Finally, in its tenth season, the ISL has got the opening-day match-up right: Kerala Blasters host Bengaluru FC in what will undoubtedly be a hostile Nehru stadium in Kochi. It’s the ISL’s first proper, organic rivalry: not one of shared ancient histories or a modern manufactured marketing exercise. Kerala Blasters vs Bengaluru FC is a rivalry born and bred in the ISL.
What do we mean? Well, take a look at the opening fixtures over the first nine seasons of the league:
ATK vs Mumbai City
Chennaiyin vs ATK
NorthEast United vs Kerala Blasters
Kerala Blasters vs ATK
ATK vs Kerala Blasters
Kerala Blasters vs ATK
Kerala Blasters vs ATK Mohun Bagan
ATK Mohun Bagan vs Kerala Blasters
Kerala Blasters vs East Bengal
The first three seasons feel experimental, let’s stick one team from a place where football will definitely attract crowds (ATK, ATK, Blasters) and pit them against some other teams from places which should ideally have decent crowds. But by season 4, they’d stumbled upon a winning formula: guaranteed butts on seats and eyeballs on the screen — Pick the Kerala Blasters, and pick ATK. Or ATK Mohun Bagan. Or if they’re not available (like last time), their great rivals from across town, East Bengal. There’s no historic connect between the Kolkata clubs and the one based in Kochi. Kerala Blasters, formed just 10 years ago, are a blip in the larger history of the Kolkata clubs (however much they are relevant in the present) and a decade is hardly enough to build up a grudge to come close to matching one that goes back eons.
Which leads us neatly to this one. Unlike say the great rivalries of the Kolkata maidan or the more historic/political feud between Bengaluru and Chennai, there are no pre-ISL markers to Kerala Blasters vs Bengaluru FC. As a rivalry, it’s only existed for half-a-decade, which is when BFC entered the league. It started with fans flexing sheer volume against fans flexing their chanting abilities and their trophy collection but has soon moved onto the kind of visceral hatred that drives all the great football rivalries.
What’s unique about this though is it’s limited, mostly, to the football. As this writer overhead once at the Kanteerava “eh, there’s nothing hypocritical about enjoying Malayalam movies and hating the Blasters. Different things, guro.” Ask a Blasters fan living in Bengaluru, and they’ll say pretty much the same thing: ‘the city’s great, and so are the people, but the football club can go do one.’
It’s a rivalry that’s just come up across football stadia and the online world, where sometimes it’s descended into unacceptable toxicity and abuse across both sets of fans. Matches between the two, meanwhile, have always been fraught with tension and the occasional on-field fracas, but things escalated a notch (or a hundred) last season in the ISL playoff eliminator.
In extra time, Sunil Chhetri scored a quick free kick as Prabhsukhan Gill was setting up a wall. The Blasters’ players protested. Referee Crystal John let the goal stand… and then all hell broke loose. Ivan Vukomanovic, the Blasters’ charismatic manager, walked onto the pitch and then led his team in walking off it with a minimum of 24 minutes play left in the game.
Now, the decision to let the goal stand in itself was a correct one (as we’ve explained here), but neither coach Vukomanovic nor the Blasters fans were convinced by it. Vukomanovic was later banned for 10 games and the club had to pay a massive fine for what they did, but the coach’s twitter timeline is illustrative of his feelings towards the whole thing:
Watching highlights of different competitions around the world from previous weekends…
If referee sprays the free kick position, no quick action allowed. The whistle signal must me respected.
Have a nice day you all.#aiff #isl #fifa pic.twitter.com/efWTxKZUZ4
– Ivan Vukomanovic (@ivanvuko19) August 22, 2023
What’s relevant here is that most Blasters fans back their coach unconditionally and this means that the Serbian has been successful in whipping up an ‘us vs them’ mentality, the ‘them’ being anyone from AIFF to the league to referees to Bengaluru FC.
And now the former entity will be at their doorstep come Thursday, September 21 and they will have everyone in yellow up-in-arms against them. The narrative was set well in advance when the ISL announced its opening fixture, but — as ever with Indian football — there’s a glitch: Sunil Chhetri is in China.
On a day 50,000+ would have been itching to let Chhetri know exactly what the Blasters fandom thinks of him and that clever bit of improvisation (or cheating, depending on who you ask), they’ll be cheering him on as he takes to the pitch as India captain at the Asian Games. Loved for what he does for the country, hated for what he does for the rival club — a position even Chhetri embraces as part of football — underlining the blinkered, isolated nature of this rivalry.
Chhetri’s absence as Rahul KP’s (the goal he scored against China underlining his class) and several others on both sides will be a bit of a dampener, but not too much. Neither should Vukomanovic’s absence from the touchline (he remains banned for four more games). It may soften the drama just a touch, but it shouldn’t really affect the overall atmosphere. Bengaluru FC are still public enemy no.1 in the Nehru stadium and the men in yellow will want to let them know exactly who the Kerala Blasters are. We ought to be in for a cracker.