ISL 2017/18 Final: Forget Kerala Blasters, Bengaluru-Chennaiyin Derby is set to dominate South India
A southern derby awaits football fans on Saturday, in the ISL season four final. But it's not the one that perhaps many expected ahead of the season.
No, it's not the Kerala Blasters vs Bengaluru FC, but instead the latter hosting Chennaiyin FC at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bangalore to determine who goes home as champions of the 2017/18 season. Like a good, strong cup of southern coffee, this rivalry has been brewing for some time.
Separated by 350 kms, the two cities with two football clubs that came into existence this decade, will put aside rivalries of the political, geographical and societal kind and turn to the game that lauds itself as the most popular in the world. It's a game of football on Saturday, but the biggest game of the season for the two sets of fans.
For the West Block Blues, the well-known supporters' group of Bengaluru FC, it's about history repeating itself. Like they did in their debut season of the I-League, where they ended up champions, they believe that they are going to do likewise on Saturday by getting their name on the ISL trophy at the very first try.
"As far as we are concerned, we have already proved that we are the best team by topping the table very comfortably with four games to spare," says BFC fan Ullas Marar. "We have nothing more to prove beyond the formality of winning the final as the format demands and I believe we will do it."
Chennaiyin fans also point to history; they hope to witness a repeat of the 2015 final when they won their first ISL title by beating FC Goa in Goa in the grand finale. Monish of the B Stand Blues, one of two supporters' clubs of Chennaiyin, calls it the "dream match."
He says, "If we go there and win, it's the second-best thing that can happen." When asked what the best thing would have been, he says a final at the Marina Arena in Chennai. He adds that it will be extra special because the fans of Bengaluru have taken to the ISL after having been against it just a few years ago.
Both groups though agree that in many ways, this is the perfect final, with each having much recognition for the achievements of the other side.
Ullas says, "This is the fairest match, 1 v 2. Yes, it's disappointing to not have Goa, but I honestly believe Chennaiyin are a better side than Goa. And we want to beat the best."
Mani, another member of the B Stand Blues, calls Bengaluru the "strongest side in the tournament." Monish adds: "They (BFC) started off with a lot of cohesion because they continued with their squad from the I-League. Make no mistake they are a very good team. They deserve to be there, but so do we."
The teams played each other twice in the league stages, with the away side triumphing in both encounters - Chennaiyin won 2-1 in Bangalore with a late goal while Bengaluru returned the favour in Chennai with a 3-1 win.
This rivalry will get a third instalment in the final and tensions will be high between both sets of supporters considering it's a derby.
"It will be a hostile environment. They have players like Dhanapal Ganesh and we have Dimas Delgado. Tempers could be frayed", says Ullas. He, however, feels that it will bring out the best out of the Bengaluru fans: "But that's what makes the West Block Blues louder and we manage to get under the skin of the away team."
He believes that the team that wins the midfield battle will emerge victorious and admits he hopes Ganesh gets sent off: "I'll be very happy if Dhanapal Ganesh gets sent off because I feel he's a dirty player."
Mani of the B Stand Blues also is expecting some fireworks: "Since it's a game against Bengaluru, the Chennaiyin players will be really up for it. They would want to give more effort than normal and I'm expecting to see quite a few slide tackles."
He adds that it will come down to "their attacks versus our defence." In particular, he highlights one battle that will be key to the contest - "On the right, Udanta vs Jerry. Mailson and Sereno I feel can handle Miku and Sunil Chhetri, but we have to be wary of Udanta's pace."
He too is of the opinion that the likelihood of 22 men not remaining on the field at the final whistle is "very high", considering the tempestuous nature of the clash.
As for the clash between the fan groups, the West Block Blues and B Stand Blues both agree to keep it "intense, but cordial."
"No reference to political issues like Kaveri, even if we are in a challenging position in the match. We will make a conscious effort to keep it clean", says Ullas of the West Block Blues. The Blues in the other corner also maintain the same line of thought. Monish says, "We've always had a healthy relationship with the West Block Blues The rivalry is organic. I don't think it will get out of hand. We don't want to make it political and credit to them, they've done the same."
While this rivalry has come to a head, there is a third corner to this south Indian triangle as far as the ISL is concerned - the Kerala Blasters. Ahead of this season, much of the focus was on the anticipated rivalry between the Manjapadda and the West Block Blues, two supporters' groups amongst the most in number and most vociferous around. But, that tussle has taken a backseat to Bengaluru v Chennaiyin. In the match at Chennai between these two teams, both sets of fans were seen chanting, "Who the $k are Kerala Blasters?"
We asked the fans what they made of this south Indian triangle.
"There are three south Indian teams. I think each rivalry is almost on the same level, but I think there was much made of the rivalry between Manjapadda and Bengaluru fans even before the tournament, probably to whip up some excitement with Bengaluru making their debut," feels Monish.
Ullas though personally believes that the Bengaluru - Chennaiyin rivalry will be bigger eventually: "It was always going to happen (BFC v CFC rivalry). Even if not in this year's final, over a couple of seasons I think it will upstage what we have with Kerala Blasters. With the Blasters, it emerged out of nothing, the social media wars. But here, there is obvious hostility."
Saturday is a big occasion for fans of both teams. About 600-700 members of the B Stand Blues and Super Machans, Chennaiyin's two supporter groups, are expected at the final. They say they do have a "special banner" which they will unveil if their side wins.
For the West Block Blues, being a home game the buzz is obviously higher. Ullas says they have a very interesting tifo planned along with some innovative chants. A human chan to welcome the players is also in the works.
There promises to be elation for one group and dejection for the other at the end of 90 minutes (or 120) on Saturday night in Bengaluru. One thing that both sides agree on, however, is the scoreline, of course, in favour of their team.
"I think it will be a very scrappy game which we will win 2-1", says West Block Blues' Ullas.
According to Monish, "A repeat of the league match in Bangalore with Ganesh scoring the second from a set-piece."
Either way, the contest promises to not be devoid of drama as the 2017/18 culminates at the Kanteerava Stadium.