Bengaluru, April 24: While Indian Super League club Bengaluru FC recently bagged their fifth title in five years of existence, closer home, Ozone FC Bengaluru are on the verge of making it to the main round of the I-League second division. BFC, with all their investments, spendings and professionalism, are showing the entire country how to run a football club. However, with a modest budget of Rs 12-12.5 crore, mainly coming from their parent group itself, Ozone are slowly revolutionising the football landscape in the traditional hotbeds of the city like Austin Town and Gautamapura.
Bengaluru FC's achievements is a proud thing for the entire city, but one must also credit Ozone for their faith in the city's own. BFC rule the pitches all over India; Ozone shine better at home.
With a squad comprising 14 local players out of 25, Ozone FC have clinched the Bangalore District Football Association's Super Division title twice since their three years of existence, and stand a great chance of slipping into the I-League by winning the second division. This season, Ozone's dominance was evident by the way they won the Super Division - 10 wins in 10 matches.
"I joined the Ozone academy when I was just 10 years old," Vignesh D, the 20-year-old left-winger of the club, says. "After seeing that I made the senior squad of a club from Bengaluru, many children from my locality have now taken up football. They keep asking me when Ozone will call for trials because they know this club will prioritise local talent over other regions."
Vignesh hails from a family of footballers. His uncle, Shanmugham Venkatesh, is a former India international and the current assistant coach of the national team, while his father Dakshinamurthy also played for the country. "My father was a great footballer," Vignesh adds. "However, he was forced to seek employment at GTRE (DRDO) because of my family's financial condition. Now, he's supporting me all the way and I hope to represent the country one day. As for my uncle, I don't really talk to him because I want to make it big on my own. But I know he's watching me take these little steps to making the national team." Vignesh has been called for the India U-19 and U-23 trials but could not impress due to a hamstring injury.
Vignesh's progression to the senior squad looks natural, but his teammate Anup Theres Raj had to struggle all the way. Anup's parents were not really supportive of his choice to take up football professionally. Now, they appreciate his persistence for carrying on despite their disapproval. Anup says he wouldn't have continued playing football had a local club not offered him a chance.
"I have two elder brothers and even though they are better players than me, they had to seek employment to support the family," Anup, the 26-year-old midfielder, who scored a winner against Bengaluru FC in their Super Division match, says. "I was sneaky. When I was in Class 10, my parents told me to pass the grade at any cost. They then told me I had to complete 2nd PUC (Class 12). When I finished that, they asked me to graduate in science and I took up a course in BSc. Through all these years, they never wanted me to play football. I used to hide my boots in the bag and go for practice sessions. I was then offered a trial in Vasco SC in Goa because of my coach, Ravi Babu. After playing there, I signed up with Ozone when they launched three years ago. Now, I have my sights on playing the ISL."
Even though Ozone gives a chance to the local stars, they are hard to come by, unless these players are talented. Anto Xavier, the topscorer during Ozone FC's first Super Division title with 11 goals in 10 games, is one such player. He secured himself a spot in Sporting Clube de Goa's senior squad and was also called up to the junior national teams. An ankle injury, however, kept him out for seven months and it's only now that he's back to his best. "January 7, 2013," he says. "That's when I got injured. I was playing for ADE back then." This time, Ozone coach David Booth has turned Anto into an attacking midfielder and the youngster is relishing that role too.
Just like Anto, Manoj K, their 22-year-old full-back, graduated from the C Division, the lowest rung of professional football in Bengaluru, to Super Division. He impressed Ozone during his stint with Fateh Hyderabad, another second division side.
Vikram K, son of a tailor, knows that football is the only bread and butter for him and his family. Another Anto in the side, Anto Rushith, son of a cook, appeared for Karnataka in the Santosh Trophy and sees football as his calling. Twenty-seven-year-old Satish Kumar, a former Mohun Bagan player, is reliving his dream with Ozone.
The club also provides at least five players every season to the Karnataka state team that plays the Santosh Trophy National Football Championship. This year, Karnataka reached the semi-finals and lost to Bengal.
Two big clubs within a city obviously gives rise to a rivalry. Ozone, however, have claimed the bragging rights over big brothers BFC in the local league and players claim the rivalry helps them compete better. "It's good if there are more clubs from a city competing in the national level," Anup says. "We know how big the rivalry is and do not want to lose to them at any cost. I am happy to have scored that goal against BFC and as long as I am with the team, I will see to it that we always win against them."
Turning their attention to the bigger objective at hand, these Bengaluru boys want to make it count in the second division league.
Thanks to Kuttimani's last minute goal Ozone FC Bengaluru is coming home with three points. Final result: 0 - 2 FC Kerala VS Ozone FC Bengaluru: Sabeeth 2', Kuttimani 94' #nammaduOFCB— OzoneFCBengaluru (@fc_ozone) April 16, 2018
In Group B, Ozone are third with 11 points in five games, two behind leaders FC Kerala. It all turned in their favour when they beat FC Kerala 2-0 in Thrissur, riding on goals by CS Sabeeth and Sampathkumar Kuttymani.
However, three points from their next fixture - a home game against Madhya Bharat Sports Club on April 26 at the Bangalore Football Stadium will see Ozone seize the lead midway through the first round. Winning that fixture will not be a hard task for Ozone as Madhya Bharat have lost all their seven matches in the league.
Captain Vignesh G, however, does not want his team to get ahead of themselves. He believes Ozone have to fight till the last minute to seal their place in the final round. "We had a good chance last season too but complaceny set in and we messed up our last few games," the elder Vignesh, who has played for Pune FC and Delhi Dynamos, said. "That's why we're not taking it easy. We won't relax until the last game and that's what the coach has told us too - he's an inspirational figure in the club and motivates all of us."