Loud, Proud, and Local
How official supporter clubs are putting India on the map, and the stadium in your city.
Friday, the twenty first of June is a big day for the members of the Manchester United Fan Club Pune. Even with little football going around this time of the year, there still are nerves to be felt, and the promise of reward. MUFCP, or Pune’s Red Army as they like to call themselves, is going to apply for official recognition by the club itself – and if they make it, like a steadily rising number of supporter clubs in the country – they will be a happy bunch indeed. This is the culmination of a journey that started in 2011, when a small group of supporters decided to watch games together at outdoor venues. And the story is similar for other such supporter clubs in India, a country with the world’s largest young population but a modest, if rising number of football fans in the face of its cricket obsession.
India is now home to several official supporter clubs for the popular teams in football, the most recent being the addition of an official Manchester City supporters club in Mumbai, Supporter clubs exist for Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Real Madrid, arguably some of the biggest brands in the world of football. While other Asian countries such as Thailand and Indonesia have had such clubs for a long time and have even had first teams play exhibition games, in India they are relatively recent.
Trying to band together the followers of a sport whose following pales in front of cricket is not quite as easy here as other countries sometimes have it. For Indian supporter clubs, one of the major issues is finding venues for screenings. Bhargav Shingre from MUFCP tells me that they had tried 6-7 venues before settling on Aufside, a sports bar with a 5-a-side turf attached to it, while MUSC Mumbai has had regular screenings at Three Wise Monkeys, a pub in Khar for a long while now. The question is one of atmosphere. Supporter clubs pride themselves on a vibrant, dynamic experience during game screenings that is unlikely to be found elsewhere and is as close to an actual stadium attendance that one can get. At Aufside, I find myself in a sea of red, white, and black kits for the 2016 FA Cup final. The bar and the turf are both serving the fans well. The game would be some respite to Man United fans after an otherwise dreary season, and you could have cut the air with a knife in the presence of over three hundred fans who had traveled from all over the city. As soon as the starting whistle blew, fans began chanting, and they would go on for well and above ninety minutes. There are local chants as well as the traditional ones. Bhargav believes that they lend a local flavour to the experience. In a dramatic end to the game, United’s Jesse Lingard scores in the 110th minute to clinch them the trophy, and Aufside explodes, three hundred fans united in celebrating a rather solitary cause. As Bhargav says, supporter club screenings do not have a product to sell, they have an experience – the only one of its kind.
And it is this experience that drives the three hundred plus members of the Peña Madridista de Bombay, the official Real Madrid Supporters Club. Nikhil Rane, who had founded the group in 2013 tells me about the procedure for getting official recognition. Clubs often require a certain number of club membership holders to be a part of the supporters club before they consider making things official. While some football clubs have national supporter clubs coordinating with local ones, some require each city to apply directly. The club’s officials will then ensure that the supporters club is an active body, and does events like screenings actively. Once the official status is granted, clubs get to call themselves just that – and there are a host of benefits that come along. Kapil Sathe, the chairman of the Pune’s official Arsenal supporters tells me about some of them. Official supporter clubs get a certain number of match tickets for sale, and this is great considering that buying tickets otherwise is a notoriously difficult process. Sponsors may often hold events and offer perks to club members. Kapil and his comrades have interacted with club officials and the social media team and their events and news have received mention on the club’s social media. The club helps them organise tournaments and even supports their work with an NGO. But perhaps one of the most rewarding memories is club legend Robert Pirès’ visit. From Dwight Yorke to Robbie Fowler, a number of former players have flown down for charity events and fan interactions – and as any fan will tell you, meeting a hero is quite the dream.
It is not all fun and games, so to speak. A lot of effort goes in organizing the events and making sure that the permissions, the venue , and the broadcast system are all in order. Building a community is no mean feat and requires regular interaction and effort, not the least of which is moderating and coordinating several whatsapp groups that exist for discussion and event notification. Supporter clubs also have to maintain an active social media presence and Neil Chheda, the branch secretary of the official Liverpool supporters club of Mumbai tells me that the club even issues communication and event guidelines.
Neil also echoes a statement by Ian Rush, Liverpool’s all-time leading goalscorer who had visited Mumbai’s supporter club in which he said “Football is going from strength-to-strength in India and if everything was right I’d love to see the club play in India.” For Neil and so many other supporters of football in India, that remains the dream – to have the first team play a game here. He tells me he firmly believes this is possible, and seeing how more than 700 people attended their last screening, it is easy to see why. India is appearing on the map for an increasing number of clubs and both investment as well as club events are on the rise. Supporter clubs are significant cogs in a long-term vision that culminates in regular local football games, telecast, and support, as well as appearances by famous clubs around the world like some Asian countries have had.
And if you go to a screening at your local supporters club and hear all the chanting and feel the sheer passion of the sport that has brought so many people together, you will understand why even players would feel at home in such a crowd. As I walk out of Aufside hearing the familiar “20 times” chant ring loud in my ear, for a moment I forget that I am not physically present at Wembley . It is only a fleeting feeling, but it is a feeling I would chase again, and so would the thousands of football fans in India. And it is this very feeling that binds supporter clubs together and paves the way for their growth.