Changing trends in the I-League
Several new trends emerged in the recently concluded 7th Airtel I-League. The most significant is that crowds have returned to Indian club football. Official figures show that the overall attendance has increased by fifty per cent. This is primarily due to capacity crowds witnessing the home matches of local clubs Shillong Lajong FC and Rangdajied United in Shillong and the rising support of newly crowned champions Bengaluru Football Club. Mohammedan Sporting’s partial successes had also led to increased fan following, wherever they played.
Another important factor is that passion for Indian club football has increased and is not limited to just Kolkata. This was evident in the Round 15 match at the Bangalore football stadium on 15 December 2013, when East Bengal inflicted the first home defeat on the local team. East Bengal was leading 2-0 and when their goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu indulged in some time wasting tactics, the incensed crowd, showered abuses and pelted him with various objects.
This was a deplorable incident but it did show positive development in Indian football. The Bangalore fans were totally committed to their local club Bengaluru FC, a new entrant in the 7th Airtel I-League. As some East Bengal players wryly remarked, such type of crowd behavior was once only confined to Kolkata. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) fined Bengaluru FC Rs. 20,000 for unruly behavior of their fans.
The crowd at Bangalore on this fateful day was under 10,000 but it was creditable that in just their first season, this new franchisee based club consistently had supporters in the region of 8,000—10,000 for all their home matches. Professional management has enabled the club to attract fans within the city and create a base of supporters. The spectators on entry get a slick, official booklet of information, which has details and interviews of players of both the hosts and the opposition.
This idea is borrowed from the Barclays Premier League in England. Another Premiership influence on Indian football is the away fans who dressed in their club colours during a match. This was visible in many of the televised matches and in Bangalore on 15 Dec. 2013, there were at least 500 East Bengal supporters cheering their team vociferously dressed wearing the club’s colours and waving their flag.
The East Bengal fans were mostly those who worked in Bangalore. However during Bengaluru’s last two away matches in Goa, fans travelled from the Garden City of India to cheer their team. A carnival like atmosphere prevailed in the Nehru stadium, Fatorda, with the Bengaluru FC fans dressed in their team’s blue colours and chanting “oh when the blues go marching in”, a variation of the famous “when the saints go marching in” made famous by the Liverpool fans at the Kop. The emergence of a committed group of fans of Indian football clubs is a positive sign. Salgaocar also encouraged their fans to travel to away matches, especially to nearby cities like Pune and Bangalore and made arrangements for their stay and helped in booking tickets.
Some years ago, there was the apprehension that football fans in India only watched the high-profile Premier League, UEFA Champions League, La Liga and foreign football and scoffed at going to stadiums to watch Indian clubs play.
Fortunately this is changing. Improved facilities and comfort at the stadiums, especially the refurbished Nehru stadium Fatorda, Balewadi sports complex in Pune and the Bangalore Football stadium have helped in bringing the fans back to Indian football. Lots of young fans were seen, especially at matches in Shillong, Bangalore and Pune, which augurs well for Indian club football.
A change in attitude was evident when some Bengaluru fans claimed that they would rather go to the stadium and cheer their club even if it meant missing a Premier League match on TV, involving clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City. It is also an encouragement for professionally managed clubs like Bengaluru FC, Pune FC and Shillong Lajong that they are on the right track.
Bengaluru FC’s aggressive marketing to attract a new generation of fans to their club has been remarkable. They made special efforts to connect with the local community. Players were regularly available to interact with the supporters. This ensured them of the support of a new generation of upwardly mobile men and women, whose support was vociferous throughout the season. No wonder Bengaluru’s skipper Sunil Chettri said the crowd was “like a twelfth man for us.” Bengaluru notched up 14 wins, the maximum by any team in the current I-League.
Credit is also due to a new generation of technology savvy media officers, who have emerged at nearly all the clubs. They used social networking sites to popularize the players of their clubs. They not only regularly previewed and gave detailed match reports but also gave news about injuries and transfers of players. This increased flow of information to the print media all over India led to more coverage than in previous years. A couple of seasons ago, Pune FC set the trend of using a professional media officer to popularize the achievements and functioning of their club. This practice has now been copied by nearly all the clubs.
A popular and historic club like East Bengal now has over one million followers on Facebook all over the globe. Nearly all the I-League clubs are on Facebook and Twitter. The media officers upload highlights of their matches and training session on You Tube, which can be witnessed by logging onto their websites.
Another remarkable change is that Ranti Martins and Odafa Okolie’s hegemony as the top goal-scorers, for the last eight seasons was broken. For the first time, the top scorer’s spot in the I-League was shared by two players – Darryl Duffy (Scotland) of Salgaocar and Sunil Chhetri of Bengaluru FC – with 14 goals each.
The Indian national team skipper Chhetri also became the third Indian in the process to score 14 goals in a single edition of the NFL/I-League after Bhaichung Bhutia (JCT – 1996/97) and Mohammed Rafi (Mahindra United 2009-10). Chettri also became the third Indian to finish as top scorer, after Bhutia 1997 and Raman Vijayan (FC Kochin – 1997/98).
Ranti, top-scorer with 26 goals last season had just managed four in his first 15 games for United SC. His form improved when he joined Rangdajied United FC after the winter break and he finished with 12 goals overall. Odafa struggled to find form, after an injury and scored just one goal in six I-League matches for Mohun Bagan till December 2013. Later he recovered and finished with nine goals. However his three year honeymoon with Bagan has ended and latest reports suggest that he is re-joining Churchill Brothers at a reported amount of Rs. 80 lakhs per annum way below the over Rs. 2 crore annually that he got from the Kolkata club.