As the game progressed, I knew I had made the right choice in signing for Bengaluru FC: Chhetri

On The Day The Blues Played Their First Ever Game Six Years Ago, We Caught Up With The Only Two Surviving Members From That Squad – Sunil Chhetri And Rino Anto, And They Sure Had Tales To Tell…

It’s six years to the day David was pitted against Goliath in a humble arena, and football in Bengaluru would never be the same. It was curiosity to watch the new kids on the block that drew an almost-capacity crowd to the Bangalore Football Stadium, and it was delight that they kept coming back with. Sean Rooney’s opener for Ashley Westwood’s men looked good to cause an upset of mammoth proportions, but CS Sabeeth rescued Bagan the blushes with a late equaliser. The points may have been shared that afternoon, but everything about Bengaluru FC said ‘winners’.

“I feel we should have got three points. We were up against giants in Mohun Bagan, but we showed no fear. That game was special even though I started on the wrong side of the white line. The way Johno and Curtis linked up with Menyongar was a delight to watch, Vishal had a great game, and Rooney was good. Whatever little doubt I had in my head about whether I had made the right decision in joining a new team, were quelled as that game progressed,” recalls Chhetri, overlooking the turf at the BFS.

The skipper, much to everyone’s shock, started that game on the bench, and Chhetri gives us the backstory to it. “It feels kind of surreal to go back to that game because I remember the events leading up to it so perfectly. I had joined the team later as I was in the national camp and Ashley Westwood called me for an important meeting only to tell me that I wouldn’t be starting the game, and that Malem Meitei had got the nod ahead of me. He went on to explain that the youngster was doing really well at training, and dropping him just because Sunil Chhetri had joined the squad, would set a bad example to the club and particularly, the dressing room. At that moment, the decision didn’t go down well with me at all, but I nodded. Only later did I realise that Ashley had more than just a point. He meant it. Malem played really well,” he says.

Seated next to Chhetri on the bench that afternoon was Rino Anto – the only other member from the first-ever Bengaluru FC team. “I spent most of the evening with clenched fists on the bench. I really wanted to start that game and prove a point but Ashley Westwood had told all of us that no one was guaranteed a place in the team. Sitting next to Chhetri bhai on the bench made me understand that he meant what he was saying. I came off the bench for the first three games, and was told that if I worked hard and played well, I would never have to. And true to his word, for almost three seasons after that I never started on the bench,” recalls Rino.

For Bagan to be Bengaluru’s first opponents, had an even more special significance for Rino. The defender had all but penned a deal with the green and maroons of Kolkata, only for the deal to fall through. “It was destiny that we had to play that team, because earlier that year, I had spent a few weeks with them, but it hadn’t worked out. After signing with Bagan, they had gone back on their agreement because of a few financial issues and I was left without a club once again.”

“I was returning from an injury when the chance at Bagan came about and when that didn’t work out, I was really upset. That’s when I found out that there was a new club being set up in Bangalore that I had the chance to be a part of. After speaking with Pradhyum (Reddy), the decision was made. Speaking about it now feels strange because suddenly it seems like just yesterday, that I was in these rooms signing my first contract with this club.”

Once that first game was out of the way, the Blues went on to turn heads and make headlines, consistently competing for pole position. The cup was within touching distance and Chhetri recalls planning an impromptu celebration at the Bangalore Football Stadium, only to be forced to keep the champagne on ice. “I think there were two games to play for and Pune were playing East Bengal. We needed a Pune win to be crowned champions without taking the pitch and they were leading for a little over an hour. That’s when I told our media manager, Kunaal that we were heading to the BFS to celebrate if it stayed that way. We called up Ashley, informed him of our plan, then got down to booking cabs for the boys at the apartments, and sorted the champagne out. While we were arranging things, Kunaal turns to me and says, ‘Even though it would be nice to be champions tonight, this is not how I’d like it. I want us to win it on the pitch.’ And in the middle of booking cabs, I’m trying to explain to him that it’s our first season, we should take the cup the first chance we get.”

While all this was happening, East Bengal scored twice in three minutes to take a 2-1 lead and then saw the rest of the twenty minutes out. What promised to be a beautiful night at the BFS with just the team and staff, would now have to wait. We would have to win it on the pitch, and we did,” reminisces Chhetri.

The nice little collection of trophies sitting pretty in the cabinet at the club offices, tell of how far the crest has come. But everything will always trace back to that warm, special evening on the 22nd of September.