The Maha Derby
After a few days of settling into Mumbai life, it wasn’t long before I was chomping at the bit to see some football. The Indian Super League (ISL) season began just a few weeks ago, and this seemed the perfect chance to get a taste of what the elite form of the game looks and feels like here.
For those new to Indian football, the ISL is the well-endowed newcomer on the scene, with this just its fifth season in existence. Created by US media giant IMG and Indian conglomerate Reliance in 2013, the league has adopted a franchise model and has begun to pump large amounts of money into the game (similar to it’s world-leading cricket equivalent, the IPL).
Mumbai City FC were hosting FC Pune City, and from first glance this seemed an innocuous fixture between two sides who had struggled for points in the opening two games. A little research led me to the revelation that this was in fact the ‘Maha Derby’ - with the two sides from the Western Indian state of Maharashtra competing for local pride. With 150km separating the two cities, this derby wasn’t as ‘local’ as I first expected. But then again, with a country the size of India and only 10 teams in the league, this was about as local as it was going to get.
Thanks to a friend sharing my Indian football fascination on Reddit earlier in the week, I was lucky enough to have a ‘man on the inside’ at Mumbai City. Harsh, a Mumbaikar, recent graduate and Indian football enthusiast, reached out with some advice and guidance on my trip to the stadium. ‘Look out for the free flag giveaways as you enter’, his Whatsapp message read, ‘and there’s sort of a club shop, more of a stall really - but you’ll probably be able to get yourself a jersey’. Little did he know how hard I’d tried on previous trips to acquire a jersey, and I sat happily clad in my blue and white Mumbai shirt, hoping it would prove a lucky charm on the debut visit to watch my adopted Indian team.
The game was a 7.30pm kick off, and the afternoon of anticipation consisted of local beer and fried chicken (not unlike a pre-match UK Saturday lunchtime), followed by a walk on the nearby beach for sunset with friends (not so typical). Games of football were being played on the sand, with men clad in full traditional Muslim dress running around in 35 degree heat, whilst horses, bikes and even a Hindu ceremony intruded on their makeshift pitch.
Arrival at a European football stadium often feels like the end of a pilgrimage, bringing a palpable sense of occasion as people are drawn to the stadium like a magnet. The grounds sit as the focal point of their part of the city, dominating the skyline or ominously looming out of their surrounding residential streets. Arriving at the Andheri Sports Complex (home to Mumbai City), it wasn’t that the crowd wasn’t visible, in fact it was more colorful and ever noisier by the minute. It’s just that in a city as chaotic as Mumbai, a large gathering of people out on the street is by no means a rare sight. If it wasn’t for the peek of a floodlight between the buildings, this swarming mass could have been gathered for any number of reasons. It seemed fitting really, given domestic football’s emerging status in Mumbai, that the game slotted so effortlessly into the sights and sounds of ‘the city that never sleeps’. By contrast to the scenes at the Wankhede (Mumbai’s ocean-fronting international cricket stadium) before a Mumbai Indians IPL game, this was a calm and low key affair.
Although the colours of Mumbai (blue) and Pune (orange) were visible in the swarming crowd, there were still more Liverpool, PSG, United and Barcelona shirts on show, as always, it seems in this city. It made me consider the tough task that the ISL clubs have to foster a fan base for these new franchise teams, barely 5 years old, in competition with the global powerhouses of European football, not to mention the historic I-League (the other top flight division) teams that have been around in India for over a century.
We slipped into a bar next door to the stadium, and with about forty minutes until kick off, I expected to join a throng of thirsty fans wearing team colours in a room packed to the rafters. To my surprise, upon opening the door we were the sole customers, and had the pick of the seats as we ordered a pitcher of Kingfisher beer. It seemed the appetite for ritualistic pre football drinking wasn’t as visible as I was used to, remembering countless stadium commutes past overflowing pubs back at home. Deep in thought and comparison, I was pleasantly surprised as ‘What’s the Story Morning Glory’ blared out through the bar’s speakers just as jersey-wearing United fans joined us in the bar - a reminder that thanks to the global brands of its football teams and musicians, you’re never far from Manchester.
Despite our early arrival, we managed to miss kick off, finding ourselves wandering through the slum neighbourhoods that border the ground in an attempt to find our entry gate, (inadvertently trespassing on a Muslim burial ground en route - not your typical stadium arrival). We found our seats behind the goal with the game five minutes old, taking in the colour and the noise before witnessing a ball being kicked.
These pockets of fanatical support were in stark contrast to the rest of the crowd, who were by no means animated. Key moments warranted shouts and cheers, but for large parts of the game you could hear a pin (or indeed a ball) drop. Every touch and shout from the players was audible. It struck me as a cruel irony that the football crowd would be so quiet in what is possibly the noisiest city on the planet.
