The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted many a memory and altered many a life. But Sunil Chhetri swears that he remembers every little detail from his footballing life from before, like “coming to the stadium, doing our warm up, seeing the fans and memorising all the chants”.
On Saturday, he will relive everything when Bengaluru FC returns to its traditional home, the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, after two stifling seasons in a bio-bubble, for its ISL (Indian Super League) season opener against NorthEast United FC.
“It’s like normal football again and supporters will be like big caged animals,” said head coach Simon Grayson.
“Now, they are going to be released into the open to create the atmosphere, the noise and the enthusiasm. I am sure they cannot wait, and the players too.”
After two disappointing campaigns, the buzz around the club appears to be back. The signings of star forward Roy Krishna and creative midfielder Javi Hernandez, the emergence of youngster N. Sivasakthi, and the Durand Cup win, ending a three-year barren run, have excited the supporters.
“Durand Cup will give us a lot of confidence,” said Grayson. “We had not won anything for two or three years now and winning matches brings confidence. There is a fine line there, with being over confident. But we are not having any complacency. There is not a player in my team who is thinking ‘NorthEast on Saturday is going to be a walk in the park’.”
The additions of Prabir Das, who formed a good on-field understanding with Krishna while at ATK Mohun Bagan, and defender Sandesh Jhingan indicate that BFC is desperate to contend for a title that it last won in 2018-19.
“I am just trying to make sure that I get into the first XI,” said a dead-serious Chhetri.
“That’s the level of competition. The youngsters are pushing us and a lot of seniors are insecure of their places. That’s one of the best teams to be at. Everyone is working very hard to be in the 18 first and then the 11. I am one of them.”
NorthEast, on the other hand, is a bit of an unknown quantity, with much of the team new. The well-loved Federico Gallego and the solid V.P. Suhair are no longer at the club which finished second from bottom last season. But coach Marco Balbul promised to “try and win the game”.
“We know that it is a tough game against BFC who have a good balance - in defence, and in attack,” Balbul said. “However, we have also come prepared; we have built a new, young team with experienced foreigners. The players have shown good motivation, and good preparation, and we will give our best.”