Bengaluru FC have always had a different way of doing things. In its short history of just three years, the club has become a benchmark for consistency, winning two out of the three I-league titles and missing out on the other very narrowly.
They have also set a new guideline on fan engagement. Armed proper with an English or Spanish club like Bengaluru FC TV, a very eager and vocal social media community together with the famed "West Block Blues", the club is known as much for its fan as its football.
Ahead of its big day - the semi-final second leg of the AFC Cup vs Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) at home on Wednesday, all the talk is surrounded around crowd support. So much so, the club management even sent a letter to arch-rivals Mohan Bagan, proposing a "ceasefire" and urging them to keep their differences aside and come together to support them in their quest to become the first Indian club ever to reach the AFC Cup final.
|Bengaluru Football Club plays Malaysia's Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) at the AFC semi-final tomorrow.|
BFC Midfielder Eugeneson Lyngdoh echoed captain Sunil Chhetri and other team mates, speaking to India Today, on the fan angle. "When the fans are there and behind us, it gives us added motivation. There is an adrenaline rush. There is a feeling that we want to perform and not fail. Having the crowd behind us will help our cause. I am confident there will be a huge crowd supporting us at the fortress."
In a club video, defender R Vishal Singh says, "This is not just about Bangalore or Karnataka. It's about making history for India and Indian football. From bengaluru people to all Indian footballers."
Linked to that thought is BFC's social media campaign with #NotJustOurs, signifying that this match is not just important for the club but for the entire Indian football community. Only Dempo and East Bengal have been in the last four of the competition before but none have made it to the final. Sunil Chhetri, while calling this moment perhaps the biggest occasion of his career, said, "No matter who you are, where you are, come and support us to create history for India."
A new-age club BFC always understood the importance of building a fan base early under first manager Ashley Westwood, a Manchester United product. From scratch, they have built an army in the first three years itself complete with their nasty banners, singing banter and deep enmity with other clubs. It is no surprise that in a league like the I-league where only legacy clubs like Mohan Bagan and others could claim of having diehard fans, the Blue army often irks rival clubs fans and even neutral observers. There is no dearth of hostility. But that's what makes it amazing. West Block A at the home base Kanteerava Stadium has become the place to be seen at during matches.
You cannot just enter wearing any jersey. To have your proud seat inside the stadium, you must be part of the Blues. Tickets for the block are hard to come by. The atmosphere is truly one to behold and the fans are loved equally for players genuinely believe that they have played a big part in making it a "fortress" for the club. The fan club has its own Twitter handle and discussion boards, where they plan days in advance before a match. With the youth of Bengaluru behind them, the club receives tremendous support even in away matches as many of these loyal fans travel all over India for I-league matches.
In my many shows with Westwood on India Today, he would often remark how Bengaluru fan ship has crossed the borders as well thanks to their global talent pool. Many from outside India follow the club closely and tweet their support. He told me once of an inch deep layer of dust he first had to clean before he set up base at their previous stadium and a kitchen where players food would be closely monitored. But even while doing all that, they had a club social media manager.
On Wednesday, as BFC begin their tryst with destiny, this fervour will be on full show. If for nothing else, than for a true sporting experience, on par with anywhere in the world, the occasion if of much interest to outsiders as well.
So far though, Bengaluru has been a path breaker. Two league titles in three years, AFC cup semis. A truer test for the team and the fans will also be when the going is not so good. But for now, the Blues are busy revelling in their chants as their players chase history.