Fan rivalry at the eye of the Bengaluru FC v Kerala Blasters storm
Fan rivalries across the country can possibly spiral out of control if not pruned at the right stage and given the correct direction
Defending champions Bengaluru FC will host Kerala Blasters FC in a crucial Indian Super League encounter at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium on Saturday. Carles Cuadrat's team has started the season slowly, with a few unexpected draws in their early matches, but he will be confident his side can produce the magic against an injury-marred Kerala side that has struggled to get going under new coach Eelco Schattorie.
But beyond the field, fan rivalry, somewhat strangely for a contest that is only two years old, will be once again at the epicenter of the clash, and the organisers will (hopefully) be taking measures to ensure it doesn't spiral out of control. Both sets of fans will be expected to clog the stadium which can lead to a tense situation.
@kbfc_manjappada Expectation for all of us for tomorrow from the highly cultured, professional *___luruFC /DictionaryFC fans— KBFC Updates #BackTheBlue #BlueTigers (@KBFCtweets) November 22, 2019
Sorry, I missed to add -professional fan group with good pr skills supported by the club tooo pic.twitter.com/mFQco7WaMo
In a footballing sense, the rivalry doesn't make a lot of sense. Bengaluru FC have dominated the team in yellow in most matches, and the trophy cabinet also suggests a dominance. The ongoing ISL season has shown us the same trend - Bengaluru might not have the wins to back them but they've looked the better side as compared to a Kerala unit who have battled injuries.
But there is more the Bengaluru-Kerala rivalry than just football. In fact, the Malayali population makes up a large portion of the Bengaluru FC supporters group the West Block Blues. There is a sizeable population of football-consuming Malayalis in Bengaluru who found home in BFC's identity which has infuriated many fans in Kerala who felt let down by their own folks in the neighbouring state.
Another point, often cited by fans, that upset Kerala's Manjappada was Bengaluru FC's decision to enter the Indian Super League. The Blue's fans were vocal supporters of the I-League and used to look down upon the Indian Super League fan groups, according to Manjappada. So when BFC made the shift to what is India's top tier competition now - the Indian Super League - Manjappada were quick to welcome the entrants with some banter.
Online presence of both the fan groups have been the constant supply for the rivalry that is yet to produce anything remarkable on the field. Even though the league is short and matches are hard to come by (with Super Cup being the only other tournament where the teams are likely to face off), the conversations (or banter) between the two fan groups are sustained throughout the year through social media activities.
The conversations are part of the football world and will not be a concern for the governing body. What is worrying, however, is the quick invasion of political inccorectness in the larger umbrella term of 'banter'. Subtle hints of racism are already making into the conversations while larger conversations on gender and inclusivity still remain dormant with most fan groups.
That thin line between banter and hooliganism
Football fan culture has forever been closely linked with hooliganism. Multiple academic works exist which try to explore the mind of a football fan and how they tend to behave in a crowd. But for a country like India, where football culture is still in its nascent stages, despite the game being played for more than a century in certain regions, to have these frequent episodes of fan-related violence can be a dangerous sign. Nothing has, thankfully, reached a stage where a fan has gotten physically hurt (barring incidents in Kolkata where the rivalry between top clubs East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and Mohammedan Sporting has a larger socio-political history).
In the recent match between Bengaluru FC and Chennaiyin FC there were reported cases of fan clashes with the away fans from Chennai accusing the hone team of mistreatment. Food items were allegedly thrown at the Chennai fans by the home supporters but the visiting fans themselves faced severe backlash for unfurling a poster that called their former player Raphael Augusto a snake.
But with the country and the federation refusing to acknowledge the existence of these frequent cases of bullying, there is a chance these rivalries might spin out of control. As argued by N Umabathy of STEDS football academy in Vyasarpadi, the beauty of football has always been the freedom of expression it provides. For generations, players, often coming from backward communities, have used the ground as a platform to perform which perhaps explains why the sport goes hand in hand with art forms such as hip-hop and rap music. Therefore, to curb a fan's desire to shout or express might backfire in a market that's looking to go big on football.
The need for the hour is leaders who can guide the fan groups in the right direction. Fans tend to show a herd mentality and if the prominent names in these groups can take the right approach in terms of representation and political correctness. It's 2019 and the last thing a growing fan culture wants is the presence of age-old problems that have existed across the footballing world such as racism and xenophobia. And it is important for the community to clamp down on such activities rather than sweeping it under the carpet and calling it part of the process.
Picture courtesy: Manjappada (Twitter)