Having won two I-Leagues and one Federation Cup in their three years of existence, Bengaluru FC have already become a benchmark for Indian clubs in terms of professionalism. Their phenomenal success in accumulating a sizeable fan-base in a short period has also been well-documented. However, the way they have become the most preferred destination among the best Indian footballers over the last couple of years has rarely been talked about.

A quick glance at the illustrious history of Indian club football clearly shows how the three Kolkata giants – Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting and East Bengal – were always the most sought-after targets for the biggest stars of the national team. The huge fan-base that these clubs enjoyed, and have still managed to retain to an extent, lured the professionals, even though that often meant earning less playing minutes.

The fanaticism around football reached its pinnacle in the seventies, with the rivalry between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan reaching a whole new level at the backdrop of a city embroiled in gory political battles. However, the atmosphere at these two clubs was pretty different, with two legendary officials being at the helm of the operations. While the East Bengal camp had the image of an extended family under the leadership of Dipak ‘Paltu’ Das, the Mariners seemed to wear an aristocratic look, very mindful about their rich legacy, with Dhiren Dey leading their operations.

Both of these perceptions helped in enticing the best talents from the country, as the moves grabbed more eyeballs and guaranteed instant stardom, as well as the hope of being revered by millions. However, over the last few years, this reputation has been severely tampered, especially that of Mohun Bagan, after innumerable players accused the club of not paying their dues at the end of the season.

Filling the void

In the last 24 months, the newbies from South India have filled this void. A number of players have snubbed more lucrative offers to sign in favour of the Blues at the peak of their careers to ensure a better growth curve. It has resulted mainly from word of mouth in their discussion with peers, while the presence of Sunil Chhetri – whom most emerging Indian players have idolised at some point of their fledging careers – has also helped.

The club’s stress on sports science, nutrition and other aspects of development has been a major talking point among footballers, who have by now become tired by others’ nonchalance to address these issues. While this reputation has helped Bengaluru strengthen their squad, it has also helped a lot in cutting the wages. While almost all Indians in their first XI, including the likes of Amrinder Singh, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Rino Anto and Sunil Chhetri, are pivotal parts of the national team, they operate on a budget much lower than the two Kolkata giants.

Whenever these two different cultures have faced off, the JSW-owned outfit have given a good account of themselves. For example, last season, Pronay Halder was being chased by both Bengaluru and Mohun Bagan. While the Kolkata side finally managed to sign the midfielder for an eight-digit sum, the Blues remained in the fray till the very last minute even though they had offered much less. In the case of signing Amrinder Singh, East Bengal had to bow down before Ashley Westwood’s team despite offering a better deal, as the player, only 23 back then, was hell-bent on joining the club that would help him develop further.

In the coming days, the gulf is only expected to expand further as the other clubs struggle with their finances. Even between the two clubs from the City of Joy, players are nowadays demanding more money from the Red and Golds, who are perceived to be in a better financial state compared to their arch-rivals. For example, Anas Edathodika signed for Mohun Bagan for a sum that is almost two-third of what he had demanded from the Trevor Morgan-coached outfit. Many players have left these two clubs on a bitter note, but that has not been the case for Bengaluru, at least till now, with former players also showering unconditional praise upon the club’s structure in informal chats.

It would be interesting to see whether Bengaluru can retain this supremacy when the ISL clubs are thrown into the mix during the proposed revamp of Indian club football. Unlike the other I-League clubs, many of these franchises have toiled hard to inculcate a similarly planned structure into their sides. However, it can be safely concluded that the three-year-old club has been a trend-setter in their approach and will be reaping the dividends for the years to come.