For decades, football has failed to gain a strong foothold in Bengaluru. Despite being the birthplace of many Indian footballing legends, most notably Mariappa Kempaiah, Mohammad Abdus Sattar and Ahmed Khan, there has been an absence of a strong football culture in the city over the years. The Indian top flight has been to Bengaluru on quite a few occasions. However, the most successful club in the city’s recent history, HAL SC, never received any sort of fanatical following throughout its various top flight campaigns. The primary reason behind this was that HAL SC being an institutional team; not many Banglorians found it appealing to support a team that played under the banner of a state-owned company. Moreover, HAL’s failure to consistently do well in the league didn’t help it in increasing its fan-following. Young players used HAL SC as a stepping stone to big moves, whereas the top hierarchy at the club, being high ranking HAL officials, couldn’t devote much time in the affairs of the club. Lack of genuine efforts from the club to improve the team every season, was quite alarming too. One could say that the HAL wasn’t one of the best run clubs in the country. Once AIFF decided to do away with institutional teams, however, the story of HAL SC, who were relegated to the 2nd division in 2012, came to an end, in terms of I-League football.
The Garden city is today home to thousands of football fans. Major European clubs enjoy tremendous popularity in the city, with the game growing in popularity at a rapid rate during the past few years. However, despite this craze, local football has suffered in recent times due to the absence of a I-League club in the city. So, when JSW Sports, the sports arm of mega-rich steel-makers, Jindal South West Ltd. (JSW), bagged the rights for an I-League team from Bengaluru, many local football lovers expressed their delight at the news. The fact that JSW has decided to invest a significant amount of money in an I-League team, is an encouraging sign in itself, for the beautiful game in India. One of the largest steel producers in India, the $15 billion conglomerate has already started preparations for building a world class youth academy. A new academy in the city will not only provide a huge platform for local kids, it may also help stop the exodus of talented players to other parts of the country in future. In another shot in the arm for Bengaluru, JSW has also assured to refurbish the Bangalore Football Stadium, in order to provide the best experience for fans during the home games.
Less than two months since bagging the franchise rights, JSW spent no time in bringing in some of the top professionals for its new team. While the club has brought in a couple of English football products in defenders John Johnson and Curtis Osano, the biggest catch for the club, so far, has been that of Indian national team captain Sunil Chhetri. The significance of Chhetri’ s signing for Bengaluru FC is immense, for both the club and Indian football. While by signing up the striker, JSW has made a huge statement of intent, Chhetri choosing the I-League over the IMG-R League is a big boost to the I-League. Moreover, the new club, which was officially launched at the Bangalore Football Stadium on Saturday, has also acquired the services of former Liberian captain Johnny Menyongar and Indian international Robin Singh. Menyongar was the star of the Shillong Lajong team in the 2011-12 season, playing predominantly in the no. 10 role. Menyongar’s ability to play in many attacking positions will help Bengaluru FC in the upcoming season. The Liberian can score goals as a forward, and can also drop deep to set up play in the attacking third. Menyongar’s partnership with Chhetri will be important to the club’s fortunes next season. Robin Singh is another star name in the squad. The youngster has often been criticized for his slow approach and poor touches, and has failed to make any significant improvement to his game in the past couple of seasons. It will be a surprise if Robin starts ahead of Menyongar in the league games this season; but the striker should definitely play an important part for the club as the season progresses. Despite a poor run of form with East Bengal last season, Singh has been handed a lifeline to rebuild his career at Bengaluru FC. The lanky striker needs to grasp this opportunity with both hands.
With Bengaluru FC starting off with very high ambitions, it is encouraging to note that the club has not ignored local talents in its quest for doing well in the I-League. The club recently signed three local boys, defender Vishal Kumar, and midfielders Kutty Mani and Don Bosco Andrew. The Bengaluru FC squad is a mix of youth and experience. The defence looks solid with the arrival of Osano and Johnson, while the frontline looks quite good too. However, the club may have to add one or two experienced players in its midfield to compete for a high finish in the league. Former Manchester United academy player Ashley Westwood has been given the reins of the club. Westwood has the experience of playing in different English clubs in different divisions, including the Premier League. While his CV looks quite impressive, the coaching role at Bengaluru FC is Westwood’s first association with Indian football. It may take the Englishman some time getting acquainted to the playing style of the Indians, and implementing his ideas into the team. Although Bengaluru FC have a decent squad, the chances of the team challenging for the I-League title in its first season, look a bit far-fetched at the moment. That being said, the team looks strong enough to fight for a top half finish.
All these years, Bengaluru FC was exactly what the Bangaloreans had been screaming out for. The fans need to get behind the team in the coming season, and support this new venture. Parth Jindal, the CEO of the new club, said during the launching event on Saturday,
“Launching Bengaluru FC today is the start of something special. It is going to be the endeavor of this club to have the best talent in the country on board and our team, which we have unveiled today, is proof of that. The club is going to give the city many reasons to cheer and we can’t wait for the season to begin.”
One can hardly disagree with Mr. Jindal, when it comes to the importance of the club to Bengaluru. The club promises to take the city to a new level in a few years’ time, provided the fans back up the efforts of the owners. With most of the popular I-League clubs concentrated in a few cities, the JSW-owned club is indeed a breath of fresh air in Indian football. With new clubs like Bengaluru FC coming into the scene, one can’t help but get excited about the new I-League season already.