India vs Puerto Rico: Sporty Mumbai crowd makes return of international football to city memorable

"It's hard to describe (the atmosphere). It's one of the most impressive moments in the Puerto Rican national team's history. Coming off the pitch, the respect and appreciation the crowd showed was something we haven't seen before and it's something that the guys are still talking about in the locker room," said Puerto Rico Federation's general secretary Ignacio Rodriguez after the match.

He was speaking after watching India beat their higher-ranked opponents 4-1 at the Mumbai Football Arena, but rather than the on field play, Puerto Rico were stunned by the reception they received from an electric crowd on a humid Saturday evening in suburban Mumbai. Even the result, a 4-1 defeat, didn't sting as much, as the 7,000-odd vociferous crowd made it a night to remember for the Puerto Rico players.

It was a special occasion for Mumbai; the city had craved for this moment since 61 years. It was back during the golden age of Indian football — February 1955, to be precise — that the Indian team previously played an international game in the financial capital of the country.

The 7,000-odd crowd had a great time on Saturday night. Twitter/@AIFFMedia

The 7,000-odd crowd had a great time on Saturday night. Twitter/@AIFFMedia

And the excitement was palpable, as areas surrounding the Andheri Sports Complex were abuzz on the eve of the match. There seemed to be a rush among youngsters to reach the stadium even with an hour and half to go for the start of the match, very synonymous to the atmosphere before the start of cricket matches in Mumbai. The closest metro station, Azad Nagar, was vibrant.

The build-up was lively. By the time fireworks had lit up the stadium, the famous Nashik Dhol was played and the national anthems were sung; the crowd had found its voice. However, within minutes they were stunned as Emmanuel Sanchez gave the visitors the lead in the eighth minute.

Puerto Rico had started aggressively and were dominant to start off but India regrouped soon and went on the counter. Within seconds, however, they received a throw-in and a huge roar encapsulated the stadium. Wait what, a deafening roar for a throw in? Yeah! The crowd had found its voice, again, and it never went away. Right from that throw-in till the end of the match, the fans were right behind the home team and also appreciated some good football by the Puerto Ricans.

By now, the Indian team had got into the groove and they just dominated the match throughout. The increased humidity in the last couple of days hadn't deterred the fans' enthusiasm. The stand four section of the crowd was buoyant and buzzing, especially the 'Yellow Brigade' — a Mumbai FC fan club — which created a cracking atmosphere. Vande Mataram was sung in unision with synchronised applause. Inspirational patriotic songs appeared like becoming the theme of the day, as Chale Chalo from Lagaan was sung next. Seriousness was laced with some humour and sarcasm, and nobody in Mumbai would have left without the famous 'Bada mazza aaya ****** banaya' chant.

People even thronged the under-construction buildings around the stadium, just to get a glimpse of the footballers. "I asked my friend two weeks ago to come watch the India-Puerto Rico match, but he said he didn't think it was worth it! And how he missed the match, a game worth every penny! I have been to many cricket matches, but this was the first time I saw a football match live. Predictions of how badly India was going to lose were doing the rounds. But for me, who's still considerably new to Indian football, it was more of soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying every bit of it," said Rajas Kshirsagar, an engineering student from Mumbai, describing his maiden experience of watching a football match from the stadium.

"I went to the stadium and the pitch looked lush green, the fans were buzzing and I found the overall feel to be much better than an IPL match. I am looking forward to more matches and enjoying the beautiful game live at stadiums, and not in front of a TV screens," he added.

"It (atmosphere) was totally unique! Having a match in Mumbai after 61 years, the fans are generally segregated, as Premier League, I-League fans and ISL fans, but having all of them come together to support the the national team was truly a mind-blowing experience and something that I will not forget for a long long time," Bhargav Pandya, a sports management student from Mumbai, told Firstpost.

The Yellow Brigade, a hardcore fan club of the city's Mumbai FC, were tireless throughout with their chants and they left the Mumbai Football Arena thoroughly satisfied.

"It was enlightenment, yes, that's the right word. We have been supporting Mumbai FC, and always had a dream that the city should get an international match. This was our moment," a member told Firstpost. "Our stand was majorly the Yellow Brigade supporter group, we regularly communicate with each other through WhatsApp groups, Twitter and FB. So it's easy to pass on chants and banners," he added.

The atmosphere did create a positive impact on the Indian players during the game and Indian coach Stephen Constantine admitted so during the post match conference. "The atmosphere from the Mumbai fans was excellent. Although it was 6,000-7,000, it felt like 20,000 at times," Constantine said.

"Eventually (the crowd support) helped. Sometimes it can be not so helpful. Everybody in the crowd wants you to win. There's a lot of pressure for these boys to play. Some people don't realise how much pressure they have when they have to play in front of 10-20-30-40-50,000. But that's something they need to get used to. Fortunately, the game went our way and the crowd was very supportive," the Indian coach added.

Puerto Rico's stand-in coach David Guillemat described the atmosphere as "unbelievable". "We think it's a great experience for us and our players to play in front of a packed house. You look at the crowds and see how how much this means to the people. The crowd was something we thought we knew about, but playing here was a completely different experience," Guillemat said in the post-match conference.

The crowd was cheering every Indian goal, and there were four of them, and every Indian substitution was given a warm applause. But probably the best moment of the day came after the final whistle when the entire stadium gave a standing ovation to the visitors and started chanting 'Puerto Rico' in unison with synchronised hand claps, truly a mark of great sportsmanship. The Puerto Ricans also appreciated the support by doing a lap of honour. It was something that left the visitors speechless and despite the disappointment, they were all smiles.

"Amazing! I have never witnessed something where the people are screaming throughout the 90 minutes. They supported us too and were very grateful to us. The crowd back home is not so loud. Here it is better," Puerto Rico defender Juan Velez told Firstpost. "I didn't expect such a reception. We didn't feel intimidated. They were screaming even when we played well and supported us too," Velez added.

Puerto Rico captain Alexis Rivera seconded Veleze's views. "It was a great place to come. The crowd was very good. They were shouting for them and for us. We felt welcome. The field was very good and the team is very good, so we are very happy that we had a chance to come here. We enjoyed it, we were part of it," Rivera told Firstpost.

The visitors were not only impressed with the support, but also with the knowledge of the locals and this experience now has had them craving for more. "The people of Mumbai have been absolutely first class. We've been supremely impressed, not only with the football on the pitch but also with the fans, the organisation, the enthusiasm," Puerto Rico Federation's general secretary Ignacio Rodriguez told Firstpost.

"I mean I've got guys right here asking me in the bus, 'Hey! How can I play here, I want to play in the Indian Super League'. It's been a fantastic experience, one that is hard to describe. I am getting really nervous talking about this now (laughs). I was surprised a little bit with the level of education the football fans have here. It's a very cultured environment.The passion is there. One of the things that stood out for me was that there were plenty of young fans. A lot of them under the age of 25. I went before the match and took pictures with the fans, they were very gracious and very respectful." Rodriguez added.

It was a memorable night for Mumbai and the occasion was made extra special by the fans, leaving a lasting impression on the home team and mesmerising the visitors. This, probably, was a spark that Mumbai desperately wanted for revival of football in the city. "I hope it's not another 61 years before we have another game here," Constantine said after the match.

It's not only the Indian coach, but also the entire city that is praying for the same!

Updated Date: Sep 05, 2016 14:45 PM

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