A joyous return after 735 days of exile

ISL welcomed fans back for the final to make football what it has always been — A Beautiful Game.

Grand re-entry: Kerala Blasters FC fans arrive at the the Fatorda stadium in Goa for the ISL final between Blasters and Hyderabad FC.   -  Focus Sports/ ISL

“Football is not the same without fans” has been a banal yet consistent narrative throughout the Indian Super League (ISL) this season. As COVID-19 ravaged lives, killing millions across the world, the vicissitudes of the game took a back seat as medical jargon like ‘quarantine’, ‘SPO2’ and ‘ventilators’ became household parlance. The 90-minute affair became a privilege instead, with fans sequestered in homes as the small clubs struggled for revenue from ticket sales and millionaires, instead of players themselves, became faces of a football tournament.

Rory Smith of the New York Times wrote — “Soccer (football) the sport can stop, soccer, the business, can’t.”

All of it changed in Indian football on March 20.

Smiling children walking hand-in-hand with their fathers, young boys and girls with club flags furling in their hands – all of it was back.

People had brought coins to throw at players as a sign of love — a practice popular in this part of the world. There were sprays of yellow outside the stadium, colouring the air in shades of Hyderabad and Kerala.

When 13,071 people embraced the Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium (PJN) in Fatorda on Sunday, football in India found a missing piece of the puzzle it had been groping for over 735 days to be exact.

Kingdom of fans: Fans cheer during the ISL final between Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters FC at the Fatorda stadium in Goa. Fans were finally allowed to throng the stadium after two years for the ISL 2021-22 final.   -  Focus Sports/ ISL


Football returned to the fans.

In the last two seasons, the league had tried several things to compensate for the absence of fans in stadiums, from audio artifices playing during the matches to zoom screens along the field with fans cheering their teams digitally.

When the final kicked off, the futile attempts waned into oblivion as the cheers underlined the obvious: Nothing can replace the original. The exhortations added pace to the tired legs in the last minutes of the match; it also helped scribes keep abreast of the happenings even as they typed away, chasing deadlines. This time, they knew the commotion that established it was not a practice ground routine.

This was the ISL final — one that belonged to the aficionados of the game and the players alike. When the match began, every player that stepped onto the pitch was greeted with cheers.

Ivan Vukomanovic, the head coach of Kerala Blasters, had lamented the absence of fans due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We need you to fight with us. We will do our best for you (fans). We have been missing you throughout the season, but now we want to see you. We want to see that yellow sea. We are waiting for you guys. Come on (in the Stadiums) on Sunday,” he had said before the match.

On Sunday, he got a stadium filled to almost three-fourths its capacity, with fans at their feet till the last second of a match that did not just offer 90-minutes of football, but about 45 minutes of bonus with box-office entertainment and a new ISL champion.

The PJN Stadium, also known as the Fatorda Stadium, was used as a containment centre for COVID-19 patients at the peak of the second wave, with the whole facility eventually becoming inadequate to accommodate patients.

The indoor facility of the concrete structure, which embraced fans with open arms on March 20, had ventilators lined up in its premises with queues of families of patients outside.

When football returned to that ecosystem, the macabre gave way to joy, ambulances gave way to team buses, and wails and sirens gave way to fan chants, club flags, giggles and days of joy.

In 2014, a Palestinian woman had made headlines when she planted a garden in spent grenade shells from the war in Gaza, instilling hope beyond death and destruction.

When fans returned to a concrete structure that housed COVID-19 patients and saw several people die of the same, they made it a football stadium again – giving hope and life a chance, much like that woman thousands of miles away

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