Weeks Of Warfare On Keyboards Between The Two Sets Of Supporters Was To Be Settled At A Fortress That Was Packed To The Rafters. The Atmosphere Was Electric, Khabra Inspirational, And Chhetri Was, Well, Just Chhetri…
For all the dependence on a suave back-end system to brace us for the numbers that would fill the Fortress on a Saturday evening clouded with blue and yellow hues from sticks, shirts and scarves, it was the jammed mobile phone network that was the most accurate indicator of what lay in wait beyond the iron gates.
A crowd, a horde, a throng, a crush, a multitude – call it what you may, twenty-seven thousand people, and eighty-three more – to be precise – congregated to watch a spectacle, completely unconscious of the fact that they were responsible for it.
There were, and there always are, reunions on the touchline before kick-off. Former Bengaluru goalkeeping coach Cristi Patru caught every member of the Blues’ backroom staff in a warm embrace on his way to the away team dug out. A personal situation in the middle of two seasons ago meant he never got to say goodbye the way he would have liked to. He was making most of this chance. Mohammed Rafi and Rino Anto took the long walk to their seats together, probably discussing everything but the game.
But, as is the norm, all it took was one blow of the whistle for battle to commence – on the pitch, by the sidelines and in the stands.
Raphael Augusto’s samba had an unwelcome audience in Sergio Cidoncha and Jeakson Singh. The Brazilian, who plays the game with joy and élan of a kid doing the perfect cartwheel, was refused the time or the place to perform. The rabbit’s stubby tail was showing from the hat even before the trick was complete, and those in yellow were quick to point it out, deeming the act meaningless. Kerala pushed forward with the intent to win possession and, hopefully, the game; something they had failed to do on four previous occasions.
The pitch at the Fortress seemed to get smaller and the weight on passes from those in blue came from a measuring scale with a rare glitch. The stands, on the contrary, were hitting all the right notes with banter and the banners. The rhythm on the pitch would soon match the atmosphere.
Minutes before the half-hour mark, Udanta Singh hurtled down the right to get to a chip from Harmanjot Khabra. A coat of white paint on the far end looked like denying The Flash a chance to whip the ball into the box. But when have lines or limits ever stolen a march on the boy? He erased ground rapidly to get to the ball and sent in a cross that Augusto then buried home with a thumping header. But the assistant referee raised his flag when it was the roof at the Fortress that should have been raised. In what was a blatant disregard of the pace Udanta is capable of generating, Ranjit Baksi’s help on the sidelines chose to gamble. Replays showed the ball was in. They also showed no sign of the assistant in the frame. The Blues had been mugged, this time by the cops.
At the other end, another Raphael had his shot at glory when he sneaked past an off-side trap only to turn up with an attempt that had fans in the south stand scurrying for cover. Bengaluru needed those thirteen minutes in the dressing room, and they needed it soon. The boss gave his men a bird’s eye view of the field, clipped the shackles off what seemed to be hindering Augusto and made sure Chhetri and Delgado went through the A4-sized sheets plastered all over the wall. You know you have an ace in the hand that’s dealt to you, but there’s a sense of reassurance when you crane your neck back, hold the cards close to your chest, generate a little double chin and peep ever so slyly to make sure it’s there.
A fresh set of forty-five minutes began. Augusto was letting everyone and the ball know, how much he cared for it, while Paartalu clamped his anchor down in midfield. Khabra pushed forward to add another dimension to Bengaluru’s attack, while no long diagonal ever seemed too far away for Udanta. You could smell a revolution, let alone watch it.
At 36, Dimas Delgado would tell you that his best years are behind him, but would you believe him? He’s never the game’s most visible presence and at times he strolls, almost mooching to save his legs for when he really needs it. But when the ball is at his feet, his eyes are always off it, examining his surroundings while opponents retreat. And if it was ever placed on a quadrant or in front of a fresh line of white spray that slowly ebbs away, El Mago’s walk towards it is the one that matters.
