The most vociferous group of fans gathered in the stand to the right of the passage that leads the players out onto the pitch at the Mumbai Football Arena. The passage had been jazzed up with a makeshift tunnel to go with the trendy Indian Super League (ISL) theme on Friday night.
North East United was visiting for Mumbai City FC's first home game of the 2016 season. The supporters in that particular stand were overflowing as always. But this time they were louder than ever. Dressed in their club's colours, they were trying hard to stand by what one of their famous banners claims: "loud and proud".
The 500-and-odd members of the fan club had carried along with them new banners too. One of them read "La Garra Charrua". It is an ode to the spirit of the Uruguayan people that triumphs against odds. Why Uruguay, though?
Simple: it was a tribute to the Uruguayan legend Diego Forlan. Forlan had helped Penarol win the domestic title in his country before making Mumbai his home for the 2016 ISL season. The move meant that ISL this year for Mumbai would be all about Forlan.
It also meant that every move Mumbai City would make on the field would revolve around Forlan. The expectations in this year’s first home game also focused on him. And he ensured that the night was his as he struck the penalty that handed Mumbai the lone and winning goal.
It was trademark Forlan. It was how the world has seen him take free-kicks and penalties for years. He stood at the spot – jersey not tucked in and hands on his hips. He looked at the ball, he looked at the goalkeeper, Subrata Paul. He repeated the routine. The eyes did not flinch. He seemed unruffled.
Funny things have happened to great sportsmen at critical moments. But for a man who has played on, and ruled, grander stages like the World Cup, this was never going to be a problem. His calmness broke into a bout of energy as he burst through and struck a powerful straight shot. Paul got a hand to it, but there was too much power on it for the United goalie to prevent the goal.
The Mumbai City players converged on their captain. The team owners were ecstatic. And the stadium burst into chants of "Diego, Diego" as Forlan celebrated. It was a chant that had been sung consistently by the fan club every time Forlan had the ball during the game. But now the stadium had joined in.
It was Forlan’s first goal for his new club in just his second game. It was a goal that would give his team victory on the night – their second in two games.
A new stage
It was in contrast to the start Forlan had endured at Manchester United after the English giants bought him in January 2002. For eight months, none of his shots ended at the back of the net. It was a penalty against Maccabi Haifa in September that year which broke the deadlock.
While his career at Old Trafford was laced with frustration, he will always be remembered by the Manchester United fans for the two goals that helped the Red Devils beat Liverpool at Anfield in 2003. With performances like those, and with an always-present smile, his popularity at the club had reached pulsating levels.
In a League Cup game away to Northampton in 2004, the travelling Manchester United fans had decided that they would sit only if Forlan scored. And it was only after the striker delivered in the 68th minute that the entire away section decided to take their seats.
It appeared that the Mumbai City FC Supporters Club had similar intentions on Friday night. They stood in their stands, and sang. They would not sit throughout the game. Not after Forlan had scored. Not even after Mumbai had won the game.
As Forlan walked towards the tunnel post the presentation ceremony, most of the fans were still on their feet chanting the former Uruguayan captain’s name. They had been emphatic in their support. A winner of the Golden Ball award in the 2010 World Cup, he has certainly seen larger turnouts and greater appreciation around the world.
But Forlan’s humbleness came to the fore. He acknowledged the support in Mumbai. A man who has plied his trade in front of close to 100,000 football-lovers did not take for granted the backing of the 6000-and-odd supporters at his new home.
Fans want much more
The ISL as a league may still be in a nascent stage in its third season, and obviously in its early stages this year, but two aspects came through strongly after Mumbai’s game against NorthEast. Even at 37, Forlan was a class above the rest of the players on the field. And that the turnout deserved better quality football than what had been served.
For a man who was known to chase every ball as if he had additional horsepower for most of his career, Forlan painted a dull figure. He appeared desolate, as for most of the game his calls for a ball either fell on deaf ears or could not be responded to because of the lack of quality and vision among his teammates.
Most times, NorthEast’s marquee player Didier Zokora was in the way of any ball meant for Forlan. And Forlan's sneaked passed seldom reached his teammates, who were just not in the desired positions. They are not accustomed to receiving such smart passes.
After all the failed crosses and would-be assists, Forlan's frustration began to show. He hardly ever made the dash to the other end of the ground, nor did he go after balls with the same intent. Eventually, he shrugged at his teammates and even got into an argument with the referee over a decision.
Similarly, the Mumbai crowd that had set the roof on fire when the national team took on Puerto Rico last month could be electrifying only in patches. During the first-ever international game at the Mumbai Football Arena, the fans had choreographed the Indian team’s performance on the field in a way. During the first-ever ISL game at the venue, however, there weren't enough patches of brilliance on the field to turn on the crowd's volume consistently.
Forlan and his curling crosses and passes, apart from the penalty, did give the crowd reason to cheer. Likewise, all the saves that Mumbai’s goalkeeper, Roberto Neto, pulled off had the supporters on their feet. Almost the entire stadium was on its feet when Neto and his defenders kept the NorthEast attackers at bay when the latter won a spate of corners in injury time.
But in between these moments of exhilaration, the fans were lost. They were lost when their team’s passes were intercepted, when their team would work their way to the goal but not manage to convert, when their team failed to involve their captain extensively. The quality of the football has to improve a lot before the fans can cheer non-stop for 90 minutes.