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Bengaluru FC lead the way in India’s disjointed, 'farcical' league system

Bengaluru FC, led by coach Albert Roca, are leading the way in the Indian Super League. (AFP)
BENGALURU, India: Bengaluru FC, as has so often been the case this season, dominated possession during their Indian Super League (ISL) match against nearest rivals Pune FC on Friday night. But even as their five-match winning run in the league came to an end after a 1-1 draw, there was no great angst on the face of coach Albert Roca.
Frank Rijkaard’s assistant at Barcelona during the golden years when Ronaldinho and Co. were bringing home the Champions League, the 55-year-old Roca prowled the touchline menacingly as the hardcore fans in the West Block kept chanting his name. And no wonder, as Bengaluru’s progress to the top of the ISL is little short of a fairytale.
Formed in 2013, and bankrolled by the Jindal South West Group, the club won two titles in the country’s other professional league (the I-League) under the guidance of Ashley Westwood, a graduate of Manchester United’s academy. Now, under Roca, who last season led the side to a second Federation Cup — India’s answer to the FA Cup — Bengaluru play a far more sophisticated, possession-based game. Given the resources at their disposal, it would be sacrilege to call it the “Barcelona way,” but you can see the influence in the way Roca sets up his teams and the emphasis they have on keeping the ball. But, given the context of football in India, theirs should also be a cautionary tale.
Come the end of last year’s I-League season, Bengaluru had negotiated their entry into the rival ISL. But while they were drafted in as the league expanded from eight teams to 10, India’s two most storied and historic clubs — Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan and East Bengal — were kept out in the cold.
Meanwhile, the ISL had not been recognized by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for its first three seasons, despite hyperbolic marketing positioning it as the country’s “premier” competition. Bengaluru, who retained a significant number of the players who finished fourth in their final I-League season, have made a mockery of that notion, storming to a five-point lead at the top of the table. They have also scored 31 goals in their 16 games, with the Venezuelan Miku accounting for 12. Sunil Chhetri, the 33-year-old veteran and crowd favorite, has nine.

Adding to the bizarre situation in Indian football at the moment, the ISL and the I-League have run concurrently this season, leaving fans in cities that host both leagues in quite a quandary. And it is the ISL that has suffered most, with attendances markedly down on last season. The average crowd this term has been a little over 15,000, compared with just over 21,000 in 2016-17. The biggest crowd of the season so far (37,986) was in Kochi on New Year’s Eve as Kerala Blasters lost 3-1 to Bengaluru.
Contrast that with last season when 54,913 watched the Blasters’ goalless draw with Delhi Dynamos, or the season before when 68,340 watched Atletico de Kolkata beat Chennaiyin FC 2-1, and a worrying picture begins to emerge. This year, defending champions Atletico de Kolkata have had a shocking season and have no chance of making the playoffs. Teddy Sheringham, appointed as coach last July, was sacked 10 games in with the side in eighth place. And former Bengaluru coach Westwood’s interim tenure has been even worse, with three defeats and a draw.
And yet, over in the much-maligned I-League, where some of Indian football’s most famous clubs have had to shut up shop in the past decade, there has been a resurgence in spectator interest this season. Despite both Kolkata giants — Bagan and East Bengal — being well off the pace set by NEROCA FC and Minerva Punjab, a whopping 64,630 turned up to watch the two sides in India’s most famous football derby. The average I-League attendance of 9,670 is also a marked improvement on last season’s 5,233.
But what those numbers tell you is that Indian football can hardly afford the farcical situation where two leagues are fighting for both attention and sponsors in a cricket-mad country. At some point, the AFC will have to take a firm stance. As things stand, Bengaluru, whose Federation Cup triumph came in the I-League, are now playing in the 2018 AFC Cup as an ISL representative. And having already made the ISL semifinals, India’s first professionally run outfit are showing the rest of the country the way to do things.
While other ISL clubs have wasted money on has-beens over the years, Bengaluru have been the team with a plan. And under Roca’s calm guidance, they look a good prospect to go all the way. What happens to Indian football thereafter — with marquee clubs excluded from the top table — is another matter.