For 90 minutes, the 20,000-odd people at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru hoped something, anything, would happen on the pitch. The Indian Super League playoff match between Bengaluru FC and Kerala Blasters had all the makings of a drab 0-0 played over two long hours before penalty shootouts would decide the winner.
And just like that, the match burst into chaos.
It was the 96th minute. Bengaluru FC won a free-kick in a promising position. As the Blasters players went about setting up the wall, Sunil Chhetri chipped the ball over Blasters goalkeeper Prabhsukhan Gill, who had come off his line to give instructions to his wall.
The ball sailed into the empty goal and Chhetri turned towards the West Block Blues, arms raised wide. It was a cheeky goal, but one which football fans have seen many times before. Referee Crystal John duly gave the goal.
The Bengaluru players piled on Chhetri while the Blasters piled on next to John. Gill was furious as was Adrian Luna. On the touchline, Blasters coach Ivan Vukmanovic took a moment to realise what has happened before strutting towards the fourth official demanding the decision be overturned.
The Bengaluru fans were delirious with joy while a hush had fallen over the Blasters faithful. Only a minute ago, all the noise in the stadium was coming from the pocket of Manjappada fans in the North and South stands while the West Block Blues were uncharacteristically silent.
And then it took a turn for the worse. While the Blasters players were arguing with John, Vukmanovic channeled his inner Mohanlal to march onto the pitch and dramatically waved at his players to walk off the field.
Bengaluru coach Simon Grayson tried to reason with his counterpart but to no avail. The Blasters did wait close to the tunnel as some of the players tried to reason with the officials and Bengaluru players.
In the stands, the Kerala Blasters faithful looked on in silence as they tried to figure out what had just happened. Meanwhile, Bengaluru fans had their mobile phone flash switched on to wave the Blasters off the pitch to chants of ‘Losers’.
Five minutes later, the Kerala Blasters went down the tunnel and never came back out. Twenty minutes later, as the clock read 120:00, Crystal John blew the whistle for full-time to send Bengaluru FC into a semi-final clash against Mumbai City FC.
Was there anything controversial about Chhetri’s goal? Not really. Quick free-kicks and corner kicks have always been a part of football.
Lionel Messi has done it many times including twice against Atletico Madrid. Thierry Henry did it against Chelsea. Trent Alexander-Arnold famously took a corner kick quickly to set up Divock Origi’s winner against Barcelona in the Champions League.
The International Football Association Board, the lawmakers of football, have no rule against a set-piece being quickly taken.
Law 13.3 of IFAB states, “If, when a free kick is taken, an opponent is closer to the ball than the required distance, the kick is retaken unless the advantage can be applied; but if a player takes a free kick quickly and an opponent who is less than 9.15 m (10 yds) from the ball intercepts it, the referee allows play to continue. However, an opponent who deliberately prevents a free kick being taken quickly must be cautioned for delaying the restart of play.”
‘If there’s any youngsters who are watching it, do not’
Chhetri, the man who kick-started the chaos, did not believe he did anything wrong, and rightly so.
“I told the referee ‘I don’t want the whistle, neither do I want the wall’. He said ‘You sure?’ I said ‘yes’. Luna was standing right on the ball. He blocked my first attempt,” Chhetri said later.
“I assume he knew what I was going to do. He turned again. He blocked again. I had no space and I was about to ask the referee to give me 10 yards. I do that every game. Every time I get an opportunity, I try to do that because it gives you an opportunity. Almost all the time the guy was standing on the ball. And then I said, OK, let’s get the 10 yards. But then I got a small window where I could (shoot).”
While Chhetri had no qualms about the goal, his coach Grayson was unhappy with the fact that one contentious call would hang over what has been a remarkable journey for Bengaluru.
“It’s a decision that the referee has made and it is a controversial one without a shadow of doubt. It’s not how we wanted to win the game tonight and it’s going to be clouded because of that,” Grayson said in the post-match press conference.
What both agree with is that neither man would have walked off the pitch if the goal had been scored against them.
“If I say anything, it’ll be controversial. But I’ll tell you something, it happened to me twice. I can’t leave the ground because I know you get huge sanctions no matter what happens. I’ve been told, I’ve been taught, ‘Do not leave the ground’,” Chhetri said.
“I understand their feelings. I probably would have been the same, I would have been angry. But I’m very honest. I will not leave even if my club wants to leave and I don’t want any controversy. I respect the decision is theirs. But I can’t because I’ve played 22 years, I’ve never seen it.
“If there’s any youngsters who are watching it, do not. If any one of the national team boys in their team would have asked me, I would have told him to not leave the ground. Be angry, put a bloody file or whatever you want to do. But do not leave the pitch. That’s the number one rule. Referees can make mistakes. Today I think it wasn’t a mistake, but sometimes they can make mistakes,” he said.
Grayson also concurred with Chhetri.
“If I’m being honest, it’s not something that I would have done personally as a coach. I’d have accepted the referee’s decision and I would have tried to get back into the game the best that I could. Ivan and his team decided to do something differently, and that is their choice, but it’s not something that I would have done.”
Well, what did Vukmanovic and the Kerala Blasters players have to say? Nothing. In fact as they chose to skip their post-match media duties. At the time of publishing, there has been no statement from either KBFC or their coach.
The frustrating bit about this match from Kerala’s perspective is that, before the goal, the Blasters looked more likely to score than their hosts. They had more of the ball and substitutes Sahal Abdul Samad and Ayush Adhikari had given them the burst of energy the Blasters desperately needed on the night. There is no reason to believe that the Blasters wouldn’t have been able to turn the match or at least force penalty shootouts in the remaining 24 minutes.
Refereeing standards in Indian football and the ISL have been poor for many years now. But there have been far more controversial and dubious calls this season. Heck, even on the night, referee John made some other poor decisions. But the one call he did not really err with was the one that let the Chhetri goal stand.
Blasters players and fans may believe that they were right on principle to walk off in protest of what they perceive to be an unfair call. But the outcome of the protest may end up hurting them more. Apart from a hefty fine which could hurt the club’s balance books, they might also be hit with a points deduction next season. It remains to be seen how that unfolds, because this sets a dangerous precedent.
The record states that Bengaluru FC beat Kerala Blasters 1-0 after forfeiture. The league is highly unlikely to reverse the result of the match given the contentious goal wasn’t really that contentious at all. And instead of fighting back against perceived injustice on the pitch and give their travelling fans something to cheer, the Blasters squad chose simply to walk away.
In the end, was it all really worth it?