He Urged and They Responded

MUMBAI: Last year in the mid-August there were few football fans marching towards the Mumbai Football Arena just below the DN Nagar Metro station in Andheri – the Mumbai suburb area in an unexpected rain. There were few people travelling through that route were discussing among themselves ‘itne barish me ye pagal log konsa match dekhne ja rahe hai bhai’ (In this heavy rain, which match these mad people are going to watch? It was obvious. It was neither a cricket match nor a Kabaddi match. It was a football match and that too, a friendly match.

The 2017 Hero Tri-Nation Series between host India, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Mauritius was held by All India Football Federation (AIFF) on a short notice where India lacked the availability of Sunil Chhetri who has a commitment with his club Bengaluru FC. And it was not surprising that spectators in the stadium were hardly few hundred.

In India, if you ask a kid which is your favourite sports, the automatic answer will be cricket. Though it may vary from city to city, but cricket is the most followed sports in India. There are few other sports which Indian sports follow like Kabaddi, Soccer (not India football, mostly European leagues), WWE and some other. But when it comes to Indian football, it always remains unnoticeable.

Sunil Chhetri, Indian football’s modern-day idol, begged eagerly to Indian fans to turn up and they did. On the historic occasion of his 100th cap for blue jersey, he appealed fans through social media and there were almost no seats vacant in the stands on Mondayevening at the Mumbai Football Arena. It was the first rain in the city and crowd were enjoying every drop of the rain with heroics of Chhetri and his blue army. Chhetri though did not disappoint 9,000 odd fans in the stadiums as India trashed Kenya 3-0 in the match where Chhetri himself scored two goals.

“I don’t feel we should be begging people to watch the national team. The response has been unbelievable. When the national team has been playing the manner we have been playing in the last three years it was disappointing to see the turnout in the first match. I expect the stands to be full in the next two matches,” he stated after the match, as per the AIFF press release.

For the next matches (against New Zealand on June 7 and the final on June 10 where India have booked their place) all the tickets are sold out.

That level of engagement brought memories back of an era when football following community in India was eagerly waiting to switch their television sets on at midnight to see how their teams in Spanish and European leagues are getting on. It is not the first time Indian crowd turned to cheer up their teams in house-full stadiums. There was an era when 40,000-45,000 used to pack into the stadiums for Sait Nagjee Trophy and the Nehru Cup. Even for the Indian Super League (ISL) the South Indian derby – Kerala Blasters FC and Chennaiyin FC has been seen in packed stadiums. It may be due to the involvement of foreign players to whom Indian footballs fans are following for years. But the Indian crowd loved enjoying football games.

So, the Monday’s game was a welcome gesture for Indian football. The game’s development which is in its prime note in last three years was underestimated by the fans has started to begin a new era in Indian sports history. Chhetri may have grabbed the headlines, but Jeje Lalpekhlua and Udanta Singh’s attack on opponents and Sandesh Jhingan’s intervention displayed this game is not just about the goals alone.

Hope, Indian football fans will continue their love to their blue army like this, and we won’t be a surprise that Indian fans turning in numbers to upcoming 2019 AFC Asia Cup in UAE.

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