You often come across a person who has changed his job for a better remuneration, a non-vegetarian converting to a vegan or one who has filed a divorce after being years in a marriage. If you are lucky enough, you might even find an East Bengal fan who distastes Hilsa or a Mohun Bagani who doesn't like lobsters.
But seldom you would find a football fan who has changed allegiance or has stopped watching the game even when his favourite team is underperforming. Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch (1992) says his love for Arsenal continued “longer than any relationship I have made of my own free will”. One life, one club is the motto.
Indian football fans are no different. A couple of disappointing seasons have not dampened the spirits of Manjappada. Similarly, East Bengal fans have never tasted silverware in I-League but their support has never dwindled. A myriad of emotions is associated with a football club and the historical, cultural and geographical lines further boost the sense of belonging as most clubs are named after a city or a state.
The Indian Super League (ISL) has increasingly become more popular with each passing season. Although the in-stadia attendance has gone down since the third edition, 'arm-chair fans' have been on the rise. The 2019-20 season of the tournament recorded a 51 per cent jump in the M15+AB Urban category as per BARC’s (Broadcast Audience Research Council) report which proves the aforementioned claim.
With the ATK-Mohun Bagan merger, the attendance figures are also expected to swell. Interestingly, Mohun Bagan gave free passes to their members to watch the semifinal clash between ATK and Bengaluru and more than 50,000 fans turned up to watch the match.
"I will definitely go to watch ISL in the stadium next season. Mohun Bagan will be playing for the first time and I can't miss that," said a jubilant green and maroon fan who has been an all-weather supporter for Bagan for more than a decade.
On asking whether he would switch to Kerala Blasters' as Joseba Beitia is tipped to join the two-time finalists he replied," Players come and go and the same with managers. But I cannot support any club other than Mohun Bagan. I will probably not even watch Beitia play again barring the two times he will play against us."
Similarly, Anindya Mondal, an ardent East Bengal fan in his sixties asserted that, "Shyam Thapa, Subhash Bhowmick all went to play for Mohun Bagan after playing for many years in East Bengal. I lost interest in them. Only when they played for India again, I would follow them."
Fans follow a club, not because of a particular player but they identify with the ethos and culture of the team. Irrespective of whether a player continues to play for his favourite team, a fan continues to be loyal to a team.
Yes, world-famous names like Luis Garcia, Roberto Carlos, Nicolas Anelka, Diego Forlan did grab eyeballs. Once this class of players stopped plying their trade the fringe or the fair-weather supporters lost their interest.
"I went to the stadium to watch Alessandro Del Piero play. That was the only time I have attended an ISL game," said Sumit Agarwal, who is keener on following European football.
Also, a reduction of just one foreigner will hardly impact the quality of football.
Instead, the inclusion of more local players generates greater interest amongst the fans. In no time Sahal Abdul Samad has become a poster boy of Kerala Blasters. Pritam Kotal is a fan-favourite in Kolkata, whereas Brandon Fernandes, Mandar Rao Desai are the blue-eyed boys of the Gaurs. Hence, the clubs should promote and invest more in local talents to capture the imagination of the masses in the catchment area. After all, they are the ones who fill the stands on a matchday.