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Long-distance football

As the Premier League continues to flourish in urban India, we take a look at the vibrant supporters' clubs mushrooming across the country

Supporters at the Manchester United Fans Club-Delhi during the match against Liverpool. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Supporters at the Manchester United Fans Club-Delhi during the match against Liverpool. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Have you ever seen Gerrard win the league…win the league? Have you ever seen Gerrard…ever seen Gerrard…ever seen Gerrard win the league?

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…. Oh what fun it is to see United win away—oh!

The chants become louder every second. The supporters are making themselves heard. Their hands rise in unison: sometimes in celebration, sometimes in exasperation, for a high-five, to hurl abuse at the opposition. Every touch of the football by one of their players gets raucous cheers. Any touch by the opposition, and a deafening chorus of boos rings out.

The tension is palpable. The fans are clapping, creating what sounds like a battle cry, exhorting their team to fight, to push forward, to score.

A Manchester United fan leaves a message for former player Wayne Rooney at the Premier League Live event in Bengaluru. Photo: Getty Images

Scarves are flying, flags are being waved. A near miss by their in-form Belgian striker leaves many gasping for air. An astonishing reflex save by their Spanish goalkeeper elicits shouts of: “David de Gea…David de Gea!" Some of them can’t believe what they’ve just seen. “F***, how did that not go in?" asks one fan. “That’s got to be the save of the season, man," says another.

This shouting, cursing, celebrating lot are all supporters of Manchester United. But you won’t find them under the industrial grey skies of northern England. They’re gathered at a popular pub, Route 04, in the heart of central Delhi, more than 4,000 miles from where this match is being played.

It’s a lunch-time kick-off (12.30pm, UK time) between Liverpool and Manchester United; the Mancunians are visiting Anfield on a bright Saturday afternoon in the north-west of England. United vs Liverpool is one of English football’s oldest, sharpest rivalries—the proud, trophy-laden history of either side means both can lay claim to being the biggest and baddest in a nation which is home to one of the world’s most-watched football leagues.

Courtesy Arsenal Kerala

Back in Delhi, the supporters at Route 04 are doing their best to create a spectacle, both auditory and visual, to match the fervent song-making and hollering that they see inside the stadium. The tables have been moved to one side, leaving the pub’s wooden floor free for the supporters. Route 04 is virtually the unofficial home of the Manchester United Fans Club-Delhi (MUFC-D)—this is where they gather to watch every game during football season.

“Anyone who wants to know United in Delhi has to come to Route 04," says Dhruv Dua, president, MUFC-D, who started the group with a friend seven years ago. The group, officially recognized by the club in 2015, now hosts regular screenings for all big fixtures that involve Manchester United.

The group held its first screening at the Bennigans restaurant in Greater Kailash II six years ago. Around 15-16 people attended. Just a year later, interest had grown so much that 674 people attended MUFC-D’s first big screening at Route 04. “Attendance-wise we are huge," says Dua, a lighting designer by profession. “We don’t put up any advertisements. We just create an event on our Facebook page and people show up. That’s how much people love United here in Delhi."

Photo: Abhishek BA/Mint

Thirty minutes of the game have flown by and the pub is a sea of red. There’s no place to stand. Among the hundreds of United supporters, one girl stands out: She is wearing a jersey in a different shade of red. It has the famous Liverpool FC crest emblazoned on it. People around her start chanting: “Who are ya…Who are ya?"—a chant heard during football games across England. Unfazed by the hostile reception, she pulls out a scarf from her pocket and wraps it around her neck. It has the title of Liverpool’s famous anthem, You’ll Never Walk Alone, printed on it. She takes a swig from her beer and continues watching the game.

In the 16 years since the Premier League first reached Indian shores, the rivalries have become increasingly visible here, as have the ritual and madness that mark obsessive football fandom.

India’s favourite league

The Premier League debuted on television in India for the first time on 18 August 2001. Back then ESPN would broadcast three live games every week. It was an era when the likes of Thierry Henry (Arsenal), Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (Chelsea), Ruud van Nistelrooy (Manchester United), Alan Shearer (Newcastle United) and Michael Owen (Liverpool) were scoring goals effortlessly. Manchester City were still playing at Maine Road and had just been promoted from the second division.

Today, the Premier League has a massive fan following here. Indian viewers have plenty to choose from when it comes to football: Germany’s Bundesliga, the Spanish La Liga, Serie A in Italy and the Ligue 1 in France. But the Premier League remains by far the most watched and most supported league.

“We have an incredibly passionate fanbase in India," says Richard Masters, managing director, Premier League, on email. “Our latest research shows that over 160 million people in India are interested in the Premier League and we have seen the enthusiasm for the game in the thousands of fans who have attended Premier League events in the country over the past three years. As an emerging football market, interest in the league is driven by a younger male audience, and Premier League teams are among the most recognized and supported in the country."

