ISL: Match-Day Diary Of A Blasters Fan

Sunday, 19 November 2017|Vineeth Krishnan
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The beginning of ISL-4 lived up to all its flashy billing, at least off the pitch. The crowd roared, duplicate jersey, flag and bandana sellers made a killing outside the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium and the pre-match entertainment package featuring Katrina Kaif, Salman Khan and Mammootty among others, set tongues wagging into the night and beyond. The opening match (and indeed the second one a day later) in itself was annoyingly short of meaningful action but at least, top-flight football was back in Kerala after 11 months and that in itself was cause for joy.

The FIFA U-17 World Cup was a dud as far as Kochi was concerned, with the turn out at the practice sessions of Brazil's team at times drawing greater crowds than the actual matches themselves. However, with the Blasters in town, there was absolutely no chance in God's own country that the low attendances would continue. The official figure put a little under 37,500 people (out of the revamped 41,000 capacity) at the venue, although the announcement was quickly put under the scanner mere seconds later by a second message congratulating the audience for the venue being sold out. 

To the naked eye, it was obvious that the official figure fell quite short of the number who actually made it in and occupied seats, not to mention the thousands of organizers and security folk who got a great chance to stand and watch. Disagreements on the official figure aside, the one thing everybody at the ground could attest to without hesitation was that they had a thoroughly enjoyable, near rock concert-esque night that will be relived through tales and selfies for years to come.

 

State of loneliness

If clothes could have feelings, then the loneliest jersey of them all hung from a tree branch a few hundred meters outside the JLN stadium in Kaloor, Kochi. Among the sea of yellow and blue lining the stalls was this one, medium-sized white and red stripes jersey of ATK. Kerala may be home to thousands of migrant Bengali workers and it seemed the Manjappada selling jerseys wanted to take no chances when it came to ensuring the JLN would only sport yellow come match-time. Indeed, even the face painting stalls had a 'surprising' dearth of red paint but an overflow of yellow, blue and white. 

At least, this poor jersey finally found a taker hours before the game. By the end of the match, much to its delight, it had found four other friends as well inside the stadium, with their owners walking out tall and proud having seen their team earn a creditable point away from home.

 

Trouble? Switch on the Blast-signal

The week when DC's justice league movie came out, it was only fitting to see Kochi get its own version of the iconic bat signal that hails Gotham's dark knight. Only, in this case, the signal has no outline of any winged mammal and instead is a simple beacon of yellow! 

The message could not be louder than Bruce Wayne's nemesis Shriek. It said if you are in Kochi and support the Blasters, where your jerseys, paint your faces, grab your yellow Fellaini hairdo's and make some noise whether you have a ticket or not. There may be no official fan park outside the JLN but the road which runs around the ground, a heavy traffic route that serves as a shortcut to get around the heart of the city, was Kochi's own version of a  Henman Hill for a full 12 hours, starting from 11 in the morning. 

Indeed, the queues to collect tickets bought online started forming as early as 9 am. A minor scuffle between those who had reserved tickets through the internet and those staring at the reality of not getting in despite having traveled long distances to get to Kochi inevitably took place but was quickly dissipated by an alert police contingent who had been informed that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was to be expected at any minute. The conditions were ripe for black market ticket sales, just as when the T20 cricket caravan had stopped by Trivandrum a week or so earlier. The fact that three small pockets in the top tier still stayed empty spoke volumes of how exorbitant the asking rate for those final few seats was.

 

Heights of optimism

Facing a tough ask to get a cab or autorickshaw to get back and file the match report on time, I was helped out by a young Blasters fan heading roughly in the same direction. Over the next 10 minutes, until we went our own ways, he went on to explain to me just why the Blasters would win the league this year. "In the past seasons we've either won or lost our first home game," he says. "This time, the draw means we'll clinch the cup." Now if that isn't a true fan, I don't know who is.