The road is long but the belief is strong – West Block Blues on National Duty

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A fifty-two square feet banner unfurled at the West Block in the Kanteerava Stadium reads “The road is long, but the the belief is everything. Stand up for Indian football”- West Block Blues.”

Rewind four years from today: large sized banners were of a mental incapacity; chanting an unimaginative occasional uproar in close calls; and Bangalore, a city of relative footballing insignificance. But, tonight’s fifty-two square foot banner represents quite the contrast, a signification of a remarkable turnaround in supporter behaviour. A testament to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels.

I’ve often wondered why we are what we are. What’s all this for? The answer to this conundrum I shall stumble upon one day. But till then my quest in search for the meaning of fandom will continue far and wide. In this episode of my uncharted journey, I’m a stone’s throw from the milieu, in a city I’ve called my home for the last six years. I’m seated at the West Block in the Kanteerava Stadium, amongst the fans that call themselves the West Block Blues. This isn’t a Bengaluru FC game, but a crucial AFC Cup Qualifier -India vs Kirgizstan. But, that barely changes a thing, they do what they’ve got to do, they do what they want to do- Stand up for Indian football.

One, United.

I have a date for the day – Meghana Irde, a Liverpool fan I met last year at a pub in Bangalore. For her and for many during her time, Gerard was to Liverpool like Beckham was to Manchester United, in terms of good looks that is. Fast forward fifteen years, Meg is an active member of the Bangalore Kop (Official LFC fan club in Bangalore) and Gerard a fond memory of how Liverpool came about for her; aesthetic reasons are long a bygone.

She also happens to be one of the many women visiting the Kanteerava for the game today. For her, today’s visit to the football is not a one-off, but rather a routine trip to the West Block of Bengaluru FC- a club she has pledged her allegiance to locally. She exhibits the sort of dualism that is uncommon amongst football fans in India-simultaneous European and local fanaticism. A situation made even rarer by her gender. Women like Meg are an exemplar of why football in Bengaluru has set standards for the country to follow. Today, however, my focus is solely on the fans of the nation as a whole and not the fans of Bengaluru FC. I’ll keep that for another day.

Matchday Makeup!

I’m at the Kanteerava by five o clock, almost three hours ahead of kickoff. Arriving early comes with its perks: one, it gives me time to sort my tickets which I always tend to leave till the last minute; two, an opportunity to get some quality quotes and opinions from the fans; and three, an assured parking spot.

Fans have come in from different parts of the country. Groups from Kerala Blasters, Chennaiyan FC, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan walk side by side sporting the colours of the clubs they represent. There’s even the odd fan from Mumbai and Gujarat.

The East Bengal scarf hangs around my neck. It’s the club I call my own, and for once it’s okay to don the colours of a rival team at the home ground of Bengaluru FC. After all, it’s the nation that we all chant for today, irrespective of club colours and regional allegiances.

Yet, tonight’s success as fans hangs in the balance. The onus is on the host city and the local team to make the numbers, for, in a country as large as India, travel is a luxury of both time and money. At club games, the away support is inversely proportionate to the distance from home, unless it’s the diaspora that’s left home for a different city. Over the years, the city of Bengaluru has never disappointed, it’s fans, like the ones of the Ultras of East Bengal, has been a fresh breath of air for Indian football, capable of bringing the house down with the voices of just a couple of hundred. Being a Tuesday, the stadium isn’t expected to fill to its brim, but no less is expected of this vociferous bunch of Bangaloreans that already walk the premises of the Kanteerava three hours before kick-off.

I’ve been getting the regular glance and the occasional jeer from the locals as I make my way around the stadium compound in my East Bengal scarf documenting instances which I can use on my blog. The scarf draws attention, but also makes it easier to strike a conversation.

One, United. East Bengal FC, Chennaiyin FC and Benguluru FC fans in the same frame.

The West Block Blues on national duty

Waseem spots me doing the rounds and lets off a sarcastic hello pointing at my scarf. He’s a known face in the footballing circles, often appearing in videos made on Bengaluru FC.  With him is Vijay.  The two of them lead the chants from the stands and are much of the similar mould as the capos of East Bengal: gregarious, imposing and vocal. The West Block Blues are about fifty in strength at the core, with many hundred others who join during match days, but these fifty are the ones instrumental in planning every detail of the aural and visual artistry on display. One of theirs, clad in a traditional white Indian attire (kurta-pajamas), has just arrived from Chennai and has made his way straight to the ground. His pals greet him with the lines adapted from a nationalistic song- “Mere desh ki dharti” (the soil of my country). Clearly, the mood has been set. The Indian national team has just touched 100 in the FIFA rankings for the first time in 24 years, the spirit of the fans is understandably in alignment.

