Right from the minute that Bengaluru FC, India’s Champions, walked away with a draw and an away goal from Johor Bahru in Malaysia, it was obvious that October 19th was going to be a very very big day for Indian football.
Just three years from it’s inception, Bengaluru FC had a chance to script history by becoming the first Indian club to qualify for the AFC cup final - the Asian equivalent of the Europa League.
The sweetest part of the entire deal was this – they had a chance to do it in front of the people they cared about the most – their fans, at the fortress they called home, the Kanteerava Stadium. This was going to be a massive test for the club, its owners, players and most importantly “The West Block Blues” - arguably the most loyal and vociferous group of football supporters in India.
The pre-match hype was definitely promising, with ceasefires being sent to all Indian clubs to come out and back one of their own at a time it mattered the most. I was one among the many who definitely wanted to be there and booked my seats to be at the West Block early enough, to hopefully see an Indian club making it big and putting us back on the map in Asia.
Cricket certainly has its home and away advantages - but this is usually limited to conditions. In football however, playing at home means having a 12th man. The home crowd certainly knew their responsibilities - let their lungs rip in support of Bengaluru and create a hostile environment for the visitors. They had also delivered a package to the players to egg them on before they set foot on pitch and it definitely seemed to have given them a spring in their steps. The teams walked in to a sea of blue welcoming them in for the match and the West Block started the proceeding by duly cheering BFC touches and booing Johor passes. It was on.
Very early enough, there was a visible change in the atmosphere , thanks to the goal in the 11th minute (albeit against the run of play), which would have possibly made Johor wonder why they scored that priceless away goal. For, that seemed to exactly be the tonic that lifted the fans from their more muted clapping and flag waving. Despite the early setback, the fans seemed to know that the result was always going to be a BFC win and all that was needed was some old school support to give the team that extra edge.
They didn’t leave the referee alone either and tried their best to convince him into sending Antonio off at the 24th minute instead of just a yellow card (not to mention a few choice abuses later on in the game). BFC’s hold on the game seemed to be increasing every minute & so were the decibel levels inside the stadium. Every set-piece was accompanied with the entire stadium chanting out Captain Fantastic, Chhetri’s name brought the roof down when he repaid their trust minutes before half time through a brilliant header. It was 1-1. Get in.
When the team came out for the second 45 minutes, the fans decided to welcome the teams back with a Mexican Wave that went on for at least three rounds around the stadium. Johor had seemingly gone on the defensive and the Blues were going all guns blazing. Chhetri kept crying out for the ball and then, with a scintillating 30-yarder, driving the entire stadium crazy.
It couldn’t have been setup better, just more than 20 minutes to go, the home team on the rise and the away team seemingly unable to even break into BFC’s penalty box. Any doubts were put to rest with the goal at the 75th minute and the players knew exactly where to celebrate a much deserved victory – right in front of the West Block fans who were tirelessly singing away. It was 3-1.
With the BFC unit (team and fans) having delivered a night to remember, the final 15 minutes just saw the stands in a complete state of celebration with them duly calling out the players, the coach (Albert Roca) and the man who had completely established the foundations for the club getting here (Ashley Westwood).
The response on a weekday was just stunning. The 21,000 strong crowd that had turned up at the Kanteerava stadium truly identified with the 11 who fought it out for them on the pitch. The goal celebrations, the new coach Roca urging the fans during moments of silence, the post-match victory lap - all evidence enough that the players felt exactly the same way as the fans.
I have watched multiple live games in stadiums before including an India Pakistan World Cup match and a Premier League match in a stadium with 60,000 Gunners, but this was truly something that stood out. This crowd had walked in with not just their props, flags, horns and voices, but also with their hearts set on victory. The West Block Blues will definitely be at the final to welcome the players with the now famous “Oh When the Blues go marching in..." and cheer them on for a historic win against the Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.
Come on You Blues!