"Football is nothing without fans, without those who pay at the turnstile. Sometimes we are inclined to forget that."
These words of Jock Stein – the first manager to win the European Cup (now Champions League) with a British club – go a long way in suggesting why the biggest clubs in the world have acquired that stature. Money might be a way to gauge the size of a football club, but one can't look beyond its fans while evaluating a club's prominence.
Having managed and played for Celtic, Stein couldn't have been at a better place to learn this. His name in the history books may have been in a different contest or a wiped out altogether had it not been for the Celtic fans, and he made it a point to acknowledge this fact.
Football leagues across the world, barring a few, crave for fanatic fans to add colour to their game, and the newly-formed Indian Super League (ISL) is little different. For a league that takes place in a country where football often takes a back seat to cricket, it's quite astonishing to see the clubs participating in it enjoying vociferous support. Those clubs might be far and few, but the fact that they exist is quite incredible in itself.
These fanatic supporters have done their bit to add colour to the football in India, and when it comes to that, no colour or shade has managed to outshine the yellow of the Kerala Blasters. Packed stadium, electric atmosphere, relentless and dedicated support have been features at Kochi and over the three seasons, the voice of the Blasters fans has become louder.
"When there is a match here (in Kochi), there is traffic jam all over in the city. In fact, you can't go on the street where the stadium is. The stretch from the team hotel to the stadium (about 5km) is completely packed with fans. In a car it might even take you two hours to get through it," a cab driver in Kochi told Firstpost.
For the state of Kerala though, the sight of full houses for a football match is hardly uncommon.
"During the 1995 Nehru Cup, India played Iran in the semifinals in Kerala and I was playing, I remember there was a crowd of 1,25,000 who had come to support us. While playing in Kerala, I've always played in front of great crowds," recalled the legendary IM Vijayan – who established himself as the face not just for football in Kerala, but also in India – during an interview with Firstpost.
"In Kerala, people just love football. If you go and start playing even a seven-a-side match on a simple playground, there will be people who will crowd around to see the match," NP Pradeep, another top player from Kerala who went on to play 50 matches for India, told Firstpost.
Fans, not just from Kochi, but all over Kerala flock to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium when the Blasters take to the pitch here. Travelling in the scorching heat, a rush for tickets and hassle to get into the ground early makes supporting the Kerala Blasters bit of a task, but for the 60,000-odd supporters that fill the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium week in and week out, it's a matter of pride.
The state of Kerala has longed for a football club of it's own ever since the disbandment of Viva Kerala and the arrival of Kerala Blasters meant their love for football, passion and energy that so badly lacked an outlet came gushing out at once.
"On the day the Kerala Blasters' formation was announced, I formed a Facebook page of a fan club. That time it was only me, but slowly I started going to the stadium and got all passionate fans together," Subin Mathews, the founder of Manjappada Fan Club told Firstpost.
Two years on, Manjappada Fan Club is one of India's largest supporters' club and the sight of their tireless support is not unfamiliar for football fans in India. While other ISL clubs have been up and down when it comes to getting numbers in the stadium, Kerala Blasters have always had the 'sold out' board out in front of the ticket counter outside the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, just before a match.
The Kerala crowd has certainly caught an eye and players and coaches from all over the league have acknowledged their fantastic support.
"I've heard that the fans in Kerala are really special. Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to play in Kochi as I was injured, but hopefully some day I will, said Mumbai City FC's marquee player, Diego Forlan, who is no stranger to big crowds having played for the likes of Atletico de Madrid and Manchester United.
Abinash Ruidas, who is slated to play against the Blasters for Atletico de Kolkata in the final on Sunday also felt it will be a challenge for his team to be up against such a big crowd. "We all know how noisy the Kerala Blasters fans are. So obviously it would have been better if the final was somewhere else. The crowd will be a problem for us, but we will find a way to tackle it," the Atletico youngster told the media ahead of the match.
Certain members of the Manjappada Fan Club have never missed a match and once again are confident of racking up the numbers inside the stadium for the big final. "There will be 50,000 of us who will be in the stands for the team, to support them and to push the players all the way. We have always been there and on Sunday we will make sure the team wins," Sooraj Pillai, a proud member of Manjappada Fan Club, told Firstpost.