Waseem, Vijay and I are surrounded by a bunch of Bengaluru FC fans while we engage in a dialogue. The ensuing debate is legitimate: Who has the better set of fans, East Bengal or Bengaluru FC? Who’s are the loudest? They want my honest answer.

The wrong kind of question to be asking someone wearing an East Bengal scarf; the answer is very well obvious. However, Vijay does have a point about the Kanteerava being acoustically inferior compared to the Barasat Stadium (the home of East Bengal). The circular construct, with a running track around the playing surface, makes it difficult for sound to reverberate.

Wish we still had our old stadium. This one’s not even our stadium, we need to move. If they say get out, we have to get out.” laments Vijay initially referring to the Bangalore Football stadium which had been their home in the formative years of the club.

Yet, this isn’t the first time I’m coming here to watch a match, the last time I was here, I was cheering for my adopted city, hoping they would foil any chances our much-hated local rivals, Mohun Bagan, had of winning the league. But that, unfortunately, wasn’t to be. Though I’ll admit I walked away captivated. Captivated by the rambunctious vibes emitted by those seated in the West Block.

Eager onlookers at the West Block of the Kanteerva Stadium

As a journalist, it is pertinent that I remain unbiased, and for that very reason, I even-handedly hold the fans of both East Bengal and Bengaluru FC in the same bright light. While arguments over superiority will continue whether I deliver a verdict or not, in my eyes both sets of fans are serving the same larger purpose- bringing an atmosphere to the stands that one possibly could never have imagined in Indian football. And for that, I have immense respect.

It’s understandable why some of these BFC fans echo melancholy over the fact that East Bengal and Bengaluru FC would be playing in different leagues from the next season.

We might hate you guys, but we respect your passion at the end of the day,” says Waseem.

You know, the thing that’ll we’ll miss the most in the ISL is the rivalry with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. We do not want to get into a rivalry with the Kerala Blasters or Pune City. What the fuck will we fight about, Kayani Biscuits?” says another guy. He happens to be married to a Bengali, but clearly, in terms of regional loyalties, he’s managed to steer clear of any influence a domineering Bengali wife is known to exert.

Apparently, a joke is already in the market much before I had written about it. A section of the BFC fans notoriously breaks into the chant “Sachin! Sachin!” as the group of Kerala Blasters fans pass them.

One country, two parallel top-tier leagues, rivals pulled apart by an administrative circus. Who’s winning? I ask again.

Every cloud though has a silver lining. At least, that seems to be the general consensus amongst the BFC fans. They feel the ISL is a step forward for them in the right direction, a move that is imperative for improving the business side of things.

One must recognize that BFC is a club that is just four years old, and to have achieved what they have in this short time span may be remarkable, but culturally and historically they aren’t endowed with the numbers like their rivals from Bengal.

Waseem puts this across eloquently:

Because we’ve learnt it the hard way, we’ve worked for it, for us and I’ll be unbiased, we have the best fans, but we need to achieve something called quantity, right? We need to achieve the numbers, we need to fill the stadium, the ISL hopefully will help us fill it. We are loud as eff, but we also need an aesthetic spectacle

Only time will tell if the ISL is the right move, but one thing’s for sure, Waseem and his group will never bore.

I’ll Crack my voice, I would like you to follow – The Capo’s of West Block Blues

At the moment, Waseem sports a Bengaluru FC jersey. He’s promised his friends that he’ll be changing into the India strip shortly despite the discomfort of having to wear a size smaller.

Vijay gives him some stick for complaining, “At least you have a jersey, where the eff do people buy this from? They don’t even sell the damn national team jersey in the store

Vijay sports a blue formal shirt, he says that’s the only blue he could fish out from his wardrobe apart from the Bengaluru FC jersey he owns a piece of clothing he’s not interested in wearing today. “It’s a national team game, that’s how it is for me man,” he responds dismissing any chances of pulling on the BFC jersey.

Sivan accompanies me to the ticket counter; Additional tickets to the previously sold out allocation for the West Block have just been released and had it not been for his timely intervention, I would have had to shell out twice the marked price to a tout for a ticket.

I support Man United but nowadays it’s more Bengaluru FC than United.” he says on our way back from the ticket counter.

