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HT Kick Off: A trip to Emirates shows how Indian sports fans are being shortchanged

Feb 23, 2024 11:30 AM IST

The realisation that the Indian fan is short-changed gets stronger after every visit to a famous cathedral of sport.

A winter’s day, in a deep and dark December. It is one thing listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” while growing up (and growing old) in Kolkata and quite another to be in one, literally, in London. Two days into our holiday, we were still some way from adjusting to soupy light at noon and that too on a good day. It was darker when we left lodgings at Northwood Hill but football beckoned. Rather, Arsenal did.

A wet day at the Emirates (Dhiman Sarkar )
A wet day at the Emirates (Dhiman Sarkar )

The growl grew into a roar as it spread across The Emirates. “Ar-senal, Ar-senal” the chant swirled around the amphitheatre as the home team struck early against Chelsea. Scream your hearts out, Arsenal head coach Jonas Eidevall had urged in the matchday programme (more on that later). “I can guarantee you the noise will make a difference when we need it most.” The 4-1 win meant Arsenal didn’t really need it that grey afternoon but their fans did create an atmosphere to remember

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Record attendance

The North Stand is an imposing piece of work. Like most modern stadia, the top tier gives the feel of being in a high-rise but the view of the pitch is clear. A 12.30pm start on a Sunday may not be Juergen Klopp’s favourite time to kick-off but that Women’s Super League (WSL) game had an attendance of 59,042. It was a record till last Saturday when Arsenal bettered that with a capacity crowd of 60,160, the most in WSL, seeing the home team beat Manchester United 3-1. Never have so many watched any women’s football match in England.

That afternoon last December they walked through the winter rain, persistent and powdery, to the Emirates from the Arsenal underground station – the only one in the world named after a football club – and from Finsbury Park, Highbury and Islington stations. Even on the wet, windy morning, you could feel the electricity coursing through fans ahead of a crucial game. In the year of the most-watched World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, it was another proof of how much the women’s game has grown.

On match days, roads leading to the Emirates (and possibly every stadium in England) are pedestrian zones. If you live in the neighbourhood and need to use your car, your patience will be tested. Dotting the approach to Emirates were merchandise stalls and food kiosks for those who had missed breakfast. We hadn’t but still got sandwiches and wraps to keep bellies and, before that, hands warm.

Electronic tickets scanned, we were in and working our way up several flights of stairs to our seats in the stands. In the eighth minute, Beth Mead, the England forward who was part of the 2022 European Championship winning team, scored with a rasping shot after wrong-footing the Chelsea defence. North London shook as Arsenal celebrated.

Two quick goals late in the first half from Amanda Ilestedt and Alessia Russo put the game to bed before half-time. Exactly the kind of situation that makes pies and pint taste better. The queues were orderly at counters where people tapped phones or cards to buy their bites and beverage. You cannot take alcohol to the stands so people gathered around tables and followed the live telecast till they had drained their glasses.

Indian fans short-changed

The fan experience was in stark contrast with what the paying public goes through in India across sport. The food is overpriced, often of dubious quality and often not available. To get water pouches – if they are available – you will miss part of the game. Getting to stadiums in most cities is a challenge. Here’s an example: the Salt Lake stadium got on Kolkata’s metro map nearly 40 years after it began being used. Add to that parking being a project, little or no thought to how the disabled can access the stadium and the usually boorish behaviour of security personnel.

And you can forget stuff like stadium tours, statues of club legends that add to the aura of many a ground (Wankhede, you are exempted but it didn’t happen till late last year) and collectibles such as a matchday programme. That is a booklet that talks about the match for which you have come, includes information on the teams, an article by the head coach and interviews of some players. In short, a keepsake. The one I bought was worth £3.

Work has taken me to some of sport’s most famous cathedrals and I am weak-kneed with gratitude for it. But with every visit realisation of how the Indian sports fan is short-changed keeps getting stronger.

An afternoon at Emirates in December was also an affair to remember (Source: Dhiman Sarkar)
An afternoon at Emirates in December was also an affair to remember (Source: Dhiman Sarkar)

IN OTHER NEWS

Fan power wins: The German football league (DFL) has said it was abandoning a billion-euro investment deal after widespread protests by Bundesliga fans, a U-turn hailed by supporters' groups as a "success". Fans in the top two tiers of German football had littered pitches with everything from tennis balls to chocolate coins interrupting games to oppose the plan to swap a portion of the league's future media revenues for an upfront cash injection. The plan had been approved by 36 clubs in Bundesliga 1 and 2 by a two-thirds majority last December. “Given current developments, a successful continuation of the process no longer seems possible,” Hans-Joachim Watzke said in a statement on behalf of the DFL's board, reports AFP. Supporters' group Unsere Kurve hailed a "major success for all active football fans".

Klopp, Xavi and now Tuchel: Bayern Munich coach Thomas Tuchel will leave at the end of the season, the German joining Juergen Klopp and Xavi who have also said they would leave in summer. Tuchel’s impending exit was hastened by a run of three straight losses that has raised the prospect of the club's first season without a trophy in 12 years. His contract had another season to run. The decision was by mutual agreement, said Bayern chief executive Jan-Christian Dreesen.

AