When an open palm beats a synthetic fibre chair, it makes a sound. When 3,000 palms do it in synch it makes for a symphony of destruction.
Delirious fans, a stoppage-time winner and a lap of honour by the victorious Men in Blue — who says football matches in the country rarely see passionate, vocal fans? Just one tiny detail, the blue in the Men in Blue here wasn’t the Indian sky blue jersey. It was the navy blue of the Nepal football team.A day after hosts India played out a 1-1 draw against Afghanistan in front of some 500 people, mostly tournament officials, Delhi Soccer Association old-timers, the participating teams and policemen, a crowd of around 1,500 turned out to cheer Nepal as they beat rivals Bangladesh 1-0 in the Saff Cup at Nehru Stadium on Sunday.
Many were Nepali expats from the city, but quite a few, like Kathmandu-native Raju Thapa, made the trip across the border. On Sunday, it paid off, “We haven’t beaten Bangladesh in 18 years. This win makes the trip worthwhile,” he said.
After the match, the Nepal players went to the two sections in the stadium where their fans spent 90 minutes cheering every ball feint, every step-over, heck, even hopeful clearances hoisted up-field were met with roars of approval. The players went up to the stands, acknowledged the fans’ spirit and took a bow.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure that a ticket to an India match isn’t the biggest draw in town, but when the coach of war-ravaged Afghanistan claims that more fans turn up back home you know it doesn’t bode well. “Football in Afghanistan is popular now, when our national team plays at home there isn’t a seat to be had, can’t say the same about the situation here,” said Afghanistan coach Mohammad Yousof Kargar.
Nepal coach Graham Roberts echoed a similar sentiment. “When I met the Maldives team, they said they wanted to win it for their fans. (A group of 30 have made the trip from the island nation). It’s the same with our boys, we want to win it for our fans,” he said. Many of the India players, who’ve played and won many important matches at a packed Ambedkar Stadium over the past few years, have long maintained the motivating effect full houses can have on a team.
At the Nehru Stadium, however, where few Indian fans have shown up it's been a boon for Nepal. When captain Sagar Thapa scored a 94th minute winner of a freekick, reminiscent of Ronaldinho’s magical goal from a similar distance over England’s David Seaman in the 2002 World Cup quarters, the crowd erupted. “We play this game for the fans, this freekick was my way of repaying their faith,” he said.