Wow! I’ve never heard of that before: falling out of love as a Satellite fan, and falling in love with the local team!” I exclaim. “Not really,” he says, “I still do watch United, but one thing I maintain is that your home club should come first”. Where do I start with the hashtags and where do I end? #respect? #ifnotnowthenwhen?

But Sivan isn’t the only one. All along, Nachiket, Aryan, Aarav and a couple of other friends of theirs have been quietly observing my interactions with the other BFC fans. These guys form the younger crop of the West Block Blues- roughly between the ages of thirteen to sixteen, school going kids.

Going to the football aged sixteen, let alone thirteen, for me are memories that are etched in ambivalence. The thrill of sneaking out for the game also came with its risks of getting a hiding if caught. My friends and I could manage just a few games a season, compare that to these guys who are regulars in the stands. They tell me they’ve barely missed a home game since the club’s inception in 2013. And that’s not it. Their presence isn’t just felt in the numbers that make up the West Block, but also off the pitch in their respective schools and localities. At such a young age, they’ve taken the onus on themselves to make a difference by attempting to convert those who find European allegiances more fashionable than local fealty.  “As a friend says, Team in land is better than team in England” prides Nachiket, a sixteen-year-old Liverpool die-hard who’s practical enough to analyze the magnitude of the difference his presence would make locally than confining himself to just the role of a Satellite fan.

Take my word –  the future is bright

Meg, Sivan, Nachiket and his friends are the true signs of change, not the cricketer-in-the-VIPBox induced ephemerals we witness in the ISL.

My best bet at bonding with these kids is my all so famous trick question- Guess which club I support? After fifteen odd unsuccessful tries which much to my dislike included Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa, they finally come up with West Bromwich Albion. The very next question from Aryan is, “Is Pulis staying?”. The news of our unpleasant though effective style of football has travelled faster than I had expected.

Turn it up so that I can feel it…turn it up so that I can be near it

The security at the gates is strict, no backpacks allowed. Meg and her massive handbag is instrumental in smuggling my recording equipment inside the stadium. Once inside, I strap my GoPro to my head, this time making doubly sure that it’s on and recording perfectly. I had no intentions of repeating my classic stupidity in Muangthong, Bangkok, earlier this year.

A juxtaposition of the two images that simultaneously greet my eyes bears further proof in favour of the need for small, compact and reverberating edifices in Indian football.  Facing me are large expanses of barren stands and yet my immediate vicinity is packed to the rafters. The excess capacity is neither pleasing to the eye or to the ear, in person or on television. In many ways, empty stands cause a psychological prejudice about the credibility of not just the football on offer but also the culture surrounding it. The official attendance is about 6000, at 20% capacity and about a 95% of the 6000 is in the West Block.

In the lack of navigable inches in my vicinity, Vijay and Waseem stand tall. Vijay is leading the chants:

“Guys please repeat after me”

Constantine’s blue army,

(crowd repeats)

on our way to glory

(crowd repeats)

build the team from scratch he did,

(crowd repeats)

 our kids will have a story… our kid will have a story..(crowd repeats with increased intensity)

 o oo ooh oh oh oh ….. (fast-paced singing accompanied by the beating of drums)”

Our kids will have story-If ever there was a line that unifies hope and faith, then this is it.

Vijay leading the chants

Deafening, rhythmical and tear-jerking, the chants of the West Block Blues are hitting all the right chords. But such are the standards they have set for themselves. A standard which they know they need to live up to, a standard which the fans around the country expect them to fulfil today and a standard which the players on the pitch anticipate and expect to aid their performance.

Preparations are underway to unfurl the 5200-sq.ft. banner. Those right at the top of the West Block stand side by side waiting to release the colossal coiled-up piece of cloth when signalled to do so. Nachiket tells me it’s the second largest banner in Asia. Which would typically mean that it would cover the entire West Block Upper tier, leaving me with no chance of shooting the entire spectacle in one frame. At times like these, I wish I had a drone.

Shots under the banner is all I can manage

Cursing my tight purse, I slip underneath the banner instead. The blanket of blue that now covers the entire West Block, is a spectacle from underneath, the effects of which are further enhanced as the banner is slowly tugged away from over our heads, once again making way for the bright green of the football pitch in front of us.

We want to send across a message that, Indian football which is not on the word map as of the moment. All of us need to stand up together, united as a country to make ourselves count” says Nachiket, when asked about the message the banner intends to deliver.

