Wednesday evening was surely one of the most significant days in the annals of Indian football, with Bengaluru FC (BFC) breaking through a barrier that has till now been a bridge too far for the sport. The 3-1 home verdict over defending AFC Cup champions Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) of Malaysia, which gave BFC an aggregate 4-2 semi-final win, was something of a surprise really, given the Malaysian teams record. But by the end of the evening, all records were set aside.
JDT were defending champions, as well as winners of the Malaysian League, Cup and Charity Shield. They were looking for their fourth title of the year.
What makes this win and the progress into the final significant is the manner in which BFC had managed to keep their much higher rated rivals in the away match, where a Eugeneson Lyngdoh equaliser had given the visitors a 1-1 score, which they capitalised on at home.
The home match, however, was all about Sunil Chhetri.
Chhetri has been Indian football’s poster boy for a long time now. At 30, he is entering the final stage of his career and this AFC Cup final could well be one chapter we will all wait and watch for.
The match was regulated and dominated by Chhetri, as he led from the front, even as BFC initially threatened to implode as other Indian teams have at crucial stages.
Down by a goal in the 11th minute, BFC managed to find the equaliser a half-hour later, predictably through a fine header from Chhetri. His inspiration continued in the second half as well as he blasted in a 30-yard effort. New BFC recruit Juan Antonio then sealed off the win for the team.
BFC will now travel to Doha for the final, which is scheduled for November 5. They take on Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.
This semi-final is the stage where Indian sides have faltered before. Two teams had made it thus far in the past – Dempo Sports Club of Goa in 2008, where they eventually went down 1-5 to Safa of Lebanon over two legs.
The other side to make it to the semis were East Bengal of Kolkata in 2013, where they lost to Al-Kuwait 2-7.
So when BFC were pitted against the daunting JDT, one could have been forgiven for thinking that this too would end ingloriously.
But under new coach Albert Roca (who was assistant manager with Barcelona), BFC have created a mark that should inspire other Indian club sides to follow.
But that in itself is also where the crux of the problem lies.
The club versus country debate and wrangles are commonplace in Indian football. Often we have seen the top clubs loathe releasing players for National duty. While it is not unheard of in the top leagues of the world as well, there really cannot be any comparison in terms of the financial investments made by the clubs there on such players.
The sum total of such attitudes and situations is that National-level teams are invariably adversely affected.
Not just in India though. England is a classic example.
The English Premier League (EPL) is supposed to be one of the best leagues in the world, with competition being tough and the standard of football very high. But when it comes to the English team, the same players who have made a name for themselves in the EPL struggle against even half-decent sides.
India cannot even begin pretending that they are a side to be reckoned with at Asian level, struggling even to be seen on the regional charts.
The reason is simple – the money is going into private clubs, who are hiring players from abroad and the local talent is relegate to lesser sides, which subsequently struggle the top level.
These sides also become the talent bank for National selection. Not everyone there is a Chhetri or Lyngdoh, so the overall levels are affected.
This is not peculiar to football. We have a Kabaddi World Cup going on, and the Indian team, which has the cream of the talent from the much-vaunted Kabaddi League, has lost to Korea, an unheard-of thing before this.
They are equally likely to lose to Iran, who they will most probably meet in the semi-finals, thanks to the loss to Korea.
So, as the leagues make progress, the National team gets dented. Much though people love to take pot shots at cricket that is the only sport where the league has not affected India-level teams adversely.
But never mind all that. For now, everyone should be applauding the BFC boys for their great feat. It is not often in Indian sport that you see real successes, and this is definitely one.
So cheer the boys and hoe that they win. We have enough instances of the people in the fray as well as the media giving kudos for finishing second-best.
Maybe it is time to think that we should win, rather than finish with applause and little else.