The eighth edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) is round the corner. The opening match will be played between the last season’s finalists ATK Mohun Bagan and two-time runners-up Kerala Blasters on November 19 in Goa. Much like the last season, all the matches by the eleven participating clubs will be played in a controlled environment set-up, with minimum outside interaction.
The ISL season for the fans usually commences even before the first kick-off. The fans begin their preparations as soon as the players are signed up. Raghul Anthony, 29-year-old Secretary of Supermachans, the official fan club of Chennaiyin FC reminisces about how he ‘fell for the club’ in the second season of the ISL. “The first Chennaiyin FC game that I attended was the first home game against Kerala Blasters. It was at that moment when I fell for this club. It will remain to be my favourite moment as it introduced me to one of the best things in my life,” says Anthony, who is also an HVAC Consultant with an engineering firm in Chennai apart from being a biker and a fitness enthusiast. Over the years he has stayed captivated by the sport, and proactively prepared for the matches, motivated the team, welcomed players at the airports, and carried out other club-related activities.
The same passion for the club runs through the veins of 28-year-old Aashirwad Chakravarty, the core committee member of the Highlander Brigade, the supporters of the Northeast United FC. Aashirwad enjoys music and has a deep interest in Sociology, particularly in popular culture and social institutions. A Ph.D. aspirant, he studied fan culture in his dissertation during his Masters. He and his fellow members are averse to being called ‘fans’. “Fanaticism kind of vacillates between supporting and going against or losing interest, so we restrict ourselves from using the term ‘fan club’, and project ourselves as a ‘Supporters club’,” says Aashirwad. In fact, both Supermachans and Highlander Brigade emphasized that their club activities are not limited to cheering for their teams in stadiums and they go a step further to encourage and nurture football talent in their respective states.
The magic of Indian Super League
Indian Super League has rapidly grown in popularity in a short span of eight years since it started in 2013 and has achieved milestones for Indian football that other leagues could only dream of. Largely, the fans fall in the age bracket of 18 to 35 years and include school and college students, doctors, engineers, other corporate professionals, and entrepreneurs. “Interestingly, the fans come from diverse backgrounds, some are entrepreneurs in the software space, some work in corporate firms, some run grocery shops, we even have actors”, says Suparno of East Bengal the Real Power, the fan club of SC East Bengal. The 37-year-old ISL fan works with an IT firm in Kolkata, enjoys music, and likes to immerse himself into reading about football whenever he can.
The ISL fan base is spread across the urban and rural landscape of India. The passion among the fans of the Indian Super League is such that they even travel long distances for an electrifying stadium experience. “We had around 5000 fans travel from north Kerala to Bengaluru, to watch a match in a stadium in March 2018”, says 41-year-old Somu Joseph, a core member of Manjappada, the fan club of Kerala Blasters. Joseph is a Thiruvalla-based entrepreneur who besides sports, enjoys exploring newer places.
As per a 2019 survey by YouGov Sport, a global sports sponsorship and entertainment research company, Indians are playing more football than ever. Indian Super League has popularized the sport among Indians by as much as 137% ever since the league’s matches were rolled out. Much of the popularity can be attributed to the innovation by the organizers to better the viewer experience. “ISL comes up with innovative concepts that make the match experience special. We are expecting that in this season as well,” says Somu Joseph.
Anthony of Supermachans is also of the view that ISL has brought newness into Indian football and attracted more viewership, “They (the organizers) are trying their best to draw in more fans.” Chakravarty of Highlander Brigade particularly remembers DHL’s yellow remote-controlled car that delivered the match ball in ISL 2020-21 as something ‘difficult to ignore or forget’.
ISL fandom at its full play
Fan clubs even take pride in the way they have grown and deepened their network. Manjapadda, the fan club of Kerala Blasters FC, has a fan base of more than five lakh unique followers on social media, and a presence in 65 countries. Due to the sheer size in their numbers, they call themselves true global ambassadors of Indian football. “We pave the way for fan culture in India, especially in football, and come up with innovations year after year. That’s why twice we have won the best fan club award by the Indian Sports Honours Jury at the Indian Sports Honours event,” says Somu Joseph, the Secretary of Manjapadda.
On the other hand, East Bengal the Real Power call themselves the pioneers who started the organized fan culture in India. “We are the first ones to get registered under the Indian Societies Act. We first came together on Orkut and were the first online fans community in Asia. Seeing us, our rivals came up with their fan clubs,” the members add. Today this supporters’ group of SC East Bengal has transformed into a real-life community and has more than 100,000 unique members spread across Asia.
Despite their efforts to outdo each other in garnering supporters, the Indian Super League fans have nourished the growth of football in India. The common thread that resonates through the ‘12th man’ of the Indian Super League clubs is the emotion, passion, and togetherness to revive Indian football and take it to newer heights.