Football frenzy grips Guwahati ahead of World Cup qualifier

Thursday's contest against Oman in Guwahati kicks off India's FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign, and also the joint-qualification process for the AFC Asian Cup China 2023.

On the eve of the India-Oman World Cup qualifier, Guwahati that has basked in steady sunshine for weeks has a cloud cover.   -  ANIRUDH VELAMURI

A steady drizzle and cold winds greeted scribes in Guwahati on Wednesday. On the eve of the India-Oman World Cup qualifier, a city that has basked in steady sunshine for weeks has a cloud cover.

From the airport, the stadium is more than an hour's ride and the taxi driver curses himself for missing the highway – forcing him to drive through the city traffic during peak hours.

Small talk follows, but the topic quickly changes to football – India's World Cup qualifier against Oman in particular, for every third streetlight has a banner advertising Thursday's match.

"Guwahati is a nice place, lots to see. But you should see a football match, the atmosphere.... the best in the country. The best," he says, pointing to one of the many hoardings along the road.

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Will tickets be available at such short notice? "Goodluck," he says, with a heavy Assamese accent. "Sold out quickly. Football here is crazy, even smaller games," he adds, clicking his tongue.

Buoyant support

Football has such a huge following in Guwahati that the sponsor on the banners changes every few meters. Almost all are local businesses or companies looking to cash in on the frenzy.   -  ANIRUDH VELAMURI

 

The local government and the All India Football Federation seem to have taken every step possible to advertise the game. The big radio stations remind us of the clash against Oman and promise regular updates "only on their channel".

Football has such a huge following here that the sponsor on the banners changes every few meters. Almost all are local businesses or companies looking to cash in on the frenzy.

As the stadium approaches, the driver points to a bunch of hills on the other side of the road and says, "The other side, that's Meghalaya." He pauses, before adding, "It is another state in the North-East, a separate state."

Of the 10 Indian Super League teams, the seven North-East states share only one. The proximity helps as "thousands of mad people" come from across the borders on hired buses – especially for the ISL games.

"It will be better today," says the hotel manager, on the day of the match. He has a worried look and is trying to get in touch with someone from the local federation. "I promised him (son) long back (to take him to the India game) and now I can't find any tickets," he says in a regretful tone. "Are they sold out? Full stadium? Really? Pachees, Pachees hazar! (Twenty-five, Twenty-five thousand)."

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Fans' enthusiasm

The match day draws the football supporters to the streets. A North-East United or an Aizawl FC shirt becomes a regular sight during the early morning stroll down the local market.

No Indian jerseys are spotted as "they are too costly" says one of the waiters at a 'small hole' breakfast cafe. "Does it matter what we wear though?" he asks. "You'll see us in the stadium and even if you don't, you will hear us," he adds in an almost threatening tone.

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There are rumours that a special arrangement has been made to bring fans to the stadium from across the city.

"Do we need a ticket to get onto the bus," wonders one of the visitors at the cafe before being told by a friend that "ticket or not, we'll go. We'll see who stops us." Local heroes are valued here. Hima Das is a regular sighting on the huge billboards across the city, advertising almost every product that's sold here.

Chhetri mania

But when it comes to football, there's one name that regularly pops up. "Sunil Chhetri, who else? He's the best. Best ever," says the manager of the cafe.

"He should move to North East (United) if you ask me. He needs a challenge and with him, we will win the ISL, the I-League and the World Cup. Put in a word, I am sure he will listen."

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"He'll take us to the World Cup, India's first-ever. And I will go to Qatar to see him play!"

But Chhetri will be 38 by the time the next edition of the World Cup rolls in and India is yet to find a successor – both in terms of leading the team and as a persona.

"Why does everyone talk of his age? People don't die at 36, 36, 37. Watch him score a hat-trick tonight, I bet my house that he will."

A commanding win, with Chhetri's fourth career hat-trick for the country.

No pressure then, India.