Season 2 of the Indian Super League just kicked off and it looks like football is taking off in India. The matches last year attracted a lot of new fans and if some reports are to be believed, the ISL was the fourth largest football league in the world in terms of stadium attendance, only behind England, Germany and Spain.
I decided to go for the game between the Delhi Dynamos FC and Chennaiyin FC on October 8 in New Delhi to see for myself how Indian football fans are reacting to the country's newest sporting league. I bought the cheapest tickets available for Rs. 49 because I wanted to witness the action from the terraces, which world over have a reputation of attracting colourful fans.
Kick-off was at 7.00 pm at Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. In the metro, I met three young fans wearing Delhi Dynamos T-shirts. It was their first ISL game and they were excited their team featured former English Premier League players. Two of them were in school and one was in college and they had also started playing football recently.
As I got off the metro I saw hordes of fans heading towards the stadium. There was excitement and the sound of desi vuvuzelas in the air. The massive crowd at the stadium gates was a pleasant surprise. People were checking their tickets, taking selfies and lining up to enter the stadium. A group of young people had painted their cheeks with the Indian tricolour and were supporting Chennaiyin.
"The atmosphere was like at a rock concert: people running, fans declaring their team allegiance with T-shirts, face and body paint and banners."
We heard the roar of the fans' from inside the stadium and guessed that the match had started while we were still outside trying to figure out where our entry gate was! The atmosphere was like at a rock concert: people running, fans declaring their team allegiance with T-shirts, face and body paint and banners.
We got into the stadium after a thorough security pat-down in which my friend had to deposit his earphones. When we got to our stand - West Upper Block B4 - we realized Delhi had scored a goal. I ribbed my friend who had decided to support Chennai. I looked around and saw young people, soccer mums, elderly women, foreigners and even little kids. Football in India is drawing a diverse crowd.
The league is glitzy and has been packaged well, which proves you can sell anything in India if you market it attractively. From the Indian perspective, the superannuated European and South American players add to the quality. Delhi is being coached by Roberto Carlos, the former Brazil and Real Madrid legend who at 42 is also Delhi's marquee player. John Arne Riise, formerly of Liverpool, is Delhi's star defender and Florent Malouda of Chelsea fame is a midfielder.
I feel the infusion of foreign players is good for the players and fans. The ISL is promising the possibility of creating a pool of local talent good enough to help India qualify for the 2026 world cup. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, especially for a team languishing at #167 in the FIFA world rankings.
Meanwhile, the enthusiasm in the terraces was infectious. Each time the players created or spilled a chance at goal the fans reacted with passion. Delhi supporters outnumbered and outshouted the Chennai partisans. I met a group of six Ladakhis who were supporting Delhi. They said the quality of football was not as good as those played by the Mumbai and Pune teams. But they felt the atmosphere was great and that people were getting involved in football.
A bunch of supporters from Kerala were supporting the Kerala Blasters and some North Easterners were all for Northeast United, but they were all here to watch football. Even though I was supporting Delhi I cheered for Chennai when they played mesmerizing football.
" The game was physical with moments of high-quality football. "
The biggest cheer was reserved for Roberto Carlos. Each time his bald mug came up on the big screen a shout would go up from the terraces. The game was physical with moments of high-quality football. The Chennai players created chances and dribbled well, but were unable to score.
In the second half, the fans in the terraces started a Mexican wave that circled around the stadium for eight minutes! It was an incredible experience being part of a human wave, rising up arms outstretched and shouting when the wave hit our block, then watching it go round the stadium. This is more exciting than the match, commented a fan! Meanwhile, the expensive stands down below were staid and calm.
There were some Indian touches too: Bollywood songs played at halftime, a group of dhol percussionists to work up the crowd and so on. Chennai failed to score despite some electrifying runs. The Delhi defenders shut the Chennai forwards out by closing down space and playing long balls. The score line at full time was 1-0 for Delhi. But the real winners were the fans and Indian football.