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“Football takes over” is the official slogan that FIFA went ahead with for the ongoing Under 17 World Cup. Over the past two weeks, a look at the newspapers would give you the impression that it indeed has. Football stories have dominated the sports pages of most publications in the country, despite there being a T20I series going on between India and Australia.
What also took over was reportage on the chaos that surrounded India’s opening game against the United States in New Delhi. Traffic snarls outside Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence and lack of drinking water for the 27,000 school children who were brought to the stadium were the points of focus on Day 1. A dash of irony was added when plastic waste could be seen strewn in and around the stadium in which a giant banner of ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ was placed prominently. A walk around the stands told you that there weren’t too many dustbins in the stadium. Although to be fair to the Local Organising Committee (LOC), an abundance of dustbins doesn’t guarantee cleanliness almost anywhere in India.
At the center of all this were the matches, three of which have gone down as the most important ones in recent Indian football history. Delhi is known to be notoriously indifferent to the sport. Indian Super League side Delhi Dynamos regularly clock the worst attendance record among the teams involved and the atmosphere is not the greatest. This was the reason why the move to relocate India’s group matches was met with cynicism.
Delhi has had a tough time this decade. The city has had the ignominy of being branded as the ‘Rape capital’ of the country, voted universally for a party while trusting them to pick up the broomstick and throw out corruption only to see that they just have sticks, and very weak ones at that. Delhi has seen the Commonwealth Games happen and all the ruckus that came in its wake and many other such political and socio-economic failures. A thick layer of cynicism has developed in the people’s mindset because of all this – much like the smog that covers the city during winter.
Eavesdropping on some conversations between those travelling to the stadium during matchdays gave you a glimpse into this cynicism. The cynics familiar with European leagues wondered whether the crowd would rally behind the team should they concede a goal or two.
But the cynics were proven wrong. India coach Luis Norton de Matos had said before the match against USA that the team will need fans to support them and create an atmosphere that acts as a “12th man”. The clarion had been blown and Delhi responded. Through free tickets or otherwise, once spectators were in the stadium, they became fans. They cheered for the boys in blue, despite the fact that they were not treated to the dominant performances that has been fed to them on a frequent basis by the Indian cricket team.
India lost their first match to the United States 0-3 and their final match to Ghana 0-4. In both instances, a majority of those in the stands stayed back for a long period after the final whistle, screaming “India! India!” The seats were truly vacated only after the teams had walked back into the tunnel.
They booed when a player from the opposition team complained of an injury or when they were about to take free-kicks, corners and that lone penalty. When Jeakson Singh headed the ball into goal during the second match against Colombia, they went berzerk. Such was the atmosphere that, for a few seconds, most in the stadium glazed over the fact that Juan Penaloza restored Colombia’s lead almost as soon as play resumed. The fans understood that the experience and sheer training that these Indian players have received is nothing compared to what their opponents had under their belt.
When India were not playing, one could understand that Delhi would cheer for a goal, regardless of who scored it. On Thursday, Mali and New Zealand played before India took on Ghana at the JLN. The stadium was sparsely populated in the early minutes of the match but as it progressed, the noise levels increased proportionately. Mali started taking control of the match and the stadium cheered whenever they got forward. The goals were only a bonus and there were four of them, three for Mali and one for New Zealand.
Through the haze that covered the stadium on Thursday, one could see Mexican waves doing the rounds. A section of fans were singing the iconic riff of Seven Nation Army, a staple in football stadiums around the world. Goalkeeper Dheeraj Moirangthem’s name was invoked every time he made a save, punched the ball or unleashed one of his monster throws upfield.
It wasn’t particularly easy for the fans. They had to negotiate various closed roads on their way to the stadium and security measures to get inside on Day 1. Once inside, food and water counters were disproportionate to the number of people they were catering to and the humidity did not help. It also has to be noted that a 10-lane running track seperated the stands from the pitch, hardly a conducive feature for any football match.
The residents of this city showed in this past week that it isn’t indifferent to football. Perhaps it is time that they started getting treated well by those in charge of the game. A stadium exclusive to football matches might be a good start.