Within minutes of our arrival the game sprung into life, Mumbai attacking with speed and dominating possession. They soon capitalised and took the lead, an acrobatic volley from their Senegalese winger Modou Sougou finishing off a well worked move. The crowd came back to life again, with flags flying and speakers blaring, whilst Mumbai’s Ultra’s turned around and imitated the increasingly popular ‘Poznan’ celebration in fine style.
The remainder of the first half passed by without incident until its final seconds, with another defence-splitting Mumbai move earning the hosts a penalty. Converted convincingly by City’s Rafael Bastos (a Brazilian attacking midfielder who has played in Japan, Romania, Kuwait and Thailand before arriving in Mumbai), the crowd were happy as the half-time whistle blew with the score at 2-0.
A half time search for a Balti pie quickly proved fruitless, and we made do with the ‘snack boxes’ being served in our section of the ground. I was reliably informed that typical stadium food would include Vada Pav (a Mumbai classic, battered vegetable and potato burger) along with traditional samosas and street food items, and I vowed to experience these for myself next time. As we bemoaned the lack of beer (is it really half time if you’re not rushing a lukewarm pint of lager in under ten minutes?), we met with Harsh, our ‘man on the inside’. Amongst other insights, we learnt that Mumbai’s manager Jorge Costa was from footballing pedigree, having captained Jose Mourinho’s Champions League winning Porto side of 2004. Additionally, Matt Mills (formerly of Bolton Wanderers and Nottingham Forest), was starting at centre half for Pune. In both cases, and indeed with all stories of European footballers in India, I couldn’t help but wonder what had brought them here, and whether or not more would follow suit in the years to come.
The second half passed by lethargically, with Pune dominating possession but failing to really trouble the Mumbai defence. There were passages of good play, and when either side got the ball down and played simple, slick passing football, it was a pleasure to watch. However these moments were few and far between, and for vast chunks of the second half the ball was lumped from end to end, centre halves pinging speculative long balls that were often easily dealt with. The game was also littered with the occasional ‘Sunday league moment’, most notably the confusion caused when a Pune player, whilst kicking the ball back after an injury break, thumped the ball into the Mumbai goal from forty yards out. Twenty seconds of chaos ensued, with Pune half celebrating in the hope the referee would submit, but eventually a goal kick was given and order was resumed.
A late penalty (missed by Mumbai) was the only event of note as the game came to a conclusion, a 2-0 win for the hosts dragging them into a mid-table position, leaving Pune languishing at the bottom. As we walked from the ground the attendance figures were displayed on the screen, with 4,288 people having deemed this an exciting way to spend their Friday evening. For the premier club in a city of over thirty million people, it struck me as odd that this figure would be so low, but it seemed relative to the marginalised position domestic football seems to occupy here.
To top off the evening, as we shuffled from the stadium I spotted a gaggle of fans surrounding a player in branded Pune kit, signing autographs and taking selfies. As we got nearer, my friend informed me this was Iain Hume, a top ISL goal scorer who’s played for Pune, Atletico Kolkata and Kerala Blasters following a career in the UK. Growing up with a Tranmere Rovers supporting father, I knew him as Iain Hume - goal scoring legend on the Wirral (where he began his career), and couldn’t quite believe the connection. Introducing myself as a Tranmere Rovers fan caused a quick double take and a look of bemusement, before he smiled and asked ‘what the hell are you doing here?’. Taking this as a compliment, I suggested I should be asking him the very same question, and we shook hands before he was whisked away. Unlike most foreign players, who come to India for a season or two in the twilight of their careers, Hume (or 'Humettan' - Brother Hume as he’s affectionately known), has been here since the launch of the ISL five years ago. I wondered how he’d found the experience, and hoped our paths would cross again in the coming months.
Star-struck, we wandered from the ground and within seconds were back in the bedlam of Bombay’s streets. As typical packs of colourfully clad fans trickled away from the Andheri Sports Complex and blended into the chaos, very quickly it was difficult to recognise that there had even been a game on at all. The Hindu festival ‘Dussehra’ was in full swing on every street, with fireworks, dancing and music filling the air as we navigated our way back through the city. By comparison to football’s all consuming sense of occasion in so many parts of the world, it became clear to me that there is no shortage of circus and celebration in Indian culture. That football match was merely a footnote on the long list of events and occasions happening all over Mumbai that evening, and it made me consider what the sport will have to do in the coming years to win over the hearts and minds of the Indian population amidst such competition.