The prevailing sentiment in Indian football is that Europe’s big football leagues have killed the Beautiful Game in India. Since the late 1990s, viewers in India have been accustomed to watching the superior quality on show in these leagues. This has left them with no patience for the much poorer brand of football being played back home.
Over the last decade, for the sake of attracting viewership, the All India Football Federation often scheduled fixtures in the afternoon or on weekdays solely to avoid clashes with matches in Europe, the bulk of which are held on weekends and in the evenings (Indian time). It proved to be a double-edged sword, since games played on weekdays didn’t attract crowds to stadiums and the ones played under the scorching sun negatively impacted the quality of football, which then drove fans away.
Even AIFF’s rebranding efforts – shifting from the National Football League to the newly formed I-League in 2007 – failed to capture the imagination of the younger generation of fans, who have grown up worshipping European clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Birth of a new fan culture
However, in recent months, there have been signs that a part of this generation, led by the now-famous “West Block Blues” fan group of Bengaluru FC, has finally taken to football in the country. Refreshingly, in forging a close relationship with their beloved club, these modern-day fans seem to have brought with them the European traditions they’ve grown up admiring and absorbing.
Huge blue flags and innovative banners, with messages of support for their team, can be seen in each of Bengaluru FC’s home games. In fact, even the Indian national team got a wonderful reception when it played a World Cup qualifier in Bengaluru. Songs and chants in support of the home team are commonplace along with rounds of witty banter with the opposition. Such displays of unconditional devotion by contemporary fans are a far cry from the cynicism of most long-time followers of Indian football.
The Times of India didn’t hold back, calling the West Block Blues a “national treasure”. Former India skipper Baichung Bhutia proudly mentioned in a newspaper column how such fans were “swelling by the day”. After winning the I-League, Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri handed the trophy to these fans because they had been “beyond brilliant” throughout the season. Meanwhile, the club’s social media accounts frequently recognise such supporters too, using hashtags such as #TrueBlue and #BluesAllOver. And why not, when they are sitting at the top of Bhutan bathing in BFC colours?
The emergence of the away fan
Home support, though, is one thing. Away support is another. It’s the emergence of travelling away fans that has been the greatest take-away from the 2016 domestic season. Their presence truly rams home the influence of Europe on Indian football and perhaps signifies the birth of the country’s own footballing culture. It is also the crowning glory of the recent movement in Indian football, which has seen fans flock in huge numbers to stadia across the country following the introduction of the Indian Super League in 2014.
Across major footballing continents like Europe and South America, away supporters are common. Considered to be the most passionate among the club’s fanbase, they follow the team through thick and thin, make themselves heard at other grounds and add a special flavour to the atmosphere in the stadium. They also share a close relationship with the club and often even have a voice in club’s internal matters.
In nations with well-established football leagues, away fans have a designated section in every stadium. For security reasons, they are separated from the home fans either by an army of stewards or by some sort of barrier. In India, however, there is no such provision since away fans are virtually non-existent. That is, until now.
West Block Blues, unsurprisingly, have led from the front. Members of the group travelled to Goa, Mumbai, Shillong and finally Siliguri to support their club. Amreen Bhujwala, BFC’s only away fan in attendance against Shillong Lajong, travelled all by herself from Bengaluru to Shillong to see her favourite club and earned a mention in Chhetri’s column. She’s also a long-standing supporter of London club Arsenal and English football’s influence on her is evident.
Mohun Bagan fans weren’t far behind. On the final day of the 2015 I-League season, it was estimated that 8,000 away fans, including those who travelled down south specifically for the match, were in attendance to see the Kolkata club crowned champions in Bengaluru.
This season, a group of Bagan supporters went on a road trip to watch their team’s double-header in Goa. One of them was Subhajyoti Banerjee, a Bagan supporter since the age of four when his father took him to see them play for the first time. On February 29, he posted pictures of his trip on Facebook and proudly wrote: “1400 km trip covered in 39 hours, 24 hours of driving, two sleepless nights – only to see your favourite team play.”
Even Mumbai FC’s Yellow Brigade, who often light up the iconic Cooperage Ground with verbal and visual fireworks, made the trip to Pune for the so-called “Maharashtra Derby” against debutants DSK Shivajians.
When you take into account how tedious it is to travel in India in addition to how unfriendly, unwelcoming and unmaintained football stadiums of this country are, stories of fans covering long distances to support their clubs are truly special. That such tales have emerged from the I-League, and not the ISL, serves to remind us of the collective power of India’s top-tier clubs.
For a country that lacks a sporting culture, let alone a footballing one, this is a uniquely new trend to savour. European football fandom is finally translating into something positive on the sport in the country.
Akarsh Sharma is a Delhi-based writer who tweets here.
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