American band Pearl Jam, considered the lords of grunge, have a track that goes by the name Yellow Ledbetter. The beauty of this song lies as much in lead singer Eddie Vedder’s baritone as it does in the fact that the band goes with different lyrics every single time they perform it. Every single time. Seconds into the opening riff and you can tell it is Yellow Ledbetter playing, but you never know what verses Vedder will go with. The relation is roughly the same as that of Bengaluru and set-pieces. You know what it’s going to end up in, you just can never tell how.
Fifty-five minutes had passed when Bengaluru won a corner on the West Block side of the pitch. There were eight yellow shirts in the box, and two more standing at the stipulated distance from the corner flag, forming what seemed an anti-Bengaluru block. Eelco Schattorie took his seat in the dugout, with his trusted assistant Shaun Ontong orchestrating what he thought was needed to be done to ward off the threat from the set-piece.
Nishu Kumar stood over it for a moment, a prop in a play, the climax of which very few people needed to second-guess. Angling back with aesthetic elegance, it was Dimas then who hung the ball in the air with the inside of his right boot; destined, it seems, for the arrival of one man.
Cuadrat had sent Ashique Kuruniyan into the box. The winger’s presence there seemed unwarranted, while a usually permanent fixture in Sunil Chhetri made his way out. While Ontong looked to put the pieces together, the play was already in motion, with Dimas’ crosscourt punt hung delicately in the air. Twenty-seven thousand people waited with bated breath as Chhetri switched his back on Gurpreet with a quick turn and raced into the box with unadulterated greed in his eyes.
Pro tip: You can’t leave Chhetri unmarked. Even if he has his laces on either boot tied together in a knot and is giving Gurpreet company during a Bengaluru corner, you never leave Chhetri unmarked.
Lying face down while the masseur worked his magic on matchday morning, Chhetri had dragged a cardboard crate right under his gaze on the massage table, placed his phone on it, then planted his face through the cavity in the table and cut himself off. He watched a compilation of the best finishers in world football doing what they do, and he watched them with blinders on.
Prior to kick-off at the Fortress on Saturday night, Chhetri shared the top scorer mantle in clashes between Bengaluru and Blasters with a Venezuelan, now plying his trade in Cyprus. It seemed only oddly inevitable that the skipper’s name would be the first on the scoresheet on Saturday. Chhetri, paying little heed to the scars that may have been, found the same space that Dimas would find with his corner, diving in to meet the ball with the kind of accuracy that sniper scopes would be proud of, rolling over as it crashed into the net off the far stick.
They’ve seen the most summers on the team, but Delgado and Chhetri celebrated like two little kids who had just managed to pop their football into a dustbin in the corner of a parking lot on a dull summer’s day with no school or chores to worry about. The West Block, meanwhile, had erupted to send their foes from the South into an identity crisis with a chant they’ve all come to adore. You’ll never hear the end of it.
The visiting army rolled up two of their banners. ‘Kill Them With A Win’ and ‘Bury Them With A Smile’ they read. A third one that said ‘Ur @ Home’ was tied to the fence. We like to believe that served as a reminder to our players that this was our Fortress, where Bengaluru are to lose a League fixture in almost two years.
Two days after the madness made way for calm, the skipper reached out with a message. ‘Has the Afterthought been written? Please tell me you guys have spoken about Khabra.’ We weren’t going to miss mentioning the man, but the fact that Chhetri felt the need to directly ‘contribute’ to this piece for the first time, should tell you the impact Khabra had on the dressing room, the game and eventually, the result. Chhetri went on, ‘you need to let everyone know that suffering from dengue and malaria ten days before a game, Khabra had no chance and no right to play on Saturday. And yet he did.’
We didn’t just hang an alliteration outside the Fortress with that ‘Home Full of Heroes’ banner. We hung a verse from the gospel of this football club, one that’s the truth.