Sports

In Search of India's Football Culture with Mumbai FC's Yellow Brigade

Cricket is king in India, while football has tended to be overlooked. Could that ever change? We spent time at Mumbai FC and spoke to an Englishman playing in the country to get a feel for India's football culture.

by Kit Caless
Feb 6 2017, 4:00pm

Photo: Meghna Gupta

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Mumbai is a cricket city. Millions of Rupees are invested in coaching and facilities, while the 32,000-capacity Wankhede Stadium plays host to some of the biggest international sides on the planet. In contrast, Mumbai FC's stadium, the Cooperage, hosts regular games from India's premier domestic football competition, the I-League, with a capacity of only 5,000. Given that this is a city of over 20 million, the work required to further the culture of the club game in India is clear.

As someone currently living in Mumbai, not to mention an Arsenal fan, I was struck by Arsene Wenger's recent comments about football in India. "It's a slow process of creating a football culture," said Wenger, also noting that England's league system is 150 years old yet still struggles at times. "I expect India to come to the game and I hope it will happen," added the Frenchman. Having seen the development of Japan's league system up close, Wenger speaks from experience. Instead of simply taking the gaffer's word for it, however, I decided to head to my local professional team, Mumbai FC, to see how they are working to create a 'football culture' in a nation where cricket is king.

* * *

I didn't know what to expect when I reached the Cooperage for the first time. I was late and the game had already started, so I found a queue of excitable youngsters at an iron gate and joined them. Entry cost 150 Rupees (about £2) and I was directed to the F-Stand. Walking up the steps, I was confronted with a sea of yellow shirts; I sat down to the side and took in the beautiful surroundings.

The Cooperage dates back over a hundred years. The now-defunct Rovers Cup was held there for more than a century, and often featured British Army regiments playing Indian teams until the nation achieved independence in 1947. Given how hot it can get in Mumbai, games tend to be played in the evening under floodlights, while the pitch surface is astroturf. I discovered a mixed crowd, one with families, young children, and lots of women. As I scanned their faces, a familiar song emerged from the mass of fans in the lower half of the stand.

"Oh when Mumbai, go marching in, oh when Mumbai go marching in, I want to be in that number, oh when Mumbai go marching in!"

Almost as soon as that had finished they began singing: 'We love you Mumbai, we do! We love you Mumbai, we do..."

Photo: Meghna Gupta

Then, magically, Mumbai's Thoi Singh scored a screamer and the stadium began rocking. Someone lit a yellow flare and the stand became engulfed in smoky club colours, while the crowd cried, 'Thoi, Thoi, Thoi, Thoi!' in honour of the goalscorer. At half-time I headed over to this hardcore group and introduced myself. I was immediately welcomed into the fold and spent the rest of the match dancing and singing with the Yellow Brigade. It turned out this was the first game of the new I-League season and I'd discovered the most passionate fans in the city. Mumbai won 1-0, I was added to the Yellow Brigade WhatsApp group, and familiar football banter began as soon as the whistle went. Step One of 'How to Create a Football Culture' already seemed to be in action.

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Formed in 2007, Mumbai FC is a relatively new club. The city has never been short of football sides, including the famous (but now disbanded) Mahindra United and Air India. But, according to journalist Kunaal Majgaonkar, very few people went to watch the games, tickets cost only 10 Rupees, and no replica shirts were ever produced. Other teams in India have much wider support: Mohan Bagan and East Bengal, both in Calcutta, attract huge numbers of fans and their origins stretch back to the late 19th century. Football has traditionally been popular in Goa too, though previous I-League winners Salgaocar FC and Sporting Clube Goan both dropped out of the competition ahead of this season due to financial difficulties.

At this point, a little explainer is required to avoid confusion. There are two premier football competitions in India: the India Super League (ISL), and the aforementioned I-League. Players turn out for teams in both. Here's a quick breakdown:

Formed in 2014, the ISL has eight franchise teams owned mainly by famous cricketers and Bollywood stars. Teams cannot be relegated. ISL is marketed very heavily and former greats of the game such as Robert Pires and Alessandro Del Piero have been brought in to attract attention. The competition lasts two months, from October to November. Atlético de Kolkata are the current champions, while the Mumbai City franchise – not to be confused with the Yellow Brigade at Mumbai FC – also play in the ISL.

