LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

In cricket-mad India, soccer has always been a hard sell. Now a revolution is afoot, not in the football hub of Goa but in booming, tech-friendly Bangalore. Paul Dharamraj reports from this business-friendly city where recently launched Bengaluru FC look set on winning the I-League title in their first season.

 main_Bangalore Football Statium

In India’s silicon valley, Bangalore, Bengaluru to locals, isn’t the kind of place you would associate with a football revolution. Known for its mild climate and entrepreneurial spirit, Bangalore is where the Mumbai-based JSW Group, owned by the Jindal business dynasty, set up their own football club: Bengaluru FC.

And the newcomers could lift the Indian title in their very first season. A win against fellow challengers Pune on Friday at the Bangalore Football Stadium should push Bengaluru ahead of Salgaocar – and break Goa’s six-year monopoly of the I-League.

According to club CEO Mustafa Ghouse, the decision to set up here was because of the demographics: ‘Bangalore is a young, highly educated city. It has a higher number of people below 35, and that is our target audience’. The JSW Group also revamped the Beatles-era football stadium, now a 15,000-capacity astroturf venue in the heart of a city that is pushing to host the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup.

Bangalore Football Statium

On the eve of Friday’s match, the club announced the launch of a number of soccer schools around the city, for the under-7s, 9s and 11s.

‘I am confident that there is a huge market for the game at the moment,’ Ghouse continued. ‘It could take the number two spot among sports in India. Here we’ve had crowds increased to at least 8,000 people for a weekend game.’

Though many have criticised the kick-off times of 4pm, when Friday’s vital match takes place, there’s no doubt that the I-League, and Indian football, are on the up.

The last, and only, time India qualified for the World Cup was for Brazil 1950, by default. Urban myth has it that India refused to attend when their barefoot players were told to boot up – though travel expenses were probably the main factor. Currently standing 152 in the world rankings, just below Liechenstein and Lesotho, India did qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup.

Brigade road

Though beaten by later World Cup qualifiers Australia and South Korea, India had returned to the international stage after 24 years. In a country where cricket, the sporting legacy of the Raj, dominates, football will always need to raise its game.

Nevertheless, pockets of India have fallen for the beautiful game, West Bengal, the north-eastern states and coastal Goa in particular. Introduced in 2007, the I-League features 14 clubs from different states. Even with the branding changes and promises of better infrastructure from the governing All India Football Federation, the I-League struggled to find a TV promoter and even a title sponsor between 2011 and 2013.

And yet, while the domestic game has struggled, viewership for football has seen a gradual upsurge. Thanks to the expansion of cable TV networks, many kids in the main cities can rattle off the names of Manchester United’s first XI – but couldn’t name more than three players from the I-League.

Autos

One such player would probably be Sunil Chhetri, top scorer for India at the 2011 Asian Cup. After a fleeting stay at Kansas City Wizards and interest from Leeds, Celtic and QPR, 75-time international Chhetri chose to return to India. Signing for the newly formed Bengaluru, Chhetri ran out for the national side in Bengaluru’s inaugural pre-season friendly. He remains the club’s top scorer for 2013-14.

As a player, coach Ashley Westwood played alongside Phil Neville when Manchester United won the Youth Cup of 1995, and gained Premiership experience with Bradford City. As well as Chhetri, Westwood relies on Bengaluru’s own Rooney for goals, Australian international Sean, clinical and bullish.

MG Road

Though the city’s Manchester United Pub has since closed, the club management is keen to build a brand and cultivate a community of local support. On match days, fans man the merchandise stalls and hospitality outlets.

Bengaluru are partnered with local pubs such as the Arbor Brewing Company, where players grab a pint and the coach sits down to face the press or supporters. The Indian subsidiary of this Michigan franchise first arrived here in 2012. Right in the club’s neighbourhood, near the city’s commercial centre, ABC offers players, fans and officials a range of wheat beers and pale ales.

To reach the stadium, you can take the Namma Metro to Mahatma Gandhi station (purple line 2), and walk down MG Road, turning right at the Dr Ferdinand Kittel statue. Alternatively, take a tuk-tuk auto rickshaw towards Ashok Nagar and ask for the Bangalore Football Stadium.