Chhetri's impassioned plea draws a new demographic to stadiums
"Excuse me, two people are sitting here", a middle-aged man in Stand 6 at the Mumbai Football Arena tells a teenager in a Real Madrid kit. The Intercontiental Cup game between India and New Zealand is yet to start -- they are still playing the national anthems.
There is no place to sit in the packed grandstand behind the goalpost, a stark contrast from six days back, when 2569 fans filled an arena with a capacity of about 10,000.
"95% logon ka pehli baar hai. Sab video dekh ke aaye hai (95 percent of the people are first-timers, and have come after watching the video)", estimates the ponytailed man next to this writer. The video he refers to, is of captain Sunil Chhetri's impassioned plea ahead of his 100th game for India, exhorting fans to come "scream at us, shout at us, abuse us" from the stands. It came out the day after those 2569 fans attended India's 5-0 walloping of Chinese Taipei.
This is nothing but a small plea from me to you. Take out a little time and give me a listen. pic.twitter.com/fcOA3qPH8i- Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11) June 2, 2018
The following two games of India have seen attendances soar close to 9000, despite Mumbai's early monsoon rains. The final match on June 10 is reportedly sold out already. Correlation often does not imply causation, but try telling that to those in the box office or the ones in charge of online ticketing, who have seen a huge spike in sales this week.
It's not true that India's games, or football in India, doesn't draw crowds. Ask the West Block Blues in Bengaluru, or the faithfuls who have been attending the Kolkata derbies for years. Tell that to the crowds at Kochi or the hordes at Kolkata's Salt Lake stadium, who combined with the other venues to set attendance records at last year's FIFA U-17 World Cup. There have been sell-out crowds before, but this time Chhetri's words seem to have drawn in a new demographic.
"We didn't understand much of what happened, I just thought they passed the ball well," says a woman who has come to watch with a friend, both accompanied in their first-ever football match by their daughters. For them, it has been a very different evening out. When told they should keep going to football matches, there are vigorous nods followed by a "we must".
One time, when the referee stops a slick Indian counter, an angry first-timer is calmed by his friend, who explains off-side to him.
The Blue Pilgrims are here with their banners and drums, and are in full throat throughout the match. Between badgering the New Zealand team, they fall back on their pre-match routine -- chants which are adaptations from European football or straight out of Mumbai's cricket culture. There's one on Jeje Lalpekhlua, the India striker playing his 50th game, sung to the tune of the popular "Ko-lo, Ya-ya" chant on the Toure brothers. There's the Viking thunderclap, adapted in Bengaluru's Kanteerava Stadium, after it became synonymous with Iceland at Euro 2016.
All of it, in a curious way, sums up where Indian football is -- trying to get the nation to look beyond cricket, while also telling kids who follow European football that there is something going on here.
"Come to our screenings, man. The atmosphere is a hundred times better than this." Sanil can't remember a time when he wasn't a Liverpool fan. He has the team crest tattooed on the back of his hand and proudly points to it, while going on about public screenings of the Champions League and Premier League across the city. His Liverpool affiliation is born out of his father's time working there, a bond passed on from one generation to another.
"Most of these people don't know football, yaar (buddy)," he says. "They are all watching a game for the first time, thanks to that video. It's good that so many people have come. This doesn't happen, I've watched so many India games -- here, in Pune, in Goa."
Ayan, a four-year-old, is walking towards the exit gates, almost in tears (India lost 2-1 to an 86th-minute winner, despite taking the lead through Chhetri). His father is trying to console him.
"Did you enjoy the game?"
"No, because we lost"
"It's a game, beta (son). You win and you lose. We gave a good fight, no?"
By the time Chhetri leads the Indian team out to thank the crowd, most of these new fans have left the stands. Chhetri and a couple of his mates do the thunderclap along with the Blue Pilgrims. There's one final loud cheer, followed by a deafening silence.
The Intercontinental Cup has been sandwiched between the end of a long European season and the FIFA World Cup, and stars like Kenya's Victor Wanyama, New Zealand's Winston Reid and Chris Wood, have all opted to sit out.
None of that should matter when it comes to public interest because, as Chhetri said, this is a very important time in Indian football. They are 97th in the FIFA rankings, will go to next year's AFC Asian Cup for only the second time in 35 years, and have come a long way since their all-time low, 173rd-ranked days of 2015.
We promise you that if that's the kind of support we get every time we play for the country, we will give our lives on the pitch. India, this night was special because we were in this together. Those in the stands shouting, and the ones at home cheering - thank you!- Sunil Chhetri (@chetrisunil11) June 4, 2018
How and whether this will sustain is a whole different question altogether, but in terms of instant impact, Chhetri's video has done the job of putting bums on seats for a tournament lacking in star power.