The other choreo planned for the day is one to commemorate the national team’s rapid climb to the top 100 of the FIFA rankings-three separate cloth cutouts each representing a digit in the number 100 and one of the three colours of the tricolour Indian flag. These banners are of similar colossal proportions and again impossible to capture without a drone or unless seated on the opposite end. But tell me, who in their right mind would trade a seat amongst such melodrama for a seat in the desolate East stand for just a glimpse of the banner!

Stand Up For Indian Football Banner. Source: Google Images

We are one tonight

The football on the pitch hasn’t really hit the right notes for India, a far cry from the heights attained by the fans in the West block. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who plays as a goalkeeper for Norwegian Tippeligaen club Stabæk FC is the only Indian footballer plying his trade in Europe. So far, he has literally single-handedly kept India in the game. The crowd recognizes his efforts at every instance as “O Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’ in the tunes of the hit number ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes, ring out loud from the stands.

The atmosphere is surreal; one that raises every hair follicle on your skin. An achievement made even more commendable given the scrappy display of football on the pitch. The occasional bout of jitters, as India come close to conceding, is the only calm in the otherwise rambunctious coming together of fans.

Scrappy football and missed opportunities have left us wanting

The Kirgiz’ was expected to be a tough nut to crack despite them lingering 32 places below India in the rankings. Their physical strength in the opposition box has somewhat been dealt with by an outstanding Sandesh Jhingan, the Indian centre-back. Sandesh Jhingan is another one of those who could easily ply his trade abroad.

At the beginning of the second half, the 100 banner is out again; a sign, I was hoping would remind our players of the need to justify our lofty ranking. But alas, we begin exactly where we had left off at the end of the first half. Within the first ten minutes, Kirgizstan has a goal cleared off the line and a shot that deflects wide of the post.

It’s incredible to witness how patient this crowd is. If this had been Calcutta, the players would have been getting a lot of stick by now. Yet, Waseem and Vijay still lead from the stands, not for once bogged down by the happenings on the pitch.

Nachiket is at it too. Like Waseem and Vijay, he occasionally leads chants from next to me.

I have a strong premonition that this sixteen-year-old kid is a capo in the making. I’ve been keeping an eye on how well he imposes himself in the crowd, successfully moving the masses with his crisp vocalization of chants.

Nachiket, a capo in the making

It’s worthwhile noting how creative these guys are with their chants. There’s no doubting the heavy influence of English football, but the magic is created in replicating, improvising and vernacularizing the borrowed tunes in the local terraces. I must admit, the prodigious composers amongst the West Block Blues are quite imaginative in this respect.

The clock reads 69 minutes, Sunil Chhetri digs the ball out of the Indian defense, dribbles past three Kirgiz players, leaving another two rooted on their spot before slotting the ball delicately to his right where he finds Jeje, Jeje holds onto it for a split second, and then with a sublime lob put its back in the path of Chhetri who with his first touch buries the ball in the bottom corner. Who has the time to appreciate a touch of class, when you can jump with joy, fall over on the seat behind you dragging your neighbour down with you? The crowd go absolutely ballistic. It’s been a while since I’ve screamed my lungs out in joy. Where else would I do it, if it weren’t for this game, who else would I do it for if it weren’t for the clubs I love and the country I could give my life for? How can I ever explain to you the feeling when you hug the stranger next to you in an unsolicited moment of love and passion for a common cause?

The Viking Clap at the West Block following the goal

Till the ninetieth minute and after, the West Block sings loud and proud. It ends one-nil to India; It could have been three-nil if it weren’t for the two gilt-edged chances squandered. Players at the final whistle walk over to applaud the astonishing contribution these fans have made in this win.

He scores when he wants, he scores when he waaaants….Sunil Chhetri he scores when he wants” I sing along with Nachiket next to me, Waseem and Vijay in front of me and each one of the ecstatic men and women of my country around me. Tonight, we were one.

Dreaming out loud

Indian football fans have walked a bumpy road, often soul to soul, having seen all kinds of weather come and go. But on sunny days like these, can you help but not believe, is there anything we together cannot achieve?

A particular chant from the West Block Blues reads:

The road is long but the belief is strong,

We go marching on and on.

Playing in the world cup is a dream of mine,

we will get there all in time.

Coz I believe we will never surrender,

We have only just begun.

The road is long but the belief is strong,

This is our home and here we belong.

Let’s have faith, for soon enough, it’ll be a day like this one, when the sun shines down and those dreams of them rebels and them misfits are found.

It’ll be a day like this one when those dreams of them rebels and them misfits are found.

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