Winning hearts: Neymar fans warm up to Mumbai City FC at DY Patil stadium
The Islanders put in a solid display despite a 0-2 defeat against Al Hilal at the DY Patil Stadium and Neymar fans made their presence felt.
Monday evenings at a typical Mumbai railway station aren’t exactly a cauldron of joy. Tired after a hard day at work and still a long way away from the weekend, there’s a weird kind of monotony among the masses. Monday blues? Maybe.
Monday evening at Nerul railway station felt different. There was chatter and chants as waves of blue seemed to converge in one direction. For those indifferent to the footballing world, it would have felt strange, but for those who have tasted the beautiful game albeit from afar, it was a refreshing site. A game was on at the DY Patil stadium.
If you missed the tinge of blue in the crowd, you’d almost certainly know by the glow in the sky from the floodlights you’d notice once you stepped out of the station. And if you even missed that then the numerous autorickshaw drivers offering a ride to the stadium would make it all too obvious.
If you made it to the stadium you’d need no clues to guess what it was all about. Al Hilal, Asia’s most successful football club were paying a visit to face Mumbai City FC in the AFC Champions League.
But in all honesty, that wasn’t the occasion. Al Hilal boasts a rich range of superstars, the biggest of them being Brazil’s all-time leading goalscorer Neymar. All around the stadium, Neymar jerseys were being sold in two distinct versions: the deep blue of Al Hilal and the bright yellow of Brazil. You’d feel the Brazilian is all set to dazzle the DY Patil with his magic, but guess what? The Brazilian was out of the clash with a knee injury and hadn’t even travelled with the squad. It wasn’t even breaking news and the crowd was well aware of it. Yet they went on and donned the Neymar jerseys to mark the occasion. If you could ever have a better example to define what stardom means.
The light blue of Mumbai City FC was also noticeable but vulnerable to being drowned out in the yellow and blue sea of Neymar kits.
Mumbai City FC had their task cut out. They had to take on Al Hilal, still boasting top-class players in Portugal’s Ruben Neves, Serbia’s Aleksandar Mitrovic, Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly, Brazil’s Malcolm and Saudi Arabia’s Salem Al Dawsari, the recently crowned AFC Men’s Player of the year, in front of fans whose loyalty was very much a mystery.
The game kicked off and in a flash, Mumbai City FC were raiding the Al Hilal goal. A clever move saw the ball fall to Greg Stewart inside the box, the Islanders’ best player. The angle was tight but the Scot packed in enough power in his shot. The goalkeeper stood his ground and thwarted the effort.
Mumbai City FC hadn’t scored but had made a statement of sorts. They weren’t going to be pushovers, they weren’t just a piece in the Neymar party, they were a significant part of the occasion.
Four minutes later, Jorge Pereyra Diaz beat Koulibaly to a bouncing ball, not long before regarded as one of Europe’s finest defenders, to race at goal. It needed the Senegalese to use all his powers of recovery to avert the danger. The tone had been set.
And it rubbed onto the stands. They acknowledged the home side’s endeavour, their intent and to an extent their ability. Then came Mumbai City FC’s turn to defend as Al Hilal shook off the sluggish start. Goalkeeper Phruba Lachenpa made two brilliant saves to deny the visitors and once again show that Mumbai City FC were up for a battle.
The fans unanimously cheered the saves and slowly joined in to applaud every tackle, every perfect pass and every counter-attack which although short in supply were definite and carried a threat.
When Mumbai City FC went down to ten men in the second half, there was a sudden silence that gripped the ground, it became more evident when Al Hilal took advantage of their numerical superiority and scored the opening goal just after the hour mark.
But even with ten men, Buckingham’s men kept on fighting. Lachenpa was having a brilliant day at the office and every save of his was celebrated like a goal. He was eventually beaten again five minutes from time as Mitrovic doubled Al Hilal’s lead, but the crowd didn’t head for the exits. They joined in the West Coast Brigade initiated ‘Mumbai, Mumbai’ chants.
Even after the full-time whistle, they waited for Islanders who gave them a lap of honour and clapped them off.
The fans who had come to watch Neymar’s team play sans the superstar had found a connection with their local side.
“I think the buzz was all about Neymar. You can see that I am wearing a Brazil shirt,” said a CA student attending the match.
“But I loved the atmosphere. I sat away from the Mumbai City FC fans and the noise that they created was amazing. I felt I missed out on that. I loved how they played and kept the crowd interested. I really enjoyed them play and I think I am going to turn into a Mumbai City FC fan pretty soon,” he continued.
He wasn’t the only one who was won over by Mumbai City FC’s drive and desire to compete against a very strong opponent.
“I had booked the ticket to watch Neymar play and was a little sad when he got injured, but this experience was so good,” said Krutika Phadnis, a sales manager by profession.
“This was the first time I watched a football game live and I totally enjoyed the experience. I think I loved the fight Mumbai City FC showed on the pitch against some big stars of world football and I think I am now going to watch more football games live and support Mumbai City FC in the ISL,” she added.
Rohan Bal, an IT professional sang on similar tunes.
“The game, the atmosphere and some of the performances from both sides totally made it worth our time. It made us forget the disappointment of Neymar’s absence. As a Mumbaikar, I was proud of Mumbai City FC’s performance and I felt a connection with the players throughout the match,” he said.
The result is not something that will stay on with Mumbai City FC for long but the performance that contributed to the spectacle that was created will stay with the fans for some time.
On a Monday evening, Neymar fans who had come to express their love for the star albeit in his absence warmed up to Mumbai City FC. They came wearing deep blue on their bodies but left with a light blue heart. Monday blues? Maybe.