Soccer spectacle sans spectators
NEW DELHI: The home fans at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Assam celebrated a victory for the first time in the Indian Super League 2022-23 as NorthEast United FC finally ended its 10-match losing streak with a 1-0 win over ATK Mohun Bagan, read the lead of the match report that was sent from the League to accredited media.
However, the first paragraph did not exactly give a clear picture of what transpired as only 500-odd spectators turned up at the venue, one of the lowest turnouts in the short nine-year history of the League.
Dwindling attendance at stadia has been a theme not just in the north-east but everywhere, a cause of concern for Indian football since the ISL is the country’s top-flight competition.
The League, which has running since 2014, is into its ninth season and these days, hardly any venue is packed to its rafters.
In the ongoing edition, the Kerala Blasters FC fans have been the saving grace, throwing their weight behind their beloved club by coming out in large numbers to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi.
A few factors have contributed to the massive drop in interest of attending live football matches. The ISL organiser did away with the mandatory marquee player rule ahead of the fourth season in 2017-18, losing star attractions who were crowd-pullers in the first three editions.
Even occasional or non-regular football watchers thronged the venues to get a glimpse of legends such as Marco Materazzi, Robert Pires and Alessandro Del Piero etc.
The greats of the sport were well past their prime, but brought thousands of fans, resulting in jam-packed arenas for most matches. Once the ISL discontinued the rule, the spectator numbers started to go down gradually.
The below-par performances of clubs representing football hubs have not helped.
FC Goa has been a pale shadow of its past while NorthEast has been fighting for only the wooden spoon in the last couple of seasons.
Mohun Bagan has failed to top the charts despite boasting of financial riches, with fellow Kolkata giant East Bengal FC yet to get going since entering the ISL in Season 7.
After years of pain, Kerala Blasters appears to be on the right track and hence, the footfall at its home ground.
Some would argue that the quality of the League has dropped following the reduction of foreign players. At any given time, only four overseas players per team are allowed on the pitch – it was six in the first three seasons and five in the following three editions.
But, with Indian clubs now competing in continental events such as the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup, the ISL organiser decided to comply with the AFC regulation of four foreigners.
The League and clubs will have to find more innovative ways to bring back fans to the tournaments.
As any sporting league worth its salt is painfully aware: what happens to the idea of charm when the beautiful game is being played in front of empty stands?