There was a completeness about the evening at the Mumbai Football Arena on Monday. Everything had gone to plan, which in Indian football, is a rarity. Sunil Chhetri got his 100th national team cap, then scored a brace in a 3-0 win for India with a packed house that he longed for, incessantly chanting his name. He couldn't have had it any better.
"I was thinking this before the game. Who is going to spoil this day for him (Chhetri) and for us. I’m delighted that he got a couple of goals and obviously delighted that we won. I don’t think he is going to forget this for a long time," Indian coach Stephen Constantine said after the game.
The evening of 4 June 2018 and the couple of days leading up to it were unusual in Indian football. It was part of nation-wide discussions on social media, people's conversations at tea stalls, in trains, buses, and almost everywhere. This isn't a first that Indian football was discussed avidly, but more often than not the dialogue was within a niche group.
So what was is it that Chhetri in a 2 minute and 24 seconds video achieve that AIFF, Mumbai FC, Mumbai City FC, the I-League, the Indian Super League and all their promotional partners failed to?
They couldn't strike a chord with the masses.
Sport is popular as it exudes a common emotion within a group of people. It provides a thread that binds like-minded people together. It triggers mass celebrations, and also initiates passionate debates.
Sports marketers these days, barring few exceptions, seem to miss the point altogether. They appear to be stuck in numbers — numbers that look glorious on paper, but often in reality, fail to translate into anything substantial. The focus is more on attention than engagement and using celebrities to promote sports being one of the ways. Celebrity appeal certainly works in getting noticed, the reach is big, but that's how far it can go. Beyond that, it has to be the sport that must be the selling point, even though it demands a bit of time.
Football is the most popular sport in the world. It's called the 'beautiful game' for a reason. Though the standard of football matters, a few minutes of watching can get you engrossed in even a school game as the sport is powerful enough. It's for a reason that it's played in over 200 countries across the world.
On Monday, several present in the crowd at the Mumbai Football Arena were watching a football game live for the first time. Some of them weren't even regular followers of football, yet a game that was largely impacted by torrential rains was enjoyed by those in attendance. Even for the fans, just like their captain, it will be an occasion they will remember for a long time.
"This is the first time I watched a football match live. It's all because of Sunil Chhetri and the video he posted. It was sad that only 2000 people came for the first match. We play football here every weekend so we thought we should come to watch the Indian team play. And I can say that we were totally entertained," Arjun, a Mumbaikar said after the game.
It's been over two years that the Mumbai Football Arena has been hosting international and league matches, but it was a simple, humble and straight-from-the-heart request from an ordinary smartphone that managed to pull Arjun and several others — already present in the ecosystem — to the stadium to watch a football game live.
"I didn't think twice (before shooting the video). It wasn't planned. It is something that I felt that I am going to make it, I did not talk to my team, just posted it. It was from my heart, there was no hidden agenda," Chhetri had revealed before the game.
The great thing about Chhetri's video message was that it was honest. He had no problems in speaking up on the gulf between the football they played and the one that was played in Europe which is cherished by most of the Indian audiences. He also acknowledged that Indian football had provided only a few reasons for fans to be excited in the recent past. He sat there putting his hand up for their shortcomings. All he asked for was a helping hand that would drive his team towards improving the situation.
There was no mention of his hundredth game. It was not necessary as the need for support was far beyond the milestone. Chhetri realised that and just spoke his heart out. There was no emotional blackmail, little display of nationalism, but just a simple request. Not everyone in the crowd would have been an ardent nationalist, but a genuine person seeking help was enough for people to step forward.
These days, there is a high tendency for the PR machinery to push any shortcomings, failings or problems under the carpet. It is done by deviating the attention away from the problem or by skewing data to paint a favourable picture that's often quite a distance away from reality or by living in complete denial. Not always does the public fail to gauge reality. And once it does, the connect is lost.
The impact of Chhetri's pre-match plea has been tremendous. Usually, the wave of social media trends don't last for more than 2-3 days, but in case of Chhetri, it has surpassed many benchmarks.
The tickets for online sale for India's next game against New Zealand and the Intercontinental Cup final are already sold out. It will be great for Indian football if we see the trend continue for the ISL and the I-League matches. Maybe it's time for its promoters to take a leaf out of Chhetri's book and borrow a bit of his simplicity and honesty for their campaigns. Football is a common man's game. It must be played, managed, marketed in a way suitable to the general public.
Chhetri rightly calls football the "most beautiful" sport in the world. The best gimmicks in football happen on the field, those planned in corporate meetings sometimes can't match up.
Don't believe it? Come and watch Sunil Chhetri play once. Please come!
Updated Date: Jun 05, 2018 16:14 PM