May 23rd. I was at a lackluster reunion-slash-alumni-meet. The first one after you’ve moved on is often interesting only until you get there. I won’t say I anticipated it, but I knew well that I would have a solid back-up if things did turn boring.
Arbor Brewing Company, apart from hosting that get-together, was screening, our final away fixture against Dempo SC.
By then, we had roared back into contention for the title so fiercely, and Bagan had slipped up so conveniently, that I was convinced we were soon going to see a live rendition of every sports film’s climax.
With every passing minute of the match, I found myself cutting conversations short. We weren’t playing badly, but there hadn’t been a goal, which meant we were still two points behind in the title race. But it had gotten to a stage in the season where we were – literally – unbeatable. So I was jittery, but completely relaxed at the same time.
We did end up scoring soon enough. Robin headed in the 65th minute goal. Conversation was now, positively, out of the question. I didn’t know the stats and I was probably wrong, but I was convinced we were in first place. I let out several fist pumps and celebrated with no one in particular. The final game would be a formality against a Bagan team that had the mat heaved out from under their feet.
Twelve minutes later, the same happened to me. Dempo equalized, and held on for a draw.
For the first time in a month, my conviction about seeing a dream run end with a trophy ceremony at home was challenged; what if we saw Bagan lift the trophy at home instead?
I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I told someone this, I don’t remember who, before proceeding to have three beers; one for every point we now needed.
It has been a great year for the BFC fan. The season began for us with apprehension about the distance of the new ground from West Block A. We were concerned about whether we would be audible; but many of us probably ended up laughing at our naiveté after the first game.
Last season marked a dream premiere for BFC, but everyone knew that this was the season we would be judged upon. I think we realized this was also true for us as fans.
We had taken it upon ourselves to bring new faces to the stadium. This wasn’t particularly easy. It took the team over a month to register our first home win, prior to which Pune FC and East Bengal had strung together consecutive losses for us. Sadly, we are a nation where there aren’t too many takers for a team that is losing.
However, there were two distinct evenings that I believed turned things around for everyone, the loyalists as well as the newcomers.
The AFC Cup debut against Maziya was one of them. This match followed a 1-4 defeat to Bagan and even the most loyal fans were being sceptical about selection. There was murmur about us needing, just NEEDING to bring Pawan Kumar back into the side, and getting Chettri out of the left-wing and back in the middle. Lots of doubts were creeping in about our new marquee player too.
I consider that game a milestone. Because, universally, there isn’t a higher, more poetic achievement than scoring a stoppage time winner. It’s every footballer’s dream – fledgling, failed, or armchair.
So, at 1-1 in the 93rd minute, when Shankar hung in the air momentarily, a few thousand fans got to live a feeling of unparalleled elation, because we knew what was coming next.
Back of the net disturbed. Game won. Hug every stranger in a 30 yard radius.
The best teams are those that keep winning their fans over. That night, the team did exactly that. We were the self-entitled West Block A, and we had demanded. Bengaluru FC had delivered. There were no questions asked after that, apart from when the next fixture was. We were filled with so much vigour, it started showing. The banners got bigger, the chants got louder, and the team just stopped losing.
Most importantly, there were new faces trickling in at every game. The Wes t Block Blues could now sense their own little success story around the corner.
Until that infamous second evening.
We weren’t ignorant to the reality that some of our banter strayed very close to the line of tolerance. In fact, it was a subject of constant discussion within the fan club; the consensus was that the professionals on the pitch should only have their full attention on the ball, and not us.
So there was outrage after the Mumbai FC game. We were justified – after seeing a supporter taking a beating at the hands of the police – in being disillusioned with the verdict, as I’m sure the club was. But we also knew in the back of our minds that the entire saga had begun with a bottle flying out of our stand.
It wasn’t a great time to be a fan. However much the video of a diving manager went around, it was still us, who pride ourselves on being the best fans in India, who had thrown a bottle on to the field. The good work done so far seemed to be coming apart. There was a general air of anger within the ranks. Opinions were flying around once again: about the content of our chants, everyday for two weeks. As was talk about the gaffer’s imminent exit, owing to India’s unsavoury footballing environment.
It was, in my view, the most crucial test in the club’s history. The first proper crisis.
I followed the story closely after the verdict, waiting for the management to come out and contest it. I expected an appeal, because there appeared to be enough to overturn the decision. But, frustratingly at the time, it was not forthcoming.
In hindsight, it was the best thing to do, because it’s the thing Bengaluru FC does best – put the game ahead of all else. The decision to get on with it might have been the reason we lived to fight till the very last day.On the fan front, it allowed things to settle down, and the month-long streak of away games allowed for a renewed, larger section who, in a quick reversal, now had something of our own to prove to the club.
For a week after the Dempo game, the days kept getting longer. And so were the ticket queues. The club might have been stunned at the amount of people deciding to turn up for the title decider, and we were too.
Throughout the week, we had one intention – bring people to the stadium and put on a spectacle. Did we think, at some level, that it would make up for the fiasco at the MFC game? Probably. But more than anything, it was an opportunity to live up to our reputation and change the fan culture in Bangalore.
On the eve of the game, 30 of us were sprawled across the floor of the basement at the Bangalore Football Stadium, painting banners and cutting mosaics into shape. The operation lasted nearly ten hours, and sometime in the middle of the day, we got news of every stand being sold out.
There hadn’t been meetings or white boards, but each of us had invariably convinced at least 20 people to come support the local team, under the pretext that the other local team had just been knocked out of the IPL. Come, we said, support the local team that might actually win you something.
It had worked, and we now ran the risk of missing out on the match ourselves because of how quickly the tickets were going.
The magnitude of everything struck me. Bengaluru FC, with its fans, were not just the prodigal newcomers anymore. We’d been tested several times during the season and we’d come through, selling a stadium out when 6 months ago we weren’t sure it was conducive to fan support; when we hadn’t yet won at home. The niggling thought of seeing Bagan lift the trophy was less irksome now.
We had a setup that allowed for success for years to come, and a management that recognized how to do that. Our training and player management had proved again, in a season when Indian football suffered for the poor schedule, to be a step ahead. We had 20,000 people turning out on a rainy Bangalore night to watch football, despite being a non-ISL city.
We had already won.
I realized this season that success and happiness should not be measured against a standard, because pity can creep in when standards aren’t met. Another trophy would have been nice, and I suppose we can look at it as being robbed out of our hands in the dying minutes; but self-pity is not a philosophy that suits this club.
When Eugenseon accepted his Midfielder of the Year trophy at the presentation, my vision was impaired by a teary filter. He didn’t think of it as a consolation, I was sure of it. But my last memory of the season was watching him take the long walk back to the locker room, by himself; there were no tears this time, because even as a victory dance broke out in the presentation area below us, we were singing proudly for our warrior.
This is the philosophy that suits us. The one where we’re always putting challenges behind us – and this was a season full of challenges – the one where we’re ALWAYS winners.
There is a chant that goes ‘…our kids will have a story…’. It hasn’t meant more than it does now.
(Published in Bengaluru FC’s magazine, Rewind)