Kerala Blasters’ Mohammed Rafique could not have asked for a better ending to the second leg of their semifinal against Delhi Dynamos. Stepping up to score the winning penalty, he ensured supporters from his home state did not go home disappointed.
Kerala, thus, set up a title clash with Atletico de Kolkata after finishing 3-0 on penalties after the 10-man Dynamos prevailed 2-1 over the 120 minutes, tying the tie 2-2. For Blasters, it is an opportunity to avenge their defeat in the 2014 final.
Apart from games featuring NorthEast United, the away support in Delhi has generally been lukewarm. But this wasn’t the case on Wednesday evening, as Blasters fans, donning their bright yellow jerseys and equipped with handmade banners, made their presence felt.
The Blasters’ support was a mix of students, young professionals, Delhi-domiciled people of Kerala origin, and a handful of die-hard supporters who flew over to support their team.
“In Kochi, the crowd attendance for ISL games is way better than Delhi,” said Binoy who flew in to the Capital to witness his team playing the second leg of the semifinal.
“I’m taking an early flight back home.As soon as I reach, I am going to get some paysam (rice-based sweet dish) made and distribute it to the locals,” Binoy added.
Kerala Blasters has maintained the largest fanbase since the inception of the ISL. They are the best supported franchise on social media with more than three-and-a-half lakh Twitter followers. The South Indian team’s fan loyalty can be assessed by the fact that their average official attendance at home is around 50,000 for a stadium with a capacity of 60,000.
“We have been here in Delhi for some time but our heart beats for Kerala,” said a young professional.
Gokul, a student from Alappuzha district of Kerala who is enrolled at a coaching centre in Delhi, makes it a point to attend all Blasters games. “It’s not only about making new friends. If I was back home I would do the same,” said Gokul.
The Blasters’ stand had a house party-like feel to it.
The faithful sang songs to cheer their players, encouraged them with the loudest applause for even the most simplest of passes. Even a free-kick from the halfway mark was observed with the intensity often associated with a penalty kick.
The match itself had plenty of action. Both teams played an aggressive game but lacked precision. There were several near-misses from either side.
Marcelo put Delhi ahead on the night, level on aggregate, with his 21st-minute strike but Kerala drew level in the space of three minutes with Duckens Nazon’s goal.
The match took a crucial turn when Delhi’s Milan Singh was shown a straight red card for a rash tackle on Mehtab Hussain. It turned the odds in Kerala’s favour, but right before half-time whistle, Rubén González Rocha slotted a header to put the hosts ahead once again, tying the match-up again.
Delhi missed several opportunities thereafter before eventually losing after a nightmarish penalty shootout.
Florent Malouda, who took a more offensive role in the latter half of the game, hit the ball way over the target. Delhi’s Bruno Pelissari followed in the Frenchman’s footsteps and skied the ball before Blasters custodian Sandip Nandy stopped a shot on target from Memo. Mohammed Rafique sealed the deal thereafter.
For the visitors, Josué Currais Prieto and Kervens Belfort, hero of the first leg victory, had earlier slotted past from the spot against Dynamos goalkeeper Antonio Doblas.