Bengaluru Football Club (BFC) has created history by winning the I-League on its debut season in the national football league. Formed in 2013, BFC, which is owned by Sajjan Jindal's JSW Group, has in a short span of time defied the odds, both on and off the pitch. It has become an example of how a professional football club should function. Mustafa Ghouse, a former Davis cup player for India and now the Chief Operating Officer of BFC, talks to Aabhas Sharma about how professionalism can make a difference in a beleaguered sport and league. Excerpts:
How would you describe the short, yet momentous, journey of BFC?
I think nobody - the management, owners or fans - expected to have such a smashing start to the journey. It has all come together because of hard work, getting the right people and making sure that we give our 100 per cent to the cause. It has been an incredible ride. We know that sustaining this performance - on and off the pitch - will be a daunting task, but we are relishing it.
How did the club come into existence? And what were the challenges you faced?
When the All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced that it would be accepting bids from corporate groups for direct entry into I-League, JSW made a bid for a team in Bangalore. When we started we knew that Bangalore had a sizeable audience and the local league systems were quite established. Sajjan Jindal has studied in Bangalore and has a connection with the city. Besides, the group has a huge presence in Karnataka and Bangalore didn't have an I-league team.
The biggest challenge was that people didn't know much about the I-League and the teams. We had to make them aware about the team as well as what we had in mind. Our idea was to make it cool for people in Bangalore to support an I-League club.
So is it cool now to support a club in Bangalore? How did you manage to do that? What was the average attendance for a BFC home game?
Well, I would like to think that it is. We had tie-ups with schools and colleges and went there to introduce our club. It didn't require much investment to hold coaching clinics in schools, and youngsters like the idea. We also tied up with a local pub for it to become our "home pub". We did the same with Cafe Coffee Day and sold tickets there as well, so that people didn't have to struggle to buy tickets.
Our biggest fear before the first game was that we wouldn't be able to draw more than a handful of people. But slowly people heard about BFC on social media, newspapers and saw us doing well. On an average, we drew about 6,500 people per home game (BFC's stadium capacity is 15,000). For bigger games against Pune FC or Mohun Bagan, the number was higher.
What, according to you, has been the key to your success?
I think the key has been to get the right people on board - both on and off the pitch. Off the pitch it is people who are passionate about the sport, and on it is about people who care. Our head coach, Ashley Westwood, who has played for several English football clubs, has been instrumental in our success. Likewise, assistant coach Pradhyum Reddy, who has the ability to coach any other I-League club, has immense knowledge of Indian football. Getting players like Sunil Chhetri and Robin Singh on board was extremely valuable as well and every player has contributed immensely.
Do you think other clubs would want to replicate your model and perhaps, there will be more professionalism in Indian football clubs?
I would like to think so. In a short span, we have shown that all you need is a professional attitude. It is all inter-linked. If the management is committed, then the players will want to give their 100 per cent. If the players give their 100 per cent, then it will show on the pitch and the fans will appreciate it. It isn't about spending vast sums of money but about being dedicated to the sport and the idea of building a club that people will be proud of.