Rahul Bheke - Bengaluru’s ‘unexpected’ knight in shining armour

You rarely come across a scenario where two of the finest teams in the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL), replete with some of the most gifted attacking players, struggle to find the back of the net for 116 minutes. On Sunday, at the Mumbai Football Arena, the likes of Sunil Chhetri, Miku, Ferran Corominas, Edu Bedia, and other established attackers were unable to find the all-important goal to win their team the Hero ISL 2018-19 crown. Against all odds, up stepped defender Rahul Bheke, whose looping header in Extra Time crept into the top corner to hand the Blues their maiden Hero ISL title.

It only seems fitting that after facing some incredible adversity over the past few months, the Mumbai-born footballer would have the final say at the grandest of stages hosted in his own home town. Many may consider Bheke to be the ‘unexpected’ hero of the night, but to anyone following Bengaluru closely over the past six months, Bheke’s moment of glory shouldn’t come as a surprise. The 28-year-old has arguably been Bengaluru’s finest performer this season, perhaps even ahead of the usual suspects such as Chhetri and Miku. Bheke, however, has always been the one to stay away from the limelight. Even after scoring the decisive goal in the final, Bheke credited his team for a splendid effort, rather than enjoy the limelight. "It will be a memorable one for me and I thought our team played really well. Because of their efforts, we won this match," he said in his post-match interview.

In a nutshell, the comment sums up Bheke’s personality not just off the pitch, but on it too. He is a selfless workhorse prepared to go the extra mile, and then some, to help out his team.

The Bengaluru defender began the season in fine fashion under head coach Carles Cuadrat. The Spaniard deployed him primarily at right-back alongside Juanan, Albert Serran and Nishu Kumar and a series of solid defensive performances at the back earned him plaudits from all quarters.

However, most significantly, Bheke added a new dimension to his game - goals. With the freedom to bombard up and down the flanks, he always turned up when his side needed him the most, scoring crucial goals against FC Goa and FC Pune City during the first half of the campaign. His performances didn’t go unnoticed as he was soon awarded the Fan’s Player of the Month in November.

Despite the impressive performances for Bengaluru, Bheke was left out of the Indian squad for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 – a decision which left the majority of Indian fans bemused. The snub would have been a tough one to swallow for Bheke, who was playing the best football of his career at the time. Just after the league’s restart in January, Bheke would face an even bigger setback with the passing of his father.

Such was Bheke's commitment to the team that he turned up for Bengaluru's match against Mumbai City FC on the fateful day and played the full 90 minutes before heading home for the last rites.

Despite the setbacks on both professional and personal fronts, Bheke powered through it all, continuing to put in decisive shifts for his team over the second half of the season. Over the course of the campaign, Bheke had played as a right back, a centre back, a left back, a right winger and even in the midfield to suit the need of the team.

Bhekenbauer, as he is fondly called by fans, finished the season with 43 tackles, 26 interceptions, 3 goals and 1 assist, showcasing his versatility as a player on both ends of the field. More importantly, he finished as a Hero ISL champion and Bengaluru's hero - both titles he thoroughly deserves.

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