Manjappada is yet to be an an official club, but talks are going on between the group and the club to take their relationship in that direction. However on social media, the fan club enjoys a strong presence. Their Facebook page has approximately 70,000 followers, but a lot more are connected through WhatsApp.
"We have 14 WhatsApp groups for each district in Kerala. For Kochi, we have about five-six. In each group we have more than 250 members and we all coordinate and reach the stadium before a game. For the final we have arranged buses for people to come from the far-off districts. So expect us to turn out in large numbers," the fan club founder revealed.
Manjapadda that translated to 'Yellow Army' also travel for the Blasters' away matches. They also have WhatsApp groups for Chennai, Coimbatore, Bengaluru and for north-western and south-eastern parts of India. So when the Blasters are on the road, these fans make sure there is always a shade of yellow in the stands.
"We had over 5,000 supporters travel to Chennai for our game there. While at places like Mumbai and Delhi, we had fans living there who made their presence felt in the stadium. We also get a lot of support from the Gulf countries. Fans often travel from there for matches," Mathews added.
Mathews himself is a part of those fans who are ready to tread the miles for the Blasters. Based in Surat, he came to Kochi for the Blasters' first two matches of this season, before returning for the semi-final and the final.
Apart from the dedication and love for their team, the Kerala fans are known to put football above everything else. Even during the olden days of Vijayan, good football prevailed over loyalty for the people of Kerala.
"I remember when I was playing for Mohun Bagan against Kerala Police in Kozhikode, the fans were cheering for us as we were playing very well. Nobody was supporting the Kerala Police even though they were the home team. They supported us as they thought we were playing better football," Vijayan said.
"In Kolkata it is the opposite. All they want is a win for their team. It doesn't matter how well the team is playing," he added.
"In Kerala, the people support football tirelessly. It doesn't matter if the team wins or loses, they are always there in high numbers. I've played at places like Kolkata, where if the team loses two-three matches on the spin, the numbers in the stadium diminish. There is nothing like that in Kerala," said Pradeep, a former Viva Kerla and Mohun Bagan midfielder.
The Manjappada Fan Club are a product of the modern day, where a football club tries to inculcate loyalty among it's fans, but they have managed to retain the values of a typical Kerala football fan. Members of the Manjappada Fan Club joined forces with Bengaluru FC's West Block Blues and travelled to the Kanteerva Stadium to support Bengaluru FC during their AFC Cup semi-final match recently.
"We always appreciate good football. Even if it is not Kerala Blasters, we make sure that we support it. Some of our fans went to support Bengaluru FC for their AFC Cup semi-final, while some of our members also went for the final," Mathews revealed.
The Blasters supporters are bound to be caught in a fix during the final as former Blasters players Iain Hume and Stephen Pearson will be wearing Atletico colours for the final. But for the men clad in yellow, fond memories leave no space for animosity.
"Losing Hume was tough for us, but we are over it now. We don't have any hard feelings towards him. I'm sure we will give him a good reception. Whenever his photo comes on the big screen, I expect there to be a huge cheer. The same applies for Pearson. We will applaud them as (if anyone is) once a Blaster, forever a Blaster," said the Manjappadam founder.
Unfortunately, a lot of the dedicated fans haven't managed to get the tickets with a certain number of seats reserved for important guests. There is some anguish among the Blasters supporters who reportedly damaged the ticket booking window outside the stadium on Friday. Kerala had been warned regarding some crowd trouble after the NorthEast United match, and so the Manjappada Fan Club through a Facebook post have called for calm to be observed by their supporters.
With the ticket crunch affecting the fans, the black market is in full operation. Few individuals trying to sell tickets at exorbitant prices outside the stadium were arrested by the police on Saturday. The fan group through their WhatsApp network advised supporters to not buy tickets from any such individuals.
"We have strongly advised our members against falling for such traps. This (black market) is not something we want to encourage. We are trying best to arrange tickets through BookMyShow for some of the members and hopefully we will have some success," said Mathews before signing off.
The Manjappada Fan Club with their ardent support have already left an impression on the league, and grown in popularity. But by maintaining their football values and trying hard to make it a part of their system, they are sure to grow in legacy too.
They may or may not watch their Kerala Blasters triumph in the final on Sunday, but for Indian football and football in Kerala, the Manjappada Fan Club is already a winner, much before the final.
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Updated Date: Dec 18, 2016 15:57:43 IST