Digital platforms and social media have been important for this sustained engagement. It is not surprising these days to see Sergio Aguero wishing Manchester City fans in India a happy Diwali, or Manchester United using their Facebook page to show solidarity with those affected by the heavy rain in Mumbai in August.

The league’s website, Masters says, sees an average of 2.4 million user sessions per month from India, and 4.6 million sessions on the Premier League app in the same time period. Their audience in India also includes 800,000 Twitter followers and 1.3 million Instagram followers; they have two million Facebook likes and 190,000 Fantasy Premier League players (the latter is a fantasy football game where you assemble an imaginary team of real-life footballers and score points based on their actual performance on the field).

While language and the old cultural-colonial connection have certainly been important contributors to the ascendancy of the Premier League, its all-round competitiveness makes it the most thrilling league for many Indians. Bayern Munich have been German champions for the last five seasons. In Spain, the spoils have been shared by Real Madrid and Barcelona, barring the 2013-14 season, when Atlético Madrid managed to break this duopoly. In the same period, the Premier League has seen four different winners (Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Leicester City).

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“English football has always had something of a competitive advantage over its rivals, as its football authorities have been selling overseas television rights for much longer," says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Manchester’s Salford Business School, University of Salford. “Hence, markets across the world are generally more predisposed towards English football, especially the Premier league. In recent years, the EPL has been engaging with Asian markets—not just in India, but elsewhere too… However, India is taking on an almost mythical status as football’s last great frontier. Hence, I think there is a genuine appetite to build business in the country."

While social media gives fans a taste of the league wherever they are, the most visceral, thrilling way to watch football is, of course, in the stadium, standing shoulder to shoulder with singing fans. But only the richest Indian fans can actually travel to England to watch a Premier League game. This is the gap local supporter clubs are plugging.

One for the fans

Half-time is fast approaching. Mohamed Salah has been excellent for Liverpool, though de Gea has managed to keep him and the rest of Liverpool’s attackers at bay. United haven’t created many chances. The fans at Route 04 are fretting, wondering when the goal will come.

MUFC-D is not the only local Premier League supporter club in India. According to their website, Manchester United now have more than 200 officially recognized supporter clubs in 50 countries. The club has 10 recognized supporter clubs in India alone—Nagaland, Pune, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and New Delhi, among others. The likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City also have supporter-club branches spread across Europe, Asia, Africa, America and the Middle East.

Arsenal, who have won the Premier League three times, have nine recognized supporter clubs in the country. Their newest recognized affiliate is a most interesting inductee: Arsenal Kerala. Started in 2009 as a small Facebook page, Arsenal Kerala has around 7,000 members on Facebook and 800 officially registered members. “We had started the Facebook page to see how many Arsenal supporters there were in Kerala," says Alen Joseph, 26, head of media and communications for Arsenal Kerala. Joseph is studying to be a chartered accountant. “Slowly, fans started emerging from Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) and Ernakulam. We now have supporters from Mallapuram, Kozhikode. There’s also a small group of students from Kochi and Trivandrum."

Joseph takes Arsenal Kerala very seriously. They are a registered club under a state government Act and have a core committee of 10 members. The club has a bank account and a treasurer to manage finances. There’s a one-time joining fee (Rs1,000), with which members get Arsenal goodies and merchandise. They got in touch with the club’s liaison officer two years ago and were recognized by Arsenal as an official supporters’ club in June 2016—the club now has a presence in 14 districts of the state.

Almost every Premier League club has a supporter liaison officer who is the point of contact for fans. “It took us two years," says Joseph. “We had to convince them that we had a good bunch of supporters in Kerala. We told them about our activities, which involve regular screenings, footie challenges and so on."

Their crowning glory, however, is a dedicated screening centre in Thrissur. Quite aptly, they have named it Highbury. Before Arsenal moved to the Emirates Stadium in 2006, the club witnessed some of its most successful years at Highbury. Arsenal played there from 1913-2006, during which the stadium attained a mythical status among Arsenal fans. “When we were brainstorming for a name for the screening centre, we decided to conduct a poll among our supporters. The most votes went to Highbury," says Joseph. The 700 sq. ft building complex was gifted to Arsenal Kerala by an Arsenal supporter and can accommodate around 70-100 people for a screening.

A matter of passion

At the screening in Delhi, young Shiny Das is getting restless as the second half begins to pick up pace. Das, 20, is studying social work in criminology and justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She has taken a red-eye flight from Mumbai to catch the Liverpool-United match in Delhi because she believes nothing gets closer to the atmosphere in Route 04.

Her blue Manchester United jersey, the official away shirt from the 2016-17 season, is in marked contrast to the rest of the crowd in red. She has her hands on her head as Liverpool’s attack starts to look menacing.

“I think I’m the only one here…. I’ve been looking around to see if there’s any other girl," says Das (there are, in fact, a few other young women, including the lone Liverpool supporter). “I have been following United from the 2008-09 season. I often call my friends home for matches, but this is different. The atmosphere is just amazing."

Her blue jersey is a reminder of another club that has made a mark in the league after a Russian billionaire took it over in 2003. Chelsea have seen their most successful era under Roman Abramovich, whose arrival added financial muscle to the London-based club. They were ranked seventh (at $1.85 billion, or around Rs12,000 crore now) on Forbes’ list of The World’s Most Valuable Soccer Teams 2017, while their title triumph in 2016-17 was their sixth Premier League title overall and the second in three years.

Chelsea have steadily built a following in India on the back of repeated successes. The Chelsea India Supporters Club, started in 2006, was officially recognized in 2009, and is now present in 28 cities.

Eddie Fernandez, the city head for Chelsea India Supporters Club—Bengaluru, says the culture of Premier League supporters’ clubs in India is expanding rapidly. “Chelsea’s fanbase itself has grown a lot in the last five years," says Fernandez, 33, who works with Flipkart. “I know there is a (Tottenham) Spurs India, Everton India and a Southampton India as well. It is growing. But again, this is not happening all over India. It’s restricted to Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Kerala. But since 2009 there has been a huge surge in the number of fans and clubs."

At Chelsea, supporters’ clubs are categorized into different tiers: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Apart from a membership charge, the club also looks at the number of members a supporters’ club has. In 2009, Chelsea India were a bronze-category supporters’ club. They have been in the gold category for the last three years now, with over 100,000 fans. Bengaluru, Fernandez says, has more than 1,200 Chelsea fans; of these, more than 400 have a paid membership (an annual fee of Rs699) with the Chelsea India Supporters Club—Bengaluru.

“Every member at Chelsea India is studying or working," adds Fernandez, who oversees a team of eight at Chelsea India—Bengaluru. They handle everything from social media to coordinating screenings, which take place in Indiranagar. “We run it like an organization, but do it out of passion. No one is getting paid."

Bengaluru also hosted a Premier League Live event recently, where fans met legends such as Alan Shearer, John Barnes, Robert Pires, Ronny Johnsen, Shay Given, Gerry Taggart and Graham Stuart. Apart from screenings, a number of clubs —Arsenal, Brighton & Hove Albion, Chelsea, Everton, Leicester City, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Watford—had set up areas with interactive experiences for the fans.

Masters believes this is an exciting time for football in India. “The fans in Bengaluru were incredible…. It is great to see the continued growth in the popularity of the Indian Super League (ISL), and hosting the U-17 Fifa World Cup is a fantastic opportunity to showcase the country’s football facilities and inspire a younger generation to play," adds Masters. But will that happen?

Fillip for football?

While India’s U-17 World Cup campaign ended with three consecutive defeats and just one goal scored, many see the country hosting its first Fifa event (which ends today) as a watershed moment. And the fourth season of the ISL is around the corner (November), though there are still doubts about the overall league structure in India.

Chadwick believes heroes and icons have an important role to play. This is where the Premier League might provide impetus to the wider development of football in India, as some of the ISL’s marquee players—though at the fag end of their careers—come with different degrees of Premier League cache: be it Tom Thorpe (Manchester United) and Robbie Keane (Tottenham) at Atlético de Kolkata or Dimitar Berbatov (Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United) at Kerala Blasters.

“Cricket is a formidable obstacle," says Chadwick. “It’s important that the Premier League works in conjunction either with cricket itself or else with the Indian football authorities. The development of Indian heroes and icons is likely to be one of the most important factors influencing interest in football."

Chadwick adds that fan culture in the UK appears to be becoming increasingly dichotomous: There are local, die-hard fans and there are those who follow a team because it is successful or glamorous.

There are, however, no two ways about what’s happening at Anfield. The atmosphere is incredibly tense as Alberto Moreno wins a corner for Liverpool in the 93rd minute. If they score, there will be bedlam.

There’s huge relief as Joel Matip, the Liverpool centre back who was denied a goal by de Gea’s spectacular save earlier in the match, heads it over. Referee Martin Atkinson looks at his watch and blows the final whistle. For the second consecutive season, United and Liverpool have played out a goalless draw at Anfield.

United fans slowly exit Route 04. Some of them stay for a post-match drink and discussion. Chris Cooling, 30, a diplomat with the British high commission who is from Bedford, says he is impressed with the passion and knowledge of the supporters. “I’m here at a screening for the first time, but it’s very impressive. The atmosphere is incredible. I assume not many of them have been to Old Trafford but they still know all the chants. That’s really special."

As she heads for the exit, Das tells me this wasn’t the most exciting performance from José Mourinho’s men, but hopes it will be different in the reverse fixture, when Liverpool visit Old Trafford in March. “We’ll be at home, so I am expecting a better performance," she says. “I might not be able to come back to Delhi for the return fixture because of my classes. But there’s no way I’ll miss the match. No chance.

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