Mohun Bagan fans cheer their team in the ISL final against Bengaluru FC at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Goa, March 18, 2023 (Photo Courtesy: ISL)
INDIAN FOOTBALL ISN’T the nation’s foremost sport. As a result, it needs fans that much more. What we witnessed at the Kolkata airport when the victorious Mohun Bagan team returned home the day after the Indian Super League (ISL) win is exactly what the sport needs. Crazy fans. And the truth is they aren’t empowered. Or much spoken about. Or celebrated.
There were approximately 12,000 fans at the airport. Each chanting ‘Joy Mohun Bagan’. Some of them weren’t willing to let the team bus leave. They would lie down in front of the bus and scream in delight. Scenes that were similar to what we had seen last December in Argentina. The ecstasy when Messi & Co won the World Cup. It was similar here in Kolkata. Only India is ranked 120th in the world and football isn’t India’s No 1 sport. And that’s what makes these fans that much more important. They don’t care for rankings. Or even the quality of football on offer. Despite all this, they will back ‘their’ team. Stay with the team through thick and thin.
Ultimately, fandom is the only sentiment that is a constant in sport. Why not empower them more? And that’s what Sanjiv Goenka did after the ISL win. It was a masterstroke. Dropping ATK from the name of the club is the best thing he could have done on the night of the ISL win. Mohun Bagan Super Giants has Mohun Bagan as the first two words. Words of sentiment. Words that resonate with millions. And the fans are delighted. They weren’t able to identify with ATK. ‘Why ATK?’ was the question. Now, they are happy. And it can only help the club going forward.
If you want Indian football to develop, you need such decisions just like you need corporate support. You need Reliance and Mrs Ambani. You need Sanjiv Goenka and RPSG. You need Parth Jindal and JSW. Without corporate money, there is no modern sport. And corporate support with a proper harnessing of fan sentiment can be a combination Indian football will need going forward.
You need money and lots of it for many to take up the sport. Look at it as a career. For businesses to invest in it, you need more of the fandom. The more people watch, the better it is.
That brings me to the question of the ISL final. Why will the biggest final in Indian football be played to empty seats in a stadium with a capacity of 20,000? Yes, neutral venue all right but when you can have 70,000 fans in Kolkata or 50,000 fans in Bengaluru, just play there. People were craving to be a part of the action. Make use of them. Tap into the fan base. Give them what they want and they will help the sport.
When we are speaking of Mohun Bagan, we must also speak of East Bengal. As a football fan, I want East Bengal to become strong. Indian football needs them. You need the East Bengal fans for the sake of the sport. The club management needs to work with the corporates and not just look at Emami as a funder. You need synergy. It is something East Bengal fans deserve. A strong club.
Across Bengal, Goa, Kerala and Bengaluru, strong club football will translate into strong national football. The change can indeed happen. Again, it is a constant just like fandom is.
And the other thing which can help speed up this change is broadcast. Or rather, a changed way we broadcast our football.
So far, the broadcast has focused mainly on the stadium. While the game is on, broadcasters hardly show fans far out of the stadium or in other cities, let alone in other countries. When Mohun Bagan is playing, you will have the craziest fans in Kolkata. Showing the stadium in Goa only isn’t a true reflection of the sport. It can never be. Fans who are unable to travel or afford the cost of tickets are excluded from the ambit of the broadcast. The nature of their engagement with the coverage produced by the broadcaster is mostly passive, for they do not have a say in how the broadcast is constructed. If fans are given more agency and control over how they perform their fandom and are presented on the screen, it will not only enrich sport broadcasting but also draw fans more actively to the process of event-making.
If fans are given more agency and control over how they perform their fandom and are presented on the screen, it will not only enrich sport broadcasting but also draw fans more actively to the process of event-making
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By showing clips made by fans located anywhere in Kolkata and Bengaluru, the broadcaster would have been able to exhibit the national nature of fandom. The stadium fans they usually show are of a certain ilk: mostly still male, draped in garish costumes, faces painted, etc. Such broadcasting has failed to represent the diversity of fandom. The new technology will show fans in a variety of moods—schoolchildren watching sport secretly, parents teaching sport to children, diasporic fans watching at odd hours, and office colleagues following the action—images that connect in a way seldom fully revealed.
The new technology that we now have at our disposal can unite the world of fandom in a manner never done before, and with the technology available, this is no longer a task too far. Today, fans in remote villages consume sport on mobile, and that is what explains the success of platforms like Hotstar or Jio Cinema in India. It has allowed a degree of democratisation of the fan experience and by making every household a gallery of sorts, the broadcaster can considerably enhance the process.
By empowering fans and democratising fandom, these innovations can help sport emerge stronger with an expanded scope and a larger playing field. Local displays of emotion will intersect with global cultural imaginaries and dimensions of sport. New identities can be forged and sport will have a larger-than-ever base of committed and engaged fans.
And the broadcast shouldn’t end with the match. Fans are committed to the team the next day. When a victorious team returns, it is as much a spectacle as the event—that is, the match itself. Mohun Bagan fans are proof. They were there in thousands. Not just at the airport but again at the club the next day. And in front of the RPSG office where the players were invited for a celebratory lunch. All I hope for is that these fans are brought into the ambit of the sport and empowered as quickly as possible for they are integral to the sport’s monetisation.
If ISL is to become bigger and better, we need more Indians to back the brand. Become Mohun Bagan and East Bengal fans. And if that happens, there will be only one winner—Indian football.