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Mumbai City FC: Creating supporters in a city that lacked a football culture

The Indian Super League has had it’s doubters, but Chintan Mehta documents the positivity it has brought to the city of Mumbai, and the football supporters it has created.

“Pune sucks, Pune sucks” rang around the stadium as former Inter man, Bruno Cirillo, tackled Andre Moritz around the 60th minute mark. The hostility towards the opponents and the love showered on the home team surprised me. Was I sitting in a stadium in Mumbai? Was I watching cricket?

Dancing, screaming and die-hard fans are commonplace at most sports events, but I was warned to expect none of that at DY Patil stadium where Mumbai City FC played their first home game against their state rival Pune City FC in a so called ‘Maharashtra derby’.

As I got down to get my tickets I was pleasantly surprised to see a sea of people wearing various jerseys of different teams across Europe. The excitement on their faces was telling me that the home crowd might surprise me; and surprised me it did.

Mumbai is one beautiful city, “A city which never sleeps” as many call it but it was never considered as a football hub. We don’t have that many places to play the game we love and if there are a few, they are quite unaffordable for many. It’s a congested city with a few grounds, mostly filled with kids playing a sport, which is synonym to India, cricket. You don’t associate football with Mumbai and to make it worse, the stadium hosting the games is located on the outskirts of the city. It’s an hours’ drive from the southern most part of Mumbai, and that compiled with the horrendous traffic, doesn’t make it any journey to trod. Considering all these parameters, I wasn’t expecting a huge turn out, but I was proved completely wrong (and glad that I was).

As I walked into the stadium I could hear the buzz as players warmed up to kick off the tournament in Mumbai. The crowd was colorful and we could hear “Mumbai, Mumbai” echoing through the pillars. At this time of year – the heat is searing. Combined with the humidity, being outside for prolonged periods of time is a challenge, but that did not deter the supporters. The noise was deafening when the teams walked out of the tunnel, the noise was encouraging and satisfying and I thought to my self, this is going to be a good ride, and this team, this city is ready for the tournament.

The match against Pune City FC was a spectacle. The home team thumped their rivals 5-0 with Moritz scoring the first Indian Super League hattrick while Subhash Singh and Johan Letzelter chipping in with a goal each. Every touch by the opposition was jeered and every tackle by them was booed. The fans were loud and relentless, but they were at their loudest on the 68th minute when a certain Freddie Ljungberg made his home debut. The chants of “Freddie, Freddie” rang across the stadium as he made his way on to the pitch to the delight of the local supporters (particularly the Arsenal ones).

The second home match wasn’t the fairy tale but a bitter losing experience for the home fans as Mumbai crashed to a 2-0 defeat to Northeast United. Ricki Herbert’s side showed mettle as they absorbed the relentless attacking pressure from the home team in the first half and hit them with a goal mid-way through the second.

Mumbai were on a high after their 5-0 win over Pune City FC and as expected, were calling the shots and controlling the game. Subhash, Moritz, and Nadong Bhutia linking up nicely in the opening stages but just couldn’t break the deadlock. With Moritz’s injury, Freddie was subbed in at half time with a huge aplomb from the crowd once again. But things didn’t go according to the script as the Swede picked up an injury on the 73rd minute and was stretchered off. With Mumbai already having used their three substitutions, they were reduced to ten men for closing minutes. The game changed completely in the matter of 10 minutes as Mumbai went from the dominant side to the one chasing shadows. Things got worse as, on the 75th minute Pavel Cmovs received a second yellow for a foul on James Keene (the Englishman who made a name in Swedish football), leaving Mumbai with 9 men and chasing the game. Northeast finished it off in style as they bagged their second in the 91st minute, sealing their first away win of the tournament.

While watching the game unfold in front of me from the stadium, the fans didn’t lose their voice for a minute as they cheered their team on even when things looked bleak. 9 men, chasing a game didn’t dissuade the support. Their voices were loud and their chants were louder. It’s safe to say the referee bore the brunt of the anger as the boos were quite evident.

Loyalty is a funny trait and however corny it may sound, it is quite true, “You don’t chose your team, your team choses you.”  All those fans who walked in for the first time, went in to watch a football game which was marketed cleverly across the country but they all walked out of that stadium as Mumbai City FC supporters. As the crowd was moving out, I could hear people discussing the game, planning their next fixture and making new friends. I could hear and feel the disappointment after the loss against Northeast United and I could hear the concern over Freddie’s injury.

Many enthusiasts or cynics had dissed this tournament as a failure or as a gimmick to squeeze money out of people but somewhere deep down they have their fingers crossed too. They want this to work.

Written by Chintan Mehta

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