Kerala Blasters FC on Friday created huge controversy after the team decided to walk off the pitch and forfeit their all-important ISL play-off clash against Bengaluru FC, protesting against a contentious Sunil Chhetri strike.
The Blues will now face League Shield Winners Mumbai City FC in a two-legged semi-final on March 7 and 12 which start with an away trip.
After a goalless stalemate during regulation time at the Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru FC took a 97th minute lead when the talismanic Indian captain converted a free-kick.
But the strike led to a full blown drama as the Adrian Luna-led side protested referee Crystal John's decision to declare it a legitimate goal, with counter-claims that he did not blow the whistle before Chhetri took the kick and the players were not ready.
This followed an unprecedented walk-out, a first in ISL where Serbian coach Ivan Vukomanovic called back his players. Luna was seen taking off his captain's arm-band with his teammates following their skipper.
By virtue of their extra-time lead, Bengaluru FC were declared winners as they will travel to Mumbai City Arena for the semfinal on Tuesday.
"I've never seen this in my 22 years of career.
This is not the right way to do it," Chhetri reacted of the KBFC's walk-out.
On the controversial freekick, he said: "I always ask the referee because if he does not allow, it wouldn't happen.
"It was a bitter-sweet moment. First, we thought if the match would happen or not. But I'm happy that we are through to the semi-finals. Can't wait to take on Mumbai."
About the goal, Chhetri said that he followed usual rules during a direct free-kick during which it is not mandatory for referee to blow the whistle if the player has already sought permission.
"Referee asked me if I wanted the wall or the whistle. They always do it. I said that I don't want the whistle as well as the wall," Chhetri told broadcasters after the match.
The forfeiture and walk out cost Blasters dearly as they might face heavy sanctions from the league authorities.
Such an instance was previously seen during the Kolkata Derby in I-League 2012 when Mohun Bagan walked off the field and refused to turn up in the second half after spectators hurled a stone at their winger Syed Rahim Nabi from the East Bengal stands.
The Blasters dominated possession in the first half but couldn’t get past Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in the Bengaluru FC goal.
Relying on the quick feet of Roy Krishna and Sivasakthi Narayanan, the Blues were content to play on the counter.
The hosts had six shots in the first half, but only one on target.
Three minutes after the half-hour-mark, Danish Farooq’s glancing header from a corner was missed by an unmarked Victor Mongil at the far post before the flag went up for offside against the defender.
The second-half was much the same, as the visitors kept more of the ball and the hosts waited to launch on the counter.
The Blasters had a chance to test the keeper via a free kick in the 53rd minute, but Luna skied it.
Around the hour-mark, Suresh Wangjam’s effort from outside the box flew through traffic and forced a palm behind for a corner by Gill at full stretch.
In the final quarter of the match, the Blasters pressed further up the pitch, but the Bengaluru FC defence kept its shape to deflect attacks.
In the 83rd minute, Dimitrios Diamantakos registered his side's first shot on target but his header was claimed comfortably by Sandhu before the game went into extra time.
In the first minute of extra time, Rahul KP tried his luck from range as his shot picked up a flick from Luna and went inches wide at the far post. Bengaluru FC responded instantly at the other end as Bruno Ramires got his head to a corner but sent it over the bar.
In the seventh minute of extra time, a quickly taken free kick by Chhetri flew into the back of the net.
But the Blasters took to arms contesting that referee John signaled for the Blues to take the free-kick without them being ready to defend as the situation spiraled into chaos.
The Blasters forfeited the match in disagreement with the decision and as Bengaluru FC secured a ninth consecutive win.