Friday, October 23, 2015

Before the whistle blows....

The energy and enthusiasm shown by the crowd before the start of an Indian Super League match at Kochi is infectious

By Shevlin Sebastian

Am I the only girl who has come to see the match?” says 14-year-old Sneha, as she walks on the road just outside the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium at Kochi on Sunday. This is an hour before the start of the Indian Super League (ISL) match between Kerala Blasters (KB) and the Delhi Dynamos. Indeed, for a moment, she seems to be right.

There is a swarm of youngsters, all males, wearing yellow KB T-shirts and headbands. Many are carrying pennants. Some are blowing bugles, while one, wearing a white-haired wig, is using a vuvuzela (a plastic horn). But Sneha’s apprehensions are soon becalmed, as she spots two middle-aged couples, as well as a young girl, in a white top and blue jeans.

Inside the stadium, she gets a seat next to two girls who have painted the letters, 'KB', on their cheeks. The atmosphere is electric. Apart from a constant noise of the drums, people are shouting and screaming.

The players step on to the pitch for their warm-up. A KB trainer places red, white, blue and green markers on the ground.

In the middle of the ground, a group of workers are pulling away huge tarpaulin sheets which had been placed on the pitch earlier because of a steady drizzle.

Another group places drink coolers on the sidelines. Meanwhile, a few youngsters stand on their seats and crane their necks towards the VIP box. “Has Sachin Tendulkar come?” asks one. “Not yet,” says another.

Soon, the KB players begin a practice session at one side of the field. They run between the markers, twisting and turning. Then they have heading-the-ball practice, and kicking back the ball to a player who throws it at them. KB midfielder Victor Herrero Forcada takes a corner kick and swerves the ball into the net. He has one advantage: there is no goalkeeper.

At the other end, Dynamos player/manager Roberto Carlos, a Brazilian legend, gently lobs the ball up and down on his feet, the ball seemingly an extension of his body. Since the stadium is awash in yellow, somebody quipped, “We could be in Brazil.”

In the stands, mineral water bottles and Pepsi drinks are selling quickly. People are feeling thirsty. Though there is a slight drizzle, it is still humid.

Meanwhile, as the players come out for the start of the match, at 6.50 p.m., there is a huge roar. But it is not for the KB team. Instead, Sachin has arrived. And the entire stadium waves at him. The legendary batsman’s hold on the Indian public remains rock-solid and unbreakable.

Suddenly announcer Anjali Uthup Kurian shouts, “Kochi, are you ready?”

Yes,” is the collective scream.

All sorts of placards are put up. But Sneha is rightly puzzled by one of Che Guevara. Indeed, what is the legendary Argentine Marxist revolutionary doing at a football match at Kochi? It looks like borrowed heroes have always been the Malayali’s weakness.

Over-enthusiastic youths crowd the aisles. But, for a change, a firm Assistant Sub-Inspector Abdul Khader sends them all packing to the back. So it becomes easy for bona-fide ticket-holders to walk up and down.  

At 6.55 p.m., an extraordinary thing happens: there is a pin-drop silence in the crowd. That's because the national anthem is being played. It feels surreal, this sudden quiet. But the deep respect and love for the country is palpable. Everybody stands at attention. But the moment the anthem is over, there is a huge roar from 62,000 people.

Watching a match live is so much better than seeing it on TV,” says Sneha. Indeed, she is surprised at how crowded the pitch is, the players so close to each other, unlike on TV, where you feel there are large spaces, thanks to the distortion of the camera lens. Then she looks to the right, and says, “I can spot a student from my school. Three of my friends said that they would be coming today. This is so much fun.”

Yes, indeed, the action before the game is riveting.  

And, on the dot, at 7 p.m., the match begins. Or, as the theme song of the ISL says, ‘C’mon India, let’s football’.

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