"Indian football mein missing hai hum jaise fanno ka pyaar (Indian football is missing the love of fans like us)," screams Ranbir Kapoor everytime the ISL advertisement is blared out on idiot boxes across the country.
He has a point though. Yes, Mr. Kapoor, who is part-owner of Mumbai City FC, does. The number of followers was less a couple of years ago and they have increased exponentially now.
But in the two months that have ensued of the fifth season of the Indian Super League, it looks like the fans have had more harrowing than pleasant experiences at various stadia across the country.
So, is the ISL's "Fan Banna Padega" slogan one that comes with conditions applied? Is poor execution of the Fan Banna Padega campaign driving away those faithful to the ISL?
You get it from Football Sports Development Ltd. (FSDL)'s perspective. This league is their product, and it's not a good look on them when there are fans abusing the referees and other entities, and the abuse is heard loud and clear on broadcasts. But, are you going to curb the emotions of the fans because it isn't a good look for the product?
Are you really going to say the goodwill for the product is more important than the football? Are you going to take out of football the emotion that it fosters and encourages?
Imagine going to Turkey and telling the fans of Galatasaray, Besiktas and Fenerbahce to not have those pyro displays, giant banners and incessant, abundant noise. Imagine an Istanbul derby playing out without the side-narrative of what happens in the stands.
Can you? No? Thought just as much.
Indian football needs its fans, as long as its growth is still in its nascent stages. At this stage, you really cannot drive away those that are your biggest stakeholders, no matter what.
It really is time for those running the show to understand that Football fandom in the stands isn't as passive as Cricket or Tennis fandom is. If you see Tennis, spectators are required to sit silently while points are in progress. In Cricket, there are periods of silence interspersed between the noise.
Every second isn't exactly an event. Sadly for the ISL, they have shown that their fan regulations are more suited to Cricket or Tennis.
Hemang Doshi, a Delhi Dynamos fan, tweeted his experience from the home match against Mumbai City FC. Hemang laments the fact that security personnel don't allow the fans to be fans. Fan Banna Padega, eh?
Tushar Vyas, a Delhi Dynamos fan, told Sportskeeda that the regulations meant that it also sent out a wrong message to the team on the pitch that the fans weren't behind them. "Our team is already not doing well, so we tried chanting and lifting their spirits. We were immediately ordered to sit down and watch the game silently. That's not how fan culture is developed," Tushar said.
Just last week, Bengaluru FC has been fined Rs 15 lakh for their fans' part in abusing referees and other officials in three of their games in the 2017-18 season. Is there any precedent to such arbitrary rulings by the league?
Yes, you guessed it right. There is none.
In fact, even on one of the darkest nights in the small history of Bengaluru FC, the punishments meted out weren't as severe. On 7th April, 2015, the club and the then manager Ashley Westwood were fined Rs 2 lakh each for their involvement in the fracas with the then Mumbai FC manager Khalid Jamil.
Back then, Bengaluru were found guilty of not being able to control their fans, after projectiles were thrown from the stands in the general direction of Jamil. The West Block Blues must definitely be held culpable for that and they have ensured that such incidents do not repeat. After the Rs 15 lakh fine for their address to the referees - because of legitimately poor officiating, it is unfortunate that they have been forced to censor themselves now just so they can ensure the club to not find itself in more run-ins with the league.
Vijay Bharadwaj, a Bengaluru FC fan, told Sportskeeda that he would have wanted the ISL to go about it differently. "I don't think it is wise to expect fans to curb their emotions. It is a manifestation of how they feel at that point. For me to go to stadium and to keep saying 'BFC, BFC, BFC' will feel odd," he said, before adding that he wanted the BFC players to feed off the crowd's energy, while at the same time, wanting the opposition to know that everything is against them when they come to Bangalore.
"With some of these rules, we've had to do a bit of self-censoring which I don't believe is the best way to go about it," Vijay said.
And therein lies the problem. Hostile crowds are always a part of football, and they are no strangers in the ISL either. Last season, Sunil Chhetri was not given a minute's peace by the Chennai crowd when he travelled there with Bengaluru FC. The Bengaluru skipper brushed it off saying he expects fans across the country to give him stick, make it difficult for him to play and create a hostile environment for any away team to come into.
Even the abuse being cut down is an understandable step on part of the ISL. This year, Chennaiyin FC and Kerala Blasters FC have been issued show-cause notices by the league, after their fans displayed banners that exceeded the prescribed 200 sq.ft.
There have been some incredible displays of love from fans across the league through their banners, especially since the start of the 2017-18 season.
Be it Manjappada's tribute to the heroes during the state's floods, be it the B Stand Blues' hilarious take on the Simpsons' to mock the Blasters, be it the West Block Blues' Grim Reaper in the final last season, there have been some visual treats to behold in Indian stands through the ISL.
And yet there are curbs on that. The ISL reasons that it is a safety hazard to have immense banners in stadia across the country. If, by chance, a fire occurs coincidentally at the same time as the unfurling of the banner, it makes evacuation an almost impossible task, the league argues.
Again, understandable, but why take fans for fools? Why is an assumption being made that fans won't leave that banner behind them to run at the first sign of distress?
Vinod Ramnath, a Chennaiyin FC fan, told Sportskeeda that the league had not communicated any banner size regulations to them and that they'd gotten to know about the show-cause notice only through the media.
Vinod, though, lamented the seeming double standards in the league. "A lot of things that we're told are prohibited, like smoke-sticks and flares, we've seen being used in other stadia. This inconsistency irks us the most."
Vinod implored the league to let fans be, and not police every aspect of what is being done. Setting the rules for fan culture undermines the culture itself, he said.
Fan Banna Padega, screams the league on our TVs, on our newspapers, on the internet, on billboards across the country. Maybe the first step in making people become football fans is to actually let them be football fans?Published 04 Dec 2018, 16:52 IST