What happens inside the cauldron of Chennaiyin FC

Nerijus Valskis of Chennaiyin FC celebrates after scoring the winner

Nerijus Valskis of Chennaiyin FC celebrates after scoring the winner   | Photo Credit: R Ragu


At the home ground of Chennaiyin FC, emotions ebb and flow as the club’s supporters celebrate their team’s victory against Hyderabad FC, at the end of a thrilling ISL match

Affinities in football seldom change, not least after it takes root in one’s heart and soul.

This is why the lifelong Liverpool FC (LFC) supporter in me was unmoved when the city I call home got a new club — and a new sporting identity — in Chennaiyin FC (CFC) six years ago, courtesy the Indian Super League (ISL); the 10-team football league (where clubs play each other home and away before facing off in playoffs to crown the champion) came into being in 2013, and is backed by the IMG-Reliance group.

When CFC’s backers unofficially re-christened the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium on Sydenhams Road as the Marina Arena, albeit for promotional purposes, I cringed. It didn’t help that the Indian Premier League and Chennai Super Kings had a head-start on the ISL, and had already established yellow (#Yellove for diehard CSK-ians) as the city’s de facto colours, while CFC were content being the blues.

All this had kept me away from the stadium in the years since ISL started rolling, until this week, when CFC took on league newbies Hyderabad FC. A first-hand experience of live footballing action was something I had longed for, and so when I walk up to the main entrance of the Nehru Stadium, I am pleasantly surprised to see the hundreds of children and teenagers gathered at the main gate. The children are asking for tickets from anyone within a 50-metre radius of the entrance.

The buzz in the wind

One of them was eight-year-old Appu from Periamet, who would not let go of my hands until I parted with my ticket. I am inclined to give him my pass before his friend comes along. How would the two enter the stadium on a single ticket? “We will get another from someone else, anna,” Appu tells me.

A group of teenagers who spot Appu from a distance approach us. “Anna, give us your ticket. I’d like to go in.” This is Kalaivanan from Chintadripet. A footballer himself — he plays as a defender for the Police boys’ club in his locality — Kalaivanan, and his group of seven friends, are fishing for tickets the same way as Appu.

“Why did you not buy tickets beforehand?” I ask Kalaivanan. “We tried but the tickets were sold out,” he says.

That is impossible! The stadium has a documented capacity of 40,000, perhaps even more. Not one of the televised matches held here previously looked as if it was played out in front of a sold-out audience. But as I walk past the three-tier security check and take my seat inside the stadium, it becomes clear that the Marina Arena has not managed to fill even a third of its seats (tickets sell for ₹250-₹350).

“It is one thing to charge a fee to watch these matches but should it really come at the cost of an atmosphere? What is football, really, without the fan atmosphere?” says Yoganandan S, who takes a seat beside me.

Atmospheric change

In 1987, when Yoganandan started in the defensive line for the Tamil Nadu State football team in what was then the Madras Corporation stadium, a fervent fan atmosphere — the kind that most supporters of Chennaiyin FC have seldom witnessed or experienced — prevailed in these very stands.

The lack of atmosphere is one reason why he prefers not to watch matches at the stadium, though, he admits, he hardly misses a game on television. “I felt sad watching the children outside clamour for tickets. If the stadium was this empty, they could have at least let them take the gallery seats for free,” he adds.

But football has this gravitational pull; it is inexplicable — just as people watching the game slowly drag themselves to the edge of their seats, the previously out-of-reach stands and gallery is pulling in most of the children who were stranded outside the gates before the match started.

The game itself provides a handful of exhilarating moments. On either side of the grandstand, there are ‘Super Machans’ — the name of CFC’s fan collective.

I could not help but draw a comparison between the chants of Super Machans with that of the supporters of Chelsea Football Club in London (Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan, who is one of CFC’s owners, is one among the high profile supporters of Chelsea FC). “Chennai... Chennai... Chennai...”, they went, and all I could hear was, “Chelsea... Chelsea... Chelsea...” Perhaps, it is the Liverpool gene in me acting up.

Non-stop action

The manager of Hyderabad FC (HFC), Phil Brown, is seemingly in a volatile mood, and it makes him a discussion point among the teenage audience seated one row behind me. “He is going off on the ball boy now,” one of them remarks, about coach Brown.

Brown, who, a decade ago, managed Hull City in the Premier League in England, is venting at his opponent — the CFC head coach John Gregory; he does not spare the linesmen, the referee, the fourth referee and the ball boys! While the sideshow unravels, the action on the pitch is getting tense by the second. Yoganandan and I jump off our seats whenever a chance goes begging; placing hands on our heads, and yelling different things every time. If it is a “haiyyaa!” on one occasion, a few minutes later a solid “aiyyayo!” comes out.

But it is in the additional time, after 90 minutes had run out, that the crowd roars into life. CFC’s Maltese striker André Schembri has put the side ahead, and wheels off into the crowd to celebrate.

However, the exhilaration lasts precisely two minutes as Hyderabad’s defensive mainstay, Englishman Matthew Kilgallon, heads in a goal and brings the scores level with what most of us think is the last piece of action in the game. The moment the ball crosses the line, the stadium’s energy saps out. Even the Super Machans appear deflated, and silence pervades the ground.

This is when CFC’s Lithuanian striker Nerijus Valskis steps up, and emerges a hero, slotting past the hapless HFC goalkeeper to secure CFC’s first win of the season. I find myself jumping up and down in jubilation. Yoganandan hits me with a high five! The DJ on the ground adds to the climbing decibel level and, before long, the referee signals the end of the game.

I bid goodbye to Yoganandan and walk out while trying to understand what I had just experienced. In the immortal words of legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson — “Football, bloody hell!”

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 12:36:08 AM |

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