When thinking of Malaysian or Indian football, the clubs that spring to mind are the likes of Selangor in Malaysia or East Bengal — traditional powers with a fan base to match.
But when the names went into the hat for the Asian Champions League draw for 2015, those names were absent. Instead, it was Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim and India’s Bengaluru, two clubs backing vision and planning with investment at all levels rarely seen in their countries until recently.
Bengaluru was formed in 2013 when India’s ruling body, the All India Football Federation, announced a couple of clubs could join the upcoming I-League season if the owners pledged to develop the game — and football infrastructure.
Based in the city formerly known as Bangalore, the football club went on a recruitment drive, bringing in promising young English coach Ashley Westwood to build a team.
Among the players Westwood signed were Australian striker Sean Rooney, who had a short stint with Deltras in Indonesia, as well as a couple of former Middlesbrough trainees, John Johnson and Josh Walker, who were happy to trade the lower divisions of English football for the glitz of one of the fastest-growing cities in India.
Indian national team striker Sunil Chhetri was brought in to add some much-needed experience. The 30-year-old has previously played in the MLS for the Kansas City Wizards and in Portugal. Also signed were 24-year-old striker Robin Singh left-back Keegan Pereira, 27.
Bengaluru went on to win the I-League in the side’s debut season and, ahead of its ACL qualifier against JDT, lifted the Federation Cup. It has not carried that success into the new I-League season, winning just one of its four opening games and sitting seventh in the 11-team league.
Johor Darul Ta’zim have more of a history, but in recent seasons it almost slipped off the football radar. A bit like Malaysian football itself just five years ago, Johor was playing in front of crowds that would amounted to just a few dozen.
All that changed when the crown prince of Johor state took over the football club and set about rebranding the team. The club became known as Johor Darul Ta’zim and the team’s logo became an increasingly common sight around the city as more and more local fans rediscovered the team.
In contrast to Bengaluru, which adopted a policy of signing foreign players still at their peak and with something to offer, JDT opted for the big headline signings such as Argentine international Pablo Aimar — but while they brought headlines on the back pages, they produced little on the pitch.
In 2014, guided by experienced Croatian coach Bojan Hodak, JDT won the Malaysia Super League for the first time with a squad packed with some of the best local talent as well as hungry foreigners like Hariss Harun from neighboring Singapore and Argentine Jorge Diaz, who still have the time and desire to make a name for themselves.
With the Malaysia Super League season set to kick off this weekend, JDT began its campaign last Saturday, giving it time to prepare ahead of the clash with Bengaluru. It also lifted the Charity Shield after defeating Pahang, another club benefiting from an infusion of new money, 2-0 in Johor.
It is unlikely that either side will make it to the group stages of the AFC Asian Champions League, where they would go toe to toe with the big teams from Japan, China and South Korea, but both clubs are in their own way leading the way domestically.
The roots laid down at both clubs set them apart from many of their peers, and the professional examples they are setting both on and off the pitch are forcing other clubs to re-examine the way they operate — and that can only be good for football in both India and Malaysia.