Sunil Chhetri walked up to the dais to receive his Hero of the League trophy and was then called upon to speak a few words. The presentation dais was set up facing the part of the Sri Kanteerava Stadium that was occupied by the ‘West Block Blues’ and Chhetri looked up, folded his hands and conveyed his gratitude before apologising for not being able to lift the Indian Super League trophy in front of them. The fans reciprocated his gesture, not that they needed any reason to. Chennaiyin FC may have won the final but it was the names of Chhetri, Erik Paartalu and Udanta Singh among others that filled the halogen lit air of the Kanteerava.
In a country where football takes a back seat to cricket, it is a rarity to see fans of a club stay back for long after the final whistle of a match that their team lost. On Saturday night, the Bengaluru FC fans stayed and the West Block Blues belted one chant after another. “Hum honge kamyaab ek din,” they sang and followed it up with “Namma Ooru Bengaluru, who are we BFC.” They then chanted the names of players who have stood out for Bengaluru FC this season and in the previous ones and made sure the referees knew that they disagreed with their decisions in the most articulate manner one could imagine.
It is Friday evening on March 16 – one day before the ISL final. Rains had made a short appearance in Bangalore the day before but it had returned for a prolonged sophomore. A resident of the city would tell you that Bangalore starts acting pretty strange during rains, especially when they come completely out of season.
On a basketball court of a school in Halasahalli, a small town on the outskirts of the city, 10 people have got a tarpaulin stretched between themselves and two more are underneath it. One of the two is standing in the centre holding it up so as to not allow the rainwater to collect on the sheet while the other is smudging water off a 40 metre x 17 metre banner that lay underneath. It was a banner they had spent a number of days putting together and was being threatened by unforeseen circumstances less than 24 hours before the big day – the ISL final between their team Bengaluru FC and Chennaiyin FC. They add a few more protective sheets on top of it before laying the tarpaulin down and rolling the entire thing up. They then commence the herculean task of picking up the entire mass and carrying it to the fourth floor of the school building, all the while making sure that the banner and all the protective layers do not unfurl. Once there, they have some bread and jam before commencing the process of repairing the damage that has been done by the rains and finishing the rest of the banner.
The next time that banner saw the light of the day was at the Kanteerava Stadium as it covered a good portion of the West Block, fans supporting it from underneath. It had the image of the grim reaper riding on a two-headed eagle. It was unfurled after the players of Bengaluru and Chennaiyin walked out to pitch and stayed until the end of the national anthem.
“Actually the banner was not complete,” said Ajith Harish, one of the fans involved in the rescue effort in Halasahalli. The message they intended to put across was simple: “attack.”
The West Block Blues have been with Bengaluru FC since their extraordinary first season in the I-League. They got their name from a stand in the Bangalore Football Stadium – Bengaluru FC’s former home ground – they used to occupy. Initially a group of college students who were attracted by the cheap ticket prices and later got hooked to Bengaluru FC’s style of play, it has now evolved into a network that stretches beyond boundaries of age, sex, and city.
“The ticket prices of the West Block was much lesser than that of the other stands and so, college students could afford it,” said Harish, “We were all followers of European football clubs also and slowly, we fell in love with this club.” The scope of the West Block Blues increased when the club’s home ground shifted to the Sri Kanteerava Stadium situated about three kilometers to the west of the city. “The whole West Block was suddenly a huge part (of the stadium). Anywhere else in the world you’ll see that the area for the most hardcore fans is comparatively small to other areas but here we have the biggest.”
As Bengaluru FC stacked up trophies, the popularity of the club – and its chief fan group – saw an organic growth. The bigger stand in Kanteerava helped attract more people to the West Block Blues while those who made the initial batch spread the name wherever they went. Saturday’s ISL final was screened by the expat fans of the club in places such as Detroit and New York in USA, London, Dammam in Saudi Arabia and Dusseldorf and Weimar in Germany. “Students who were part of the first two seasons and went for further studies they were the ones who organised the screenings. Our network is growing definitely and we are growing stronger,” said Harish.
When Bengaluru FC entered the ISL, they brought with them a fan culture that has grown into something that the franchise-based league seldom saw. Their banners and chants bring elements of pop culture (One banner, for instance, said ‘We are not in danger, we are the danger,’ which is a play on the famous dialogue from the TV series Breaking Bad) and European football fan clubs with a dash of local flair. This brought a reaction from other franchises, particularly the two other teams based in South India. The rivalry between Kerala Blasters’ ‘Manjapadda’, Chennaiyin FC’s ‘Super Machans’ and the West Block Blues has thus been a running theme of this season.
One of the many chants that rang out from the West Block Blues in the early matches of the season was “We don’t need ISL, ISL needs BFC!” Considering the atmosphere at the Kanteerava during the recently concluded final, it may be fair to say that they have a point. What is certain is that Bengaluru FC have sent a wave around the ISL this season and it has been driven by their fans. The advantage a club has if they manage to attract, and maintain, a dedicated fan base, was driven home every time one of them visited the Kanteerava this season.