'Not today': The remarkable renaissance of Bengaluru FC

From title contenders to no-hopers to title contenders once again, this has been some arc for Bengaluru FC. Chenthil Mohan /Focus Sports/ ISL

November 12, 2022, Sunil Chhetri:

"We won six trophies in the first six years of our existence. We were flying! We were... pardon my... we were the baaps of India. When [opponents] came for warm-up they used to look at us, 'ye aa gaya' [Oh they're here]. We used to walk like this [heads high, chest puffed] and at that time somebody told me that the more good years you have, you are that much closer to a failure. Because that's life," he said during a talk show hosted by CRED.


January 6, 2023, NorthEast United vs Bengaluru FC:

Seventh in 2020-21. Sixth in 2021-22 (when only the top four made the playoffs). And now, 12 games into 2022-23, they were ninth. Their record made for abysmal reading: Three wins, one draw, eight defeats; ten points, and a goal difference of -9.

Failure didn't quite cover it.

Going into the reverse fixture against NorthEast in Guwahati, Bengaluru FC looked down and out. After winning the Durand Cup in the pre-season, and then the season opener against NorthEast in Bengaluru they had looked like they were back, but it had been a false dawn. A fact only underlined by what had transpired in their last match before the Guwahati trip, a 2-1 loss to a woeful East Bengal, a 92nd minute freekick from their former star Cleiton Silva sealing the deal. That had completed East Bengal's double over Bengaluru -- the first time in three ISL seasons they had beaten anyone twice in the same season.

Bengaluru were losing games to sloppy mistakes at times, they were being outplayed at others. If there was a way to drop points, Bengaluru inevitably found it.

12 games. 10 points. Ninth.

As the match went on, you could see why they were ninth. Sivasakthi Narayanan had given them the lead with a stunning finish, his first ISL goal, but for all their domination they had been unable to stretch the scoreline. Just past the hour mark they then conceded: Romain Philippoteaux gently passing the ball under a freekick wall to make it 1-1. It was the kind of equaliser that doubled up as a sucker punch, the kind of goal that teams which have nothing going for them concede.

Good, but nowhere near good enough. This was just going to be the story of their season, wasn't it? If you can't outscore the leaking ship that was NorthEast United (at the time, and all through the season), why even bother?

Enter, flying in from inside left, Alan Costa. With the clock reading 93:04, he rose high to head home an Udanta Singh cross. The commentator noted, 'is that top six dream back on the cards?'

13 games. 13 points. Eighth. The dream was on, now.


November 12, 2022, Sunil Chhetri (contd.):

"Now when we are having a bad time, the last two years, we didn't do well... I always remind my boys: the more bad days you are going to have, *this* much closer you are to success.

"You won't be happy every day. You won't be sad every day. But you have to keep at it every day. When you become successful, the only fight is... 'Not today, I won't lose today. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.'"

The cheeky genius of Sunil Chhetri helps Bengaluru FC beat Kerala Blasters


March 12, 2023, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu:

"Myself, Sandesh [Jhingan], Chhetri bhai, we dreamt of it. There were nights in December when I dreamt of being in the final and it's happened. The belief was always there... that's football, things can turn around very fast," Gurpreet told press in the mixed zone, after Bengaluru beat Mumbai City FC in the semifinals.

Captain, leader, keeper: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu enters new chapter with Bengaluru FC

They had kept at it, and success had come. Slowly, inexorably, culminating in this Gurpreet wonder-save-led penalty shootout win against the most dominant team this league has ever seen. The best part of it? They had stood toe-to-toe with Mumbai City three times in the calendar year 2023 and come out on top twice. The one they lost, they won on penalties.

They were not just winning, but playing good football. The run that had started with the last-minute salvage mission against NorthEast and continued through some fairly mediocre performances had seen them grow from strength-to-strength. The results kept coming, and the performances kept getting better.

Simon Grayson made slight tactical tweaks: he pulled Javi Hernandez deeper to give him more of the ball, put in Rohit Kumar to bring energy and pizzazz to central midfield and dropped two core ideas - pressing high and retaining possession. "What's the point of possession if you're going to do nothing with it?" he asked ESPN (rhetorically). He also made a major, major personnel change -- dropping Chhetri and starting Sivasakthi up top. Sivasakthi scored at will, and when crunch time came, so did an angry, point-to-prove Chhetri off the bench.

Ten wins in a row. A shootout win in the eleventh. From ninth to third to finalists. An eliminator win that came in the most dramatic of circumstances. From title contenders to no-hopers to title contenders once again, this has been some arc.

It's not what this team is used to. The past two ISL finals Bengaluru had made, they had been brilliant through the season; topping the league stage on both occasions.

"[In those seasons], we dominated the league. This time around, we started from the bottom. It feels special."

March 14, 2023, Sandesh Jhingan:

"Defeat is such a powerful thing. But it's always on you, how you take it. It can crumble your confidence, but at the same time it can give an energy. If you take it the right way, it can take you to places you never thought you could [reach]. We didn't let [the defeats get to us negatively]," Jhingan told ESPN.

"There was an aggression boiling inside of us that we need to change it, rather than [wallow] and say 'why is this happening to us.' That switch was magical. We were ninth in the table but still training like we were going for the title. Those moments in training, after matches when we spoke to each other, it was always so positive. We always knew it would change, because we were not getting dominated. No one was coming to our home ground and bullying us or overwhelming us 3, 4-nil. It was just small [margins]."

It had been true. Apart from a 4-0 hiding at the hands of Mumbai, and a 3-0 against defending champions Hyderabad, they had kept the scoreline tight.

Looking back, though, he (and Gurpreet, and Chhetri, and Aleksandar Jovanovic) identifies the Costa winner in Guwahati as the one tangible turning point. The night they 'knew' a comeback was on. After that humiliating loss at Mumbai, they had beaten Goa away only to go on another run of losses, including the Hyderabad thrashing and the late East Bengal heartbreak. "God was testing us [with the tease of the Goa win]. 'You are working hard now, let's see if you can continue to.' It's life's way of grinding you out to whether you're good [enough] or not."

But when Costa thundered in that header at NorthEast, they knew it... they were good enough.


March 18, 2023, the fan:

Close your eyes. Feel the dressing room. An hour to go before kickoff. The Bengaluru team are in the dressing room. The vibe's off the charts. They've fought their way here -- through defeat, through controversy, through doubt. Keep those eyes closed. Immerse yourself.

You can now almost hear that voice now: "Boys, not today...We won't lose today."