ISL 2019-20 Diary: A howler on the pitch and an abandoned game

An indignant Kerala Blasters side protested a free kick awarded — seemingly unfairly — against them, and a match between NorthEast United and Chennaiyin fell victim to protests in Guwahati.

Chennaiyin FC clash with the referee during their game against Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League last week.

It was a game that lived up to the hype surrounding it. The supporters of Chennaiyin FC and Kerala Blasters thronged the stands of Chennai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and were boisterous in cheering their teams on. There were two goals in the opening 15 minutes, including a thunderbolt from Bartholomew Ogbeche for the Blasters from a distance.

But it was a period of five minutes in the first half where no football took place that grabbed the headlines at the final whistle.

Referee Om Prakash Thakur incorrectly awarded a free kick to the home side after what appeared to be a foul from Chennaiyin’s Anirudh Thapa on the Blasters’ Seityasen Singh. Nerijus Valskis quickly restarted play, setting Chennaiyin on the counterattack against a flat-footed Blasters defence, which seemed confused by the decision. Even before Valskis put the ball in the net, a reporter in the press box yelled: “That’s a Blasters free kick!”

When Valskis scored, the referee signalled the goal for Chennaiyin, which infuriated the Blasters players and coaching staff. We were up from our seats and crowded over to the TV nearby for clarification on what had transpired on the pitch.

On the pitch, Thakur and his team were hounded by the Blasters, trying to convince them that the foul was supposed to be in favour of their side. In between all this, someone asked, “Are they walking off in protest?”

It didn’t come to that. Bizarrely, the Blasters were successful in their attempts in getting the goal overturned. And now it was the turn of Chennaiyin players to be irked by Thakur’s call. FIFA laws state that the referee may not overturn an incorrect call after play has been restarted.

“Whether that free kick is given rightly or wrongly, once play restarts, you cannot pull it back. That’s what the rule says,” said Chennaiyin coach Owen Coyle after his home debut. “In Jamshedpur, the boy (Farukh Choudhary) punched the ball into the net against us and nothing happened.”

In Coyle’s first match in charge against Jamshedpur FC, he was hard done by a late equaliser where the ball was deflected off Choudhary’s hand into the net.

“The big goal-changing decisions, we have to get it right to improve the league. Otherwise people looking on will wonder what’s going on,” Coyle stressed.

It was only match 42 of the season, where we have seen a string of refereeing errors that has altered the course of the results. Fortunately for Chennaiyin, it scored almost immediately from the restart after the disallowed goal. The incident seemingly spurred the side on to a 3-1 win over its fierce rival.

- An unsavoury battle -

The political turmoil embroiling the country had its first impact on Assam and the many casualties it recorded in its aftermath included the Indian Super League match featuring Guwahati-based outfit NorthEast United FC and the visiting Chennaiyin FC.

Two-time champion Chennaiyin came visiting with the hope of turning around its fortune under its new Scottish coach Coyle. Looking to garner more points from its East India tour, the team was on a high, having played out a creditable 1-1 draw against Jamshedpur FC in its previous outing in the Steel City. Coyle was looking to keep up the momentum and bag some valuable points to secure a revival following his compatriot John Gregory’s departure.

 

But that was not to happen as mayhem took centre stage on the eve of the match, which was scheduled for December 12, and the city of Guwahati turned into a battle zone that saw Beirut-like scenes, with protestors burning tyres on every road and intersection.

As chaos took over the usually quiet scenes of the biggest city of India’s North East, the police resorted to firing in an unsuccessful bid to bring about order. With people dying on the streets, the city was brought under curfew, ending the possibility of a sporting battle that the football aficionados of the city had been waiting for at the Indira Gandhi Stadium.

Chennaiyin’s hopes of becoming the conquistador turned sour and it ended up becoming the captive of the worsening law-and-order situation. Coyle and his team were locked up in their hotel, helplessly seeing incidents of violence on the streets for two days. The team finally managed to find its way out to the airport under heavy security and reached base, nurturing memories of encounters that they have hardly envisaged as sportspersons.