ISL side Mumbai City currently count Uruguayan legend Diego Forlan among their number // Image via mumbaicityfc.com

The I-League, meanwhile, was born in 2002 from the ashes of the former National Football League. It is a five-month long contest featuring actual clubs, rather than franchises, and contains some proper old-school rivalries. Teams are permitted four foreign players, one of whom must come from Asia. There is an I-League second division, which has promotion and relegation to and from the top-tier. The current champions are Bengaluru, while Mumbai FC finished last season in fifth place.

The biggest threat to Mumbai FC and other I-league teams is a proposed merger of the two competitions, with the richest three clubs in the I-League joining the ISL teams in a top division and the rest in an 'I-League II'. Currently, proposals do not included promotion or relegation between the two.

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Hopefully that's not too perplexing. A confused football structure and the dominant interests of money and franchise-style teams is a sure way to impede the development of a genuine, from-the-ground-up system. This may be why football has struggled to develop in India. With competing leagues and no definitive plan from the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the situation seems chaotic at best. If you weren't sure whether your club would be in existence in five years' time, would you feel the future of football was secure?

I set up a round of interviews at the Cooperage before the next home game against Aizwal FC. The Yellow Brigade lads presented me with a replica Mumbai FC shirt and we chatted about how they've started to build something in their hometown.

The author (centre) receives his Mumbai FC shirt. Robin d'Souza stands behind him // Amit Malvekar

Robin d'Souza (above, see caption), the ever-smiling pulse of the Yellow Bridge told me: "When the ISL came a few years ago, it took away all the attention from the I-League. One of our complaints is that the I-League is not given much importance in the media – there are only a few newspapers that cover it. But we're hoping in the next couple of years, given the merger or whatever happens, that things will be better. The I-League is a full, proper season, and it needs to stay that way. The thing is, if it wasn't for the I-League the ISL wouldn't have happened in the first place."

Shyam (below), a former employee at Mumbai FC and the Yellow Brigade's cheekiest chant-creator agrees. "I am an I-League man. The ISL hasn't had a bad effect, because it's encouraged people to want more football; our attendance is up, partly because of this, I think.

"The ISL has been marketed well, and that's the reason people pack stadiums for it. Before the ISL, there was mainly local people coming [to Mumbai FC games], but now, thanks to ISL's popularity and the Yellow Brigade activities, we are getting requests from people outside of town to come and watch a game – from Gujarat, from the rest of Maharastra. It's been a positive thing, but when it comes down to the existence of the club, there's no certainty that we will be in the top league when the merger happens. We could be in the new [second tier], which wouldn't be great."

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The Yellow Brigade visit colleges and actively recruit people to come and watch the games. They are trying to create a fan culture at the club that is reminiscent of how English and European supporters behave. This is guerrilla-marketing, outreach without the big budgets. It is fans taking direct responsibility for raising the profile of their club, building their own momentum, producing passion and a following.

Robin remembers a time before the Yellow Brigade existed, when it was just "elders" sitting on wooden planks and discussing football. The Yellow Brigade formed out of a desire for fans like Robin to express themselves in the way they saw in supporters do at Champions League games, and how they felt Mumbai FC should be supported. Football is a passionate game, but it is yet to harness the overt ebullience Indian cricket fans show for their sport. Nevertheless, a culture of fandom and support is certainly present in other aspects of Indian life.

Shyam explained the Yellow Brigade's role during games: "We try and take our inspiration from European fans. Mohan Bagan and East Bengal don't have fans who chant continuously. But we and the West Block Blues (of Bengluru FC) have a similar tone to the European crowds. So when you hear, 'When Mumbai Go Marching In', that's because we are taking inspiration from that version of support. We want people to sing, we want that tradition here."

Yellow Brigade member Shyam cheers his side on // Photo: Meghna Gupta

It's not all English-inspired chanting though. Some of the greatest songs are in Hindi or Marathi (the language of Mumbai's state, Maharashtra). My favourite involves local food bragging rights. The Yellow Brigade will mention a food that comes from the opposing fans' area – say rasgulla (cottage cheese balls in sugar syrup) for Bengal – and then claim that their street food, vada paav (like a chip butty, but tastier), is better.

"Rasgulla pe bhaari kaun? Vada paav! Vada paav!"
(What is better than rasgulla? Vada paav!)

Then there is the chant delivered in Marathi which rather politely instructs a player to go home to his mother:

"Chettri [or other players name], tula aai bolavte... ghari jaa ghari jaa!"
(Chettri, your mother is calling, go home, go home!)

What is football culture if not borrowing elements from other songs to make your own, and shouting insults at players? Every member of the Yellow Brigade has a European team they support, though sadly for an Arsenal man like myself there are many Chelsea fans among them. This might be down to the Blues' active work in creating supporters clubs in India rather than a genuine love of John Terry; still, it shows that there is the fanbase out there – you just have to reach out to it.

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The I-League is not exactly awash with overseas talent, but Englishman John Johnson of current champions Bengaluru FC is enjoying a successful spell in the country. Bengaluru were only formed in 2013 and have sought to replicate the community structure of European football clubs, including building a youth academy. They have quickly become successful on the pitch, winning the I-League twice and reaching the final of last year's AFC Cup – which is roughly comparable to the Europa League – where they lost 1-0 to Iraq's Air Force Club.

Johnson is a product of the Middlesbrough academy and played over 130 times for Northampton Town. He signed for Bengaluru in 2013, becoming one of the club's first foreign players in the process. When I spoke to John before a crucial AFC Champions League game against Al-Wehdat in Jordan, he told me that the decision to move to Bengaluru was something that he hasn't regretted for "one single day."

"It was a big chance I was taking, given that I'd never played in Asia, let alone India, before. But when a former teammate of mine, Ashley Westwood, got the job as manager of Bengaluru, he spoke with me and his assurance was enough for me to come over. That apart, I was at a stage where I wanted to give new things a shot in terms of my career and that helped me finally decide to come here."

John Johnson, a two-time I-League winner and a Smoggie far from home // Photo courtesy of Bengaluru FC

After a few games in the stands I can see the quality of football at Mumbai FC oscillate between decent and structured, to mistake ridden and frustrating. A lot of it is still played in the very middle of the pitch, but when the players break out into space it begins to click. Johnson has seen I-League football at close quarters for more than four years. "The standard has been improving every year, contrary to what the pictures on TV may suggest," he explains. "A lot of Indian players have really got better over time and the competition, on the whole, is much tougher than it was when I first came here."

Bengaluru regularly attract more than 10,000 people to their stadium and have their own ultras, the West Block Blues. The club seem to have created a football culture from nothing in under half a decade, and Johnson is full of praise for the set up.

"The way the fans have taken to the club in Bengaluru has to be seen to be believed. We had 4,500 fans for our first ever game in 2013. Now, our big-ticket games get as many as 22,000. The club's media team works throughout the year and is always putting things out there to connect with the supporters, which is so important. All the lads in the squad are involved in activities that include meeting fans, converting new ones and spreading word about the club. We have our own home pub and, even better, have our own beer named after the club!

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"The club treats the fans like family," he continues, "and their opinions are always taken seriously, which I think is fantastic. The fans have responded so well. We now have big numbers travelling to away games, which is not so common in India yet. Most things the club does, it takes the players and fans along with them. The bond is very special and it shows."

Their own pub. Bengaluru really do seem to be embracing football culture, though it's unlikely there is a sign stating 'Home Fans Only' in the window just yet. Johnson says he would recommend a move to the I-League to other British players. "I wouldn't have hung around for four seasons if I didn't like it!" he says. "Things are on the rise here and there are good people who are entering football in India. The difference in culture is obviously vast between the UK and India, given that football is not the primary sport here. That said, things are picking up at a rapid pace when it comes to popularity and following. Bengaluru FC fans indulge in a lot of chanting and singing throughout the game and the atmosphere on match days is terrific. The journey so far has been brilliant to say the least."

* * *

Particularly among India's urban youth, the desire for a football league and a national team that the country can be proud of is very strong, and it should push the game forward so long as the AIFF can figure out a way to harness this potential and goodwill. The appetite for football in this country is bigger than the rest of the world might think.

Photo: Meghna Gupta

In some cases a football culture must be given time to cultivate, but for Mumbai FC – with a league merger on the horizon and uncertainty over their future – the time is now. Having found such a passionate group of fans who were so keen for their club to succeed, I can't help but hope they can overcome the odds and build a football culture in a region that has overlooked the game for so long. To quote one of Bollywood's most famous odes to the city: "Aye dil hai mushkil jeena yahan. Zara hat ke zara bach ke, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan."

@KitCaless