putting Bengaluru FC on the map in India and in Asia. His contribution cannot be emphasised enough; in fact, it could be said that he helped change Indian football.”

“The professionalism that BFC have brought to the Indian game is what set the club apart and helped them to the level they are at right now. Westwood made sure that there was no compromise regarding this. And so, everything from player accommodation and dietary requirements to modern training methods were set up to his professional standards. The players who played under him have spoken of how different it was to play at BFC, where every need was taken care of, compared to their former clubs. Westwood ensured football was the paramount objective and the club did everything to make the players feel the same way.”

A tale of two competing leagues

India sits in a unique position in world football, in the fact that it runs two separate leagues. The domestic I-League has been around since 1996, however in the last few years the greater financed Indian Super League was introduced to offer an alternative format to regular league football. This high profile venture is largely seen by casual fans outside the continent as the prominent league within India, however due to its exhibition nature (it only runs for 3 months of the year), the I-League remains the official league of the AFC and subsequently has teams playing in continental competitions, such as the AFC Cup.

The relationship, as you would expect, is difficult. The initial hype of the Indian Super League has plateaued for now, not reaching the same heights as the highly successful Indian Premier League in cricket, mainly due to the lower standards of the playing staff. The overseas players were initially big names such as Robert Pires and Elano, either past their prime or even retired in the former’s case; nowadays the age profile has lowered, but consequently so has the star factor.

Indian players have at times looked like filler, and while expertise is clearly being passed on from these imports, the fact the league is such a short lived experience, there continues to be calls for both leagues to merge, to avoid further harming each other’s credibility. Clubs continue to wrangle over a possible merger, which now looks to be edging closer, mainly over shared fan bases and city representation, as Ahmed explains:

“One of the biggest issues that could come with a merger of the two leagues is the effect it will have on the fan bases. The ISL franchises have been selected so as to make maximum benefit out of the catchment areas. A merger could bring multiple teams in the same city, with the reduction of the fan base a real possibility. For regions without an I-League club, such as Kerala, this may not be an issue however.”

“Hugely popular Kerala Blasters enjoy an average home attendance of 54,000 and this will not be affected by the coming of a possible new I-League club. However, in Kolkata, inaugural ISL champions Atletico are reportedly opposed to the addition of city giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Their share of the fan base will be reduced to the small number of casual fans and middle class families going for an outing.”

“While there is no official confirmation of whether BFC and the two Kolkata clubs will join the ISL, a sizeable chunk of their fans regard the I-League as the more important competition. For one thing, it is part of a proper league system with promotion/relegation with clubs that have to follow AFC rules, instead of the closed private rich man’s club that is the ISL.”

As we stand the confusion of having two separate competitions is proving detrimental for both parties, however a merger may be a difficult avenue to breach with plenty of ill feeling still existing between one another. It’s clear the status quo isn’t sustainable, and a solution needs to be brokered to go forward, even if there are some big name casualties along the way.

Asian Cup qualification remains a possibility

India last qualified for the Asian Cup in 2011, so it can hardly be regarded as a lengthy dry spell for the national team on the continent. However, while in the main national team in Asia has improved, India have at times seemed to have been left stagnant. While qualification for the 2018 World Cup was rarely thought a possibility, the fact India finished bottom of their Round 2 section – below the likes of previous minnows Guam – is worrying.

Throughout it all another Englishman Steven Constantine continues to keep his job. For the moment patience in his leadership seems to be well placed, as India went on to clinch the SAFF Championship late last year before a comfortable 7-1 aggregate victory over Laos in the last round of Asian Cup play-off matches in June to confirm their place in January’s Round 3 draw. The recent improvement of form, alongside the likes of Bengaluru succeeding in the club game, gives Ahmed hope for the future and possibly a chance at qualifying for UAE in three years’ time.

“In September, India defeated Puerto Rico 4-1 in a friendly at the new Andheri stadium in what was a rare occasion of beating a higher ranked side. The national team needs to continue playing against higher ranked teams if it is to improve further and climb the ranking tables, which will in turn help our seeding chances.“

“For now, we are waiting impatiently to see the results of the draw for the final round of Asian Cup qualifying. Personally, I think we have a good chance of making it, looking at the general upward trend in our performances starting from the final few World Cup qualifiers and going on to the SAFF Championship and the Puerto Rico game.”

Indian football is far from a steadied entity, given the mess which remains in the domestic game. However, through the fog comes a national team with renewed hope and Bengaluru as the blue lightning rod that is gaining success for not only their team but the country as a whole, on and off the field. Come Saturday’s final in Doha, we will see if they can go one step further and clinch India its first modern day footballing continental trophy.

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