As Indian football chooses between red and blue pill, Bengaluru FC is I-League's last stand

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As Indian football chooses between red and blue pill, Bengaluru FC is I-League's last stand

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Amlan Majumdar

10/20/2016

In the final, Bengaluru FC will also be fighting for a dying league and clubs. It will be the last stand. That night Bengaluru will be in a position to show the people in power at the AIFF 'how deep the rabbit holes goes'. They are The One.

The build-up to the second leg of the semifinal between Bengaluru and Johor Darul Ta'zim was all about how the match is much bigger than being just about a place in the final of the AFC Cup—which in itself is an unprecedented achievement in Indian football. The occasion brought everyone together—which again is an unprecedented achievement in this country.

Bengaluru FC are not the most popular club in Kolkata. A three-year-old club which had the audacity of taking on the established age old giants like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal and knocking them off their perch. Their fans bragged about being the best in the nation despite backing a club which had no history to speak of. Matches between the Kolkata giants and the Blues in recent times have seen hostile atmospheres in the stadium. Their managers did not get along, and neither did their fans.

The bitterness was from the fact that a club from a city which had very little heritage of football represented everything their fabled clubs are not.

The bitterness was not just about a rookie disrupting the established order. The bitterness was from the fact that a club from a city which had very little heritage of football represented everything their fabled clubs are not. They showed exactly what their clubs are missing out on and exposed their administrative flaws much like the day highlights the night.

However, yesterday that bitterness and the rivalry were put aside. People of all jerseys came together to voice their support for Bengaluru. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans wished them luck, while fans who prefer to follow European football were 'feeling excited' on social media. Bengaluru wrote letters to East Bengal and Mohun Bagan and asked them for their support ahead of the match and even urged their fans residing in Bengaluru to attend the game. The Kolkata clubs replied in kind and lauded the Blues for their achievements. Mohun Bagan wrote, “Brushing away our domestic rivalry we at Mohun Bagan would root for your team in tomorrow's epic encounter”. East Bengal replied, “Tonight when 11 of your players are on the pitch attempting to make history, they won't be alone. The Red and Gold fan in all of us will be rooting for every pass they make, every shot they take. When you face Johor Darul Ta'zim tonight, you are not just representing the city of Bengaluru, but India as a whole”.

 © BFC Media

When the I-League resumes, assuming there will be enough clubs in the league to resume it, these clubs will once again give each other hell. The fans will once again sport their tinted glasses. But, last night, we encountered something special on and off the pitch. The league and its clubs and its fans showed that I-League might lack the bling but it has a soul. It came together like all the components of a superorganism and showed that there is bigger cause out there which transcends rivalry and banter.

Bengaluru FC, on the other hand, showed what a bit of ambition and professionalism can do, and what an Indian club can achieve with proper investment and care. A club which was formed from scratch, mostly with players who were rejected by the other I-League teams, has now won more I-League trophies than East Bengal and Mohun Bagan combined during the period of its existence. A club formed in a city which, despite housing iconic clubs like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Indian Telephone Industries, never came close to matching the intensity and passion for the game one finds in West Bengal and Goa. Yet now, just three years into its existence, it boasts of one of the best attendance records in Indian football and houses one of the most vociferous groups of supporters in the country.

The club knew how to use social media to rope in the fans. They have successfully created a sense of belonging for the fans. They made sure that the fans are not just 'visitors' when they attended a game in the stadium. From chants to banners to open-top bus celebrations—Bengaluru FC have given the other clubs a blueprint to follow.

Their rise comes at a time when Indian football is at a crossroad. It is at a point where it has to choose between the blue pill and the red pill.

The glamorous and dreamlike matrix of the ISL where everything is shiny and, as Cypher said, 'ignorance is bliss' or the real-world struggle for survival of the I-League which is being driven underground by the sentinels.

I-League is the underdog in this battle against the ISL - much like Bengaluru were against the defending champions Johor. They had already lost against them in the group stages twice. They were even trailing in the first leg of the semifinal away from home. However, they fought back. Resembling the fight and spirit that still remains in the league, they equalized in the first leg, and that away goal handed them a semblance of hope. They transformed that hope into the most important win in the club's history. Their captain led from the front and provided them with a touch of quality when they needed it most. Eugeneson Lyngdoh kept running at the Johor defence all night. He was kicked, battered, and bruised, but he got up and kept going till the job was done. That show of character and desire is what this league needs now.

On 5th November, Bengaluru will take to the field against the Iraqi Air Force club Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in South Korea. Once again, it will be bigger than just the shiny trophy up for grabs. They will also be fighting for a dying league and clubs. It will be the last stand. That night Bengaluru will be in a position to show the people in power at the AIFF 'how deep the rabbit holes goes'. Bengaluru are the I-League's homeostasis. They are The One.

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