It’s not often that you see jam-packed stadiums in India when it comes to football matches. But then, never before has Team India (yup, why not call Indian national football team also by this name?) captain, Sunil Chhetri, requested fans to come and cheer for them. And that was how, when Team India played against Kenya on Monday in the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai, fans swarmed the stadium, cheering for the home side. India’s first match in the tournament, against Chinese Taipei on Friday, was a disappointment in terms of audience turnout, though the home team had a thumping 5-0 win. Which was what prompted Chhetri to take to his social media page and post a video, requesting fans to come to the stadium and watch the team play. His post got the support of many stars, including our cricket captain, Virat Kohli, who also asked fans to go to the stadium to watch the match. And respond they did. Monday’s match was a sold-out event — there were 8890 fans thronging the Mumbai Football Arena. The team ensured that it gave its fans a memorable match by winning it 3-0 against Kenya. The captain himself, who was playing his 100th international match, scored twice on Monday. And that makes it two back-to-back wins for our heroes, taking us to the finals of the tournament. With such a never-seen-before fan turnout, Indian football, finally, seems to be on the right track .
One-of-a-kind atmosphere at the stadium
Fans who attended the match on Monday, have only thing to talk about – the atmosphere at the stadium, which they say was like those during the international club matches. “I saw something like this in Mumbai for the first time. India’s previous match against Chinese Taipei saw only around 2500 spectators, including the ground staff. Now, even the tickets for the finals, on June 10, are sold out. Many of them, who came to the stadium on Monday, were mostly cricket fans and those who don’t generally follow Indian football. Spectators were standing the entire 90 minutes of the match. It felt as if we were attending some foreign club match as people screamed and cheered all through the match. I have been watching Indian matches in stadiums for the last four to five years, but have never experienced an atmosphere akin to what I saw on Monday,” says Abhinav Vasudevan from Blue Pilgrims, a dedicated fan club of the Indian national football team.
Echoing Abhinav’s thoughts is former Indian footballer, IM Vijayan, “It was quite a happening match for two reasons — one, it was Chettri’s 100th match and two, the stadium was packed with spectators. Though it was raining, so many people turned up. We didn’t expect such a big crowd in Mumbai. It’s a big thing that so many fans turned up in a city like Mumbai, which hasn’t really seen success in football. Chettri has got such a big fan following. I saw the video that he posted on social media, requesting fans to come and watch the match at the stadium. That shows how humble he is. That’s why so many fans turned up. Also, it’s not a small thing to score two goals in the 100th match. He is definitely a great player.”
Team should go to the Asian Games now
Post Monday’s match, the team’s coach, Stephen Constantine, urged the Indian government to send the team for Asian Games. According to reports, there has been a marked reluctance among the authorities to send a team, as they think that the medal prospects are bleak. Backing the coach’s appeal, Vijayan, says, “We can easily go for the Asian Games this year because in the senior squad, there are around 15 players who are Under-23 players. In Asian Games, it’s a U-23 event. It’s good that Stephen is promoting the next generation players so well. Now, all we need is a nod from the government to send the team for the Games. We’ve good chances of winning a medal.”
Fan following on the rise
Sai Prashanth, a Blue Pilgrims member, and an ardent fan of the national team, says that “this is the start of a national movement, with fans coming from all over India.” He adds, “Around 300 people had come from different fan clubs to join the Blue Pilgrims and cheer for the national side.” Talking about how this club was formed, Prashanth, says, “It all started when we went to support the India U-17 team in the Football World Cup in Delhi last year. There were around 450 people in the first match. Then, for the second match, 550 people came… and it kept increasing in the subsequent matches. Since then, our goal has been to extend support to the senior team. So, we travelled to Goa towards the end of last year to cheer for the national side in the Asian Cup qualifier against Myanmar. The European fan culture – that is what we’re trying to bring in here.” So, are we seeing a shift in allegiance from foreigns clubs to Indian ones? “This is not a question of one over the other. A majority of us here fell in love with this beautiful game after growing up watching clubs from other countries. It is totally unfair to stop supporting foreign clubs and countries all of a sudden. Those are the teams that laid the foundation for our passion for football. Everything can co-exist. It’s just that India should be our first love. Many don’t support the national team because the standard is not up to the European levels. It’ll take time, but to get there, the team needs us all,” says Jenisha Rani, a young football fan from Chennai.