'The Kanteeravazo’, bragging rights and stare-offs: Bengaluru-Chennaiyin’s bubbling rivalry

A goal drought at one end, a string of draws at the other - rivals Bengaluru and Chennaiyin brave similar demons ahead of their clash on Sunday.

The image of rival skippers Sunil Chhetri and Henrique Sereno from a game in 2018 is one the ISL's most iconic frames - symbolic of a budding rivalry rooted in competitiveness and respect.   -  ISL/ Sportzpics

Bengaluru FC vs Chennaiyin FC is not a derby. It’s certainly not old enough to be labelled a tense rivalry. The two South Indian cities have a long drawn out political, geographical and sporting history. And yet, the first-ever meeting between the two sides in the Indian Super League (ISL) had an air of anticipation surrounding it.

On that evening in December, 2017, Chennaiyin nicked a late winner at the home of the then latest ISL entrant at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. The three points were sweeter for the travelling fans since the goal came from their local boy - Dhanpal Ganesh, which left Bengaluru frustrated.

“It was a great feeling to score the winner against BFC,” Ganesh remembers of his first goal for the club.

READ: Bengaluru FC, Chennaiyin seek change in fortune

The final whistle brought on some drama as players and staff on both sides squared up against each other. That frame of Bengaluru and Chennaiyin skippers Sunil Chhetri and Henrique Sereno engaged in a stare-off was a lasting image from the season.

Bengaluru goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who had returned to India from Norway that year, admits ‘things did get a little out of hand’. “It was a very big game and there was so much at stake. I’d pin it [scuffle] down to the occasion and the intensity that surrounds this fixture," says Sandhu.

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Sunil Chhetri scored in Bengaluru's win away to Chennaiyin in the 2017-18 season.   -  ISL/Sportzpics

 

Then Bengaluru coach Albert Roca felt the fracas was a result of Chennaiyin lacking respect for his men on the night. Two years on from that evening, Sereno, suggests Roca’s comments were a sign of recognition of a difficult opposition.

“He saw in us a united and a difficult team to beat... We were the best team and we showed that in every single match against them, even when we lost in Chennai [1-3 loss at the Nehru Stadium in February, 2018] that we were better,” says the former Chennaiyin centre-back.

Chennaiyin clearly claimed the bragging rights in their encounters in the first season when they beat Bengaluru again in its own backyard to lift the ISL title in March, 2018. It is believed that Chennaiyin’s celebrations sparked another melee.

Sandhu remembers, “We were involved in a final last season again and there was a lot of respect between us and FC Goa, which was nice to see.”

Supporters add relevance

According to Ganesh, this particular fixture ‘holds extra relevance’ because of the supporters. “It's a match that means a lot to our fans, and having beaten them in the 2017-18 final, it has gained that added importance,” the Vyasarpadi-born midfielder explains.

Players aren't oblivious to the pre-match shenanigans involving the fans. “To an extent, yes,” says the experienced Chhetri. “Certain fixtures mean so much more to the supporters, and it’s nice to feed off their energy.”

Meanwhile, the Indian skipper is excited by the fact that the teams have never played out a stalemate thus far. He also adds, “To be honest, we haven’t played each other enough times for the fixture to be branded a rivalry, but we’re on track at getting there."

Chennaiyin defeated Bengaluru in its own yard to lift its second ISL title. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

 

His teammate Gurpreet points out, "I think everyone would agree when I say games against Chennaiyin are more intense than the ones against Kerala Blasters. We’ve had far closer contests with Chennaiyin."

Upsetting the favourite

For Sereno, the fixture had the build-up of a ‘derby’ with the local players and staff explaining the history between the two cities.

While the pre-match talk spurred him on, the priority was to elevate the quality of play keeping title aspirations in mind. “At that time, everyone, including the media, said that Bengaluru had the best team and for me, that wasn’t the case. I tried to push my colleagues hard to get that victory because mentally for us it would be very important for the rest of the season.”

Sereno draws a colourful parallel for Chennaiyin’s ISL title triumph on Bengaluru’s home to Uruguay’s 1950 World Cup win final upset win over Brazil at the famous Maracana. That result gave birth to the term ‘El Maracanazo’, which translates to ‘the agony of Maracana.’

“They (Bengaluru) weren’t used to losing. We did the same but in Bengaluru. It was Kanteeravazo!,” he says.

Earlier this year, Chennaiyin boss John Gregory noted that the match against Bengaluru brings the best out of his men and its supporters, irrespective of form. Even during the midst of a nightmare season in 2018-19, a rare bright moment was the 2-1 win over BFC in Chennai.

However, Gurpeet begs to disagree.  “I wouldn’t necessarily agree about form being completely irrelevant in such fixtures. It’s more about how well you channelise the energy that the game brings along with it.”

Chennaiyin midfielder Anirudh Thapa has featured in all five meetings between the sides. As he heads to the Kanteerava with his teammates - with both sides looking for their first win of the season - he says, “Obviously, we see what the fans are talking about. And we understand the importance of this match, both for the fans as well as for us in the context of this season.”

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Dhanpal Ganesh captured the imagination of the Chennaiyin FC faithful with his late winner against Bengaluru in their first ever tie at Sree Kanteerava Stadium in 2017.   -  ISL/Sportzpics



The revered enemy

The first round of this season’s matches will have another subplot named Raphael Augusto. Augusto swapped shirts on a free transfer this summer. The Brazilian midfielder, who scored the goal which proved to be the winner in the 2018 final against Bengaluru, was revered by the Chennaiyin faithful after he spent four seasons with the club.

Thapa and Ganesh who used to play in the midfield pivot behind Augusto at Chennaiyin for the last two seasons, don’t think their former team-mate’s presence in the opposing camp will be an added motivation on Sunday. “We know what he is capable of, but every player at BFC is capable of producing quality,” says a cautious Ganesh.

Chennaiyin finds itself in a goal drought of sorts, with the barren run stretching over a period of six matches. Incidentally, the last time Chennaiyin found the back of the net in the ISL was against Bengaluru in February. On the other hand, Bengaluru is winless from its opening three games this season. Both teams will be itching to step foot on the turf for that crucial victory.

Despite being a fledgling rivalry, the match-ups between Bengaluru and Chennaiyin certainly have the legs to become a stand-out fixture in the ISL calendar and Indian football.

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