26000 fans singing Vande Mataram together is a sign of Indian football’s resurgence.

26,000 people chanting Bande Mataram together. It has happened in Indian stadiums before. But in football? Nah. And that’s what we witnessed at the “Fortress” last night in Bengaluru. As Sunil Chhetri started walking towards the gallery in celebration after winning the SAFF Championship, all of 26,000 fans joined in the chorus in a collective.

Hundreds of these fans had travelled to Bengaluru for the game. Some had even come from the North East. May be that’s why Sunil had said, “The crowd was fantastic. And a large number of our fans travelled to watch us play spending time, energy and money. I met a number of these fans myself. It is not easy to spend money and travel to support your team. And that’s what we are now seeing in Indian football. The least we can do for these fans is turn up and give our absolute best each time we wear national colours. That’s what we tried to do in this tournament.”

Winning the best player and highest scorer trophies at 38 is evidence of Sunil’s commitment and passion. But what was a delight to see was how he handed the trophy to the youngsters and stood at the back. That’s the hallmark of the leader. His family was present in the stands and wife Sonam just couldn’t bear the tension. She had her eyes closed in prayer when Sunil stepped up to take the penalty. But then Sunil and penalties are best friends. He hardly ever misses and he did not. That set the tone. Eventually it was Gurpreet, the other real leader in the team, who stepped up with the fantastic save. India had yet again won the SAFF Championship but with teams from outside the region making their debut, this was a very different win with a very different significance attached to it.

Igor Stimac, who left for Croatia early morning from Bengaluru, has now moulded a team that is fit and ready to fight. 120 minutes and yet Chhangte was sprinting for every ball. The discipline and fitness that Sunil speaks of has now rubbed off on the entire team. “I have said to the boys that I will quit only when I am the last in the dressing room in terms of fitness. They need to beat me. And I will work the hardest. So if they beat me imagine the standard of fitness in the entire team”, Sunil had said. With Stimac pushing the boys and urging them to get aggressive and express themselves, it is now a nice blend of passion and aggression.


All this augurs well for the Asian Cup in Doha in January. And the Asian Games. India rarely plays teams like Kuwait and Lebanon and the AIFF needs to be complemented for including them in the competition. “You don’t get better playing teams at your level or below. See other Asian giants like Japan or Saudi. They will always play teams that are better than you so that you can compete and judge your improvement” argues Sunil. And despite being lower in the rankings, Kuwait was certainly as good if not better than India, something Sandesh alluded to ahead of the game. “We haven’t played a team as good as Kuwait in our last 9-10 outings”, said the pillar of India’s defence.

That’s what gives us hope. From losing to Guam and falling below 160 in the FIFA rankings to winning three tournaments in three weeks, it has been a tumultuous decade for Indian football. And now we are starting to see signs of resurgence. The ISL has helped. Playing with stars of the quality of Coro and Miku have given our own confidence. With money coming in, they now have the facilities and the means. Mental health of the players is also being looked into and all of a sudden we have a structure. It is no longer ad hoc. Each of these boys are professionals who know that with results there is enough and more money to be earned. The fandom is certainly there, and all the fans need is performance.

Bengaluru was proof Indian football sells. Social media this morning is proof the sport is vibrant. SAFF Championship is trending and so is Sunil Chhetri. To go back to what I started with. 26,000 people packed in the stands singing Maa Tujhe Salaam and Vande Mataram is proof what the sport means to us in India. A resurgent Indian team has given them voice. The more the team gets better, the more the fans will start to feel vindicated. That’s what it is all about. Performance. Cricket changed with 1983. Athletics changed with Neeraj and shooting changed with the Abhinav moment. A really good Asian Cup in Doha could well be the moment Indian football has been waiting for. The SAFF win shows it is doable. Proper planning and proper training under a very good coach in Stimac would make the boys get better and as Sunil says “do the best for the country.”

It is time to get behind the sport. The SAFF win is certainly a moment of reckoning.

Also Read: Gurpreet Sandhu the Sudden-Death Hero as India Lift SAFF Championship

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