Delhi and its uneasy relationship with football
The Delhi Dynamos have been the closest thing to a consistent team in this Indian Super League season. Their recent performances have been more refined and ruthless than any of the other teams in the league. The manner in which they dispatched Chennaiyin FC displayed a level of verve that has been lacking in this season of the ISL. They are playing excellent football, as good as we have seen in these last 3 years and yet we need to address the elephant in the room.
Florent Malouda ran the show against Chennaiyin FC, constantly finding pockets of space, playing in Gadze and the wide men; his audacious no look pass was all the more sweeter given the quality of Kean Lewis’ finish.
A composed finish, an audacious pass, excellent awareness, Malouda seemed to have it all. The most striking feature of the game was Kean Lewis’ elaborate celebration. It wasn't that the celebration warrants this much attention, it's the empty stands inside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi which was most troubling.
This isn't a phenomenon that has recently come to light, it speaks volumes of their inability to gather a meaningful ‘home crowd’. The ISL has seen a sharp rise in both viewership figures and stadium attendances for football, thanks to the marquee talent plying their trade in the league and the quality of football on display.
The ISL has succeeded in a manner that the I-League never could. The argument for marquee attractions apply to Delhi Dynamos more so than the others, with world class players such as Alessandro Del Piero, Florent Malouda and Roberto Carlos forming a part of their ranks in the past. This season, they seem to have gotten their ducks in a row and appear to be in a very strong position as the home stretch approaches. In spite of all these factors working in their favour, their inability to create a solid spectator base is troubling.
A former senior ISL team figure was in agreement as he said, “The lack of stadium attendance is more of a reflection on the city. The attendances for multiple sports such as Cricket, Kabaddi and Hockey pales in comparison to other regions of the country.”
He further went on to say, “It is safe to say Delhi can be classified as a non-sporting city.”
The numbers agree with this assessment, as their stadium occupancy rates rank amongst the lowest in the league. The empty stadium is the most visually striking element, however. Why is there such a dearth of spectators inside stadiums?
Traditionally, Delhi has not been considered a popular breeding ground for football when compared to Goa, Bengal or the north east of India and in many cases, the fans from these regions, outnumber the Delhi fans inside the stadium. The Dynamos have every right to feel hard done as teams manage to sell out their stadiums, regardless of performance. All signs point to a deeper rooted issue.
Not since the disbanding of JCT FC in 2011 has there been a football club in Delhi, primarily due to the lack of interest in football. The absence of football in the region has stifled any sort of potential connection between the team and its supporter. Speaking to a Delhi-based sports management student revealed some key insights into this connection, he explained, “Football isn’t seen as a Delhi sport and we don’t connect with the team as our home team.”
Further expanding on the attendance issue, he said, “Even exhibitions game such as Baichung Bhutia’s testimonial against a surprisingly strong Bayern Munich line-up failed to generate the buzz it deserved.”
‘If you build it, they will come.’ That clearly isn’t the case as football isnt a priority to our nations capital. Sport is a unifying force, as we have seen in the ISL, where players of multiple nationalities and all across India play together. There is raw emotion and sentiment attached to the game that Delhi Dynamos need to tap into in order to build lasting connections with their supporter base. ‘If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.’
Solving the stadium issue will begin to right many wrongs. Moving to a smaller and more intimate Ambedkar stadium could help the team as evidenced by Mumbai City FC’s succesful transition to the smaller Mumbai Football Arena. Additionally, the Ambedkar Stadium hosted the 2007 and 2009 Nehru Cup victories for India. Making the emotional case for Delhi Dynamos isn’t enough. Football is a fan sport and teams feed off the energy of their fans.
Goals are celebrated, victory is vindicated and loss is heartbreaking. The game is an expression of the ability of its players. To lovers of the game, it is art and every artist strives for validation.
Expression is a love letter to the game and its audience. Delhi Dynamos are writing a beautiful one at that and their fans just need to warm up to them.