The Mumbai Football Arena was not exactly full to the brim in Mumbai City FC’s 1-1 draw against Jamshedpur FC in Match 13 of the Indian Super League (ISL), but it certainly wasn’t dull.
Press boxes, with their eerie silence and bone-chilling air conditioning, often detach the ones present inside from the raw energy of the crowd outside. But Mumbai City’s home stadium has an open press box, allowing members of the press to imbibe the passion exuded by the fans in the arena. Amidst deadlines, fact-checking and the nitty-gritty of filing copies, everyone becomes a ‘fan’, at least for a while.
Mumbai head coach Des Buckingham, says that he wants his team to function on a philosophy mainly centred around the pillars of attacking football. While Buckingham’s team may be a work-in-progress, he does have one thing handed to him on a plate - the luxury of having a passionate fanbase.
Backed by vociferous chants (at times profane in nature) of the West Coast Brigade, the Mumbai faithful did their best to motivate their team to a win, but it wasn’t their day. While the win did not come, the applause certainly did, at full-time.
The diary chose Lokhandwala as his base during his one-night stay in Mumbai. Ideally, it was a 30-minute drive from the hotel to the stadium, but familiar enough with tales of the city’s infamous traffic, leaving well ahead of time seemed like a good idea. After being blatantly rejected by three auto-rickshaws, the diary resorted to a cab and reached the venue at around 4 PM local time.
“ Bhaiyya teen extra ticket milega? Mere paas hein but dost log ko chahiye (Brother, do you have three extra tickets? I have mine, but my friends need them)- these were the first words the diary heard as he peered inside the venue from the main entry gate. It reminded him of his days in Kolkata and the last-minute ticket hunting with friends, especially before the ‘Kolkata Derby’ (East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan).
Aayush Shah, who had come to see the match with three of his friends, started supporting Mumbai City when Sunil Chhetri joined the club in 2015.
“It broke my heart when Sunil Chhetri left the club, but I have been a supporter ever since. We have lost players over the years. Recently, Amrinder’s [Singh] exit also made me sad. Players will come and go, but Mumbai City will remain. The club inspires me. We have some exciting new players, so let’s see what happens,” said Shah.
A personal connection with Mumbai City
While the bio-bubble was a necessity for the safety of the players, it can be said without much argument that it was torture for the fans not to be able to watch their team from the stands.
Jacob. V is one of those who couldn’t be happier that things are “back to normal and how they should be.”
But Jacob is not just a regular fan. If things go as planned, he might have a Mumbai City player in his family. Accompanying Jacob, was his 10-year-old son, Joseph, who plays for the Mumbai City U-11s.
“My favourite player in the team is Rahul Bheke because he was the first player I spoke to,” said Joseph smiling, who couldn’t be happier attending his first home game of the season.
“For two years, we have been seeing our team on TV. It feels fantastic to be back here and for my son too. To see the players he idolises in their flesh, is inspiring for him,” says Jacob.
Trust the process
Be it the players or fans, at the end of the day winning titles take precedence.
Mumbai City FC has spoilt its fans by reaching great heights - one being the first and only club to win the ISL title and League Shield in the same season (2020-21) under Sergio Lobera. Now, that the team is going through a dry-patch Jacob believes that it is the perfect time for the fans to show their undying love for the club.
“Obviously, the team reached great heights under Lobera, but Des [Buckingham] has come in with his own philosophy and style. We are used to seeing our club win, but the fans must give him time. We went to the AFC Champions League and became the first Indian club to win a match in the competition (1-0 win vs Iraq Air Force club, where Rahul Bheke scored the winning goal). The Durand Cup final loss was disappointing, but I think the team is headed on the right track,” he said.
“It is important to win titles but maintaining a certain quality of football is important too.”
With the 5:30 PM kick-off time nearing, the diary made his way towards the media gate, dodging the flood of oncoming fans. For many, it was their first home game after the two excruciating years of Covid-19.
One such fan was Rushav Jain, who was hurrying towards the entry gate. Wrapped in blue and carrying a flag bearing Mumbai City FC’s logo, he was kind enough to pose for a photo, but when the diary asked him whether he was up for a quick chat, he smiled and said, “I am so sorry, but my friends are waiting for me at the gate.” After his polite rejection for an interview, his brisk walk turned into a full-on sprint.
Mumbai City has fans from all walks of life. There are some who use their passion for the club to earn their livelihood. One such fan is Vyasuddin bhai, who is almost impossible to miss with his bellowing shouts of, “ Team jersey sirf 150 mein (Team jerseys for only 150).”
“My major source of income happens on matchdays. Earlier I used to travel all around the country selling jerseys, but now, I mainly stay in Mumbai. Our club is Mumbai’s pride. It is not just a club for me, but my source of livelihood.”
“On matchdays, I usually sell around 40-50 jerseys, and my prices range from 150-200,” he adds.
Asked if he goes inside the stadium to watch the team, he says, “I mainly watch on the TV. The people around here know me, and I even get tickets. Sometimes, I go inside, but that does not happen very often.”
Lallianzuala Chhangte and Daniel Chima Chukwu scored a goal each for Mumbai City FC and Jamshedpur FC in the 1-1 draw. While it was a frustrating outing for the Islanders, for a lot of their fans it was a happy day.
The day came full circle for the diary- while hurrying towards the press conference box he managed to catch a glimpse of Aayush leaving the venue with his friends, deep in post-match discussion. Mumbai City FC didn’t get the three points, but Aayush got the three tickets he was looking for.