In my life I have supported two teams. The first is 'Old Chelsea', the wildly inconsistent team of the 1980s and 90s, who played profoundly ugly football. This team would beat Manchester United 1-0 one week and would lose 0-7 to Nottingham Forest the next.
It is with some ambivalence that I also support 'Roman Abramovich's Chelsea'. Admittedly the football is fabulous to watch, but this sporting juggernaut of today bears so little semblance to the Chelsea of my youth that I have difficulty imagining them being the same team. If a football club could have plastic surgery, then Chelsea would definitely be in the Jocelyn Wildenstein league.
I grew up within walking distance of Stamford Bridge ' Chelsea Football Club's ground. My family has lived in the borough for years and supported Chelsea since the 1930s. Contemplation of supporting another team is totally out of the question.
When I was very young, some 15 years ago, I told my father I wanted to support Tottenham because they had Gazza (Paul Gascoigne) and Gary Linekar. He was silent for a while with a slightly grim look on his face and simply replied, 'You can't support Tottenham.' Within weeks I was taken to my first Chelsea match. I was curious to see whether such loyalties exist among Indian crowds, and how they are played out at a match.
My first Calcuttan football match was Md. Sporting Club vs Mohun Bagan AC in the ONGC Cup at Yuva Bharati Krirangan in Salt Lake. The timing ' 3.45 pm on a Tuesday afternoon ' is perhaps the most telling sign of football's lowly stature in India. At the beginning of the match there seemed to be more lathi-toting policemen than fans.
The murmuring of the few hundred early arrivals only ceased for the national anthem, at which point everybody stood to an impressive and observant attention. The national anthem is never played at Stamford Bridge.
Instead, the stadium PA system inflicts a medley of such luminary hits as Blue is the Colour and other songs sung by various Chelsea squads and released in the pop charts (no joke!) over the years. Tuneful would be a generous adjective for these recordings.
Before the start of play, the Salt Lake stadium did fill up, but not significantly. Maybe a few thousand sat on the west side of the vast stadium, avoiding the afternoon sun. I was intrigued by who these few thousand were. Who were these people who turned up on an afternoon in the middle of the working week to watch football in a country not renowned for its enthusiasm for domestic football'
A Mohun Bagan supporter called Anil surprised me when he explained how he came to support the team. 'It's been a family thing, every generation has supported Mohun Bagan. I watch as many of their matches as I can. There aren't many of us who follow club football here,' he said gesturing to the empty stadium. 'It is sad that football in India is in such a bad way. Everybody is too obsessed with cricket. It is embarrassing that we have never qualified for the World Cup.'
Soccer in silence
Apart from Anil's tangible frustration at football's lack of stature in India, what really struck me about what he said was that lots of supporters of the Indian clubs were from families that had supported the teams for generations. He also pointed out: 'Football is more popular in Bengal than probably any other state. It is also big in Kerala and Goa, but really these are the only other two.'
In many respects this is not that different from England. While there are good clubs from all over England, there are two heartlands for football: London and Lancashire. Thirteen of the 17 surviving teams in the Premiership last season are from London and Lancashire, with many more teams from these areas in the lower divisions. The West and other parts of the North are on the whole more rugby oriented.
It seemed that Indian football crowds these days are not particularly set on spectacle, with perhaps two banners (both Mohun Bagan) being unfurled, and just a handful of youngsters adorned in maroon-and-green club colours. All the others were dressed as they might be for any other normal day.
The football clubs in England do their utmost to exploit their fans, selling every manner of shirts and other paraphernalia, with parents being bullied into purchasing some ' 40 nylon atrocity at the club shop. As a result, the stands of Stamford Bridge look, well, blue.
The reactions of the fans to on-the-field incidents were also quite different. Unfortunately, diving in order to gain free kicks has become somewhat of a national (or international) past time in the English Premiership, and fans of both sides react with a collective outrage that would be more suitable at the burning of a heretic in medieval times. In India the players go down much less easily than in England, and fouls are less of an issue with the crowd. Perhaps the odd individual exclamation and irate gesticulation, but nothing more than that, and certainly not a patch on the outpouring of emotion visible at an ODI!
It is also interesting to note that Africa's vast pool of talented footballers has been tapped by the Indian domestic league, with unmistakably sub-Saharan names like Coffi Agbessi and David Mkandwire featuring in the squads. The majority of the players was, however, Indian. English players have been in the minority in the Chelsea squad for more than five years. At the end of the 1990s, Chelsea held the dubious distinction of being the first club to field a team that actually contained no ' nein-rien-niente ' English players.
The Salt Lake stadium was also somewhat of a testosterone zone, with the only woman in sight looking bored and selling potato chips. It's clear that female interest in football is below negligible. The number of female football fans has been a growing in England over the last 10 or so years, with more and more women taking an active interest in the sport. Football is no longer simply the preserve of men in Britain ' probably due to the double impact of Beckham and Bend It Like Beckham!
When Mohun Bagan scored the only goal of the match, the fans came cascading out of the shade of the upper reaches of the stands to the balcony to applaud the winner.
Towards the end of the match the police who sat on the touchline for the duration of the tie ambled to the exits and up into the stands to prepare for the dispersal of the crowds. The police presence really was disproportionate to the crowd size. At Chelsea there is half the amount of police for even the most volatile London derby. One can only speculate as to whether the police were there as much for leisure as security! In addition, the fans were pleasant, calm and orderly at the Salt Lake stadium, unlike at Stamford Bridge, where you may find yourself sitting between Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan!
For fans of Indian football clubs, like Anil, it must be so difficult to be optimistic about the state of the sport in the face of such widespread infatuation with cricket.