It wasn’t the perfect night for Chennaiyin FC supporters. But it wasn’t about having a perfect night. Their team had returned to its backyard after a long wait. 957 days to be exact. It was all about seeing those familiar faces back at where they were introduced to each other for the first time.
“We never thought that would be the last home game in two years,” says Chennaiyin fan Adhithya, who was at the Marina Arena on February 29, 2020, when his team walloped FC Goa 4-1 in the first leg of the semifinal. Adhithya and his two friends had booked their tickets for the final in Goa before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the game behind closed doors.
It’s 4.45 pm and we walked from the parking area towards the main gate, where hundreds of fans have queued outside the narrow Raja Muttiah road. The idea was to recreate the welcome they gave their team two years ago. As the numbers continue to build, Manikandan, who is studying for his UPSC exams, joined the band with his parents for company. “I was here with my father for the last home game, I have brought my mom along too this time,” he says.
While the welcome was meant for the home side, it was the away team’s — Bengaluru FC — bus which was trying to force its way through the cramped road. They spot the player they love to hate. Sunil Chhetri. India’s greatest footballer. But he is the captain of their fiercest rival. A local derby (excuse the throwaway usage)! A chant with a cuss word is aimed at Chhetri telling him where he can go. He flashes a smile back at them. Chhetri knows it's all love.
Mohammed Navaz crossed the road with his 10-year-old son Sufi hoping to catch Chennaiyin’s team bus. Navaz says his son had a speech delay growing up and happened to take him to a home game in the 2017-18 season. “He somehow started picking up the chants and songs, and his speech gradually improved. We have been to every home game since. He is the youngest season-ticket holder at the club when he was just four years old,” says a beaming Navaz. Many know of their story and a reporter points a mic towards Sufi to talk but he refuses. “He is probably shy because everything was behind closed doors for two years,” jokes Navaz.
It’s close to 6 pm and the thaara thapattais (drums) are being belted at pace. The voices grow louder as the Chennaiyin team bus comes in sight. Blue and yellow flares are lit up, the flags are waved with more gusto before people get in front of the bus and submerge the road. Anirudh Thapa's — Chennaiyin skipper — last memory of the city was the welcome he received in 2020. He surely would have relived that day again. When the team line-ups were being read out, it was the Dehradun-born Thapa, into his seventh season with the club, who received the loudest cheers from the stands.
The home side had loud cheers for one name in the Bengaluru XI though – Karaikudi’s Sivasakthi Narayanan, before he swung in a delicious cross for his side in the fourth minute for Roy Krishna’s header which drained their noise out.
Backing the Blues
It wasn’t just all about the Chennaiyin supporters though. A 60-odd travelling support from Bengaluru is back on their away days. Some have been to the city for three straight games before the pandemic hit. The first 15 minutes saw Bengaluru fans outsinging and taunting their adversaries. Chennaiyin coach Thomas Brdaric said ‘the spark’ could flow either way from the pitch to the stands, but this time, it was the players, who needed to conjure the fire. The fans had done their bit with a strong 12,700 attendance – the club’s biggest for an opening game of the season.
Around the 15th-minute mark, the team sprang back to life with a surge forward with Prasanth Karuthadathkuni’s shot straight at Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, drawing the first ‘ooos’ from the stands. From there on, it was wave after wave of attacks with the fans marching to the team’s rhythm and the players being willed on by the vociferous support. Their starboy Thapa was in the thick of it, operating in a free role behind the striker, mesmerising them with his touches and turns.
With seconds left before stoppage time, Chennaiyin went on a one-last attacking salvo, with Prasanth slotting the ball past Gurpreet into the net to send the fans into delirium.
Chennaiyin looked the likeliest to get the winner, but all hopes evaporated when Debjit Majumder received a straight red in the 82nd minute. In the end, though, the 1-1 draw seemed more than a point. When the full-time whistle blew, the Chennaiyin players were down on their haunches after a monumental effort. They were greeted with cheers from the stands. The players and the staff returned the favour to them. Brdaric was seen pumping the mood up in the stands 10 minutes post full-time.
“I like it,” said Brdaric, of the home support. “Let’s continue to do that. I hope everyone can be infected by this game and the atmosphere, and I hope more fans can come for the next home game.”
It’s a new dawn under Brdaric, and after a tough couple of seasons inside a bio-bubble, a spark has been lit in Chennai.