A moment of history is beckoning and a 90-minute affair on Saturday evening in Doha will decide whether Bengaluru FC, a three and a half year old club from the Garden City can become the first Indian side to emerge victorious on a continental stage.
This is Indian football's biggest occasion in the last five years since the country's appearance in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, and Bengaluru's authoritative 3-1 victory against Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta’zim in the second-leg of the semi-final on October 20 has already given the buzz a boost. The big question is what a win or a defeat in this contest will mean for the club and the country’s footballing fortunes in general? To answer this question, it is important to first understand how momentous their feat is.
A momentous achievement
The Asian Football Federation has 47 member countries, but the AFC Cup has always been a happy hunting ground for the West Asian clubs. Until 2014, no club from the Eastern or the Southern part of the continent could reach the final.
Coming from a country like India, where even the basic infrastructure is crippled with innumerable problems and the efficiency of the All India Football Federation is constantly questioned, the JSW-group co-owned outfit has succeeded by choosing to swim against the tide.
While it has always been the trend among the older clubs to spend the lion’s share of their budget on player wages, Bengaluru have opted to loosen their purse more intelligently, investing more on state-of-the-art technology and coaching methods. This has also ensured that the Bengaluru FC's players are happier to see their career grow, even though they may not be getting paid as much as their counterparts in East Bengal or Mohun Bagan.
A new benchmark
They have set a new benchmark for other clubs to follow, after taking the baton from the now defunct Pune FC, which introduced a sea of changes in the way clubs are run in India. The Blues have already created a milestone and a win in the final against the strong West Asian outfit will only be the icing on the cake.
The question is whether the other I-League clubs will follow suit. With the proposed merger of the Indian Super League and the I-League waiting on the horizon, no other I-League club, apart from the two Kolkata giants, will have a budget anywhere close to Bengaluru.
The first thing to note here is how different the structures at these two clubs are, compared to the corporate-owned entity from the South. The higher management at the two big Kolkata clubs are elected via members’ votes and many of these officials do not even draw any salary for their service.
That being said, it is appalling that they have chosen to cling onto backdated ways to stop Bengaluru FC, which have yielded little results. To stop the wave of modernisation, the stubborn stance that they have taken has left the two clubs miles behind the defending I-League champions in terms of professionalism.
Kickstarting a new era
The case of the ISL outfits is pretty different and many of them are already on the same page with the Blues. The prospect of all these outfits clashing in a combined league is mouth-watering, if the ethical problems with the AIFF's proposed merger can be kept aside for a moment.
After years of under-performing at the continental level, 2016 can kick-start an era of Indian dominance at least among countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong.
However, on an overall level, this achievement is unlikely to be a game-changer. As has been seen in Malaysia’s case, where Johor’s dominance in Asia has no impact on the national team’s performance, it’s very hard to imagine how Bengaluru’s success can usher in an era of success for Stephen Constantine’s squad.
This whole journey has reaped high dividends of keeping a well-knit core of the team intact and it will be a mantra impossible to replicate in international football. In terms of stoking interest among the football fans, it will certainly grab more eyeballs compared to the domestic competitions, but the lack of nationalist fervour around the game in India means that it will fail to tap into the reluctant section who wake up to support national teams even in the sports they do not follow.
A number of the club’s fanatics have travelled to Doha to cheer for their favourite side which is certainly a brilliant sign for Indian football, but nothing unique, considering East Bengal also had a contingent of supporters travelling with them when they won the ASEAN Club Championships in 2003 .
The Albert Roca coached side can also take heart from a vintage performance by the Red and Golds – the Kolkata club that used to be the torch-bearers of Indian football outside the country, till very recently.
East Bengal had thrashed Iraq’s cup champions Al Zawra’a SC in an Asian Cup Winners Cup tie on August 6, 1993. Quite interestingly, Carlton Chapman, a former India international hailing from Bengaluru was the architect of the victory, scoring a hat-trick in what remains an Indian side’s only win ever against an Iraqi side including both club and country fixtures.
On November 5 2004, India notched up one of their most memorable victories of this century when they defeated Kuwait 3-2, who were ranked 78 places ahead. Twelve years later, on the same day, the onus will be on Bengaluru to gift the Indian football fans another memorable evening. Even in case they fail, their journey will serve as a lesson to all clubs in the future. However, if they win, there is little chance it will be a new dawn for Indian football.
Atanu Mitra has been covering Indian football for more than four years. He tweets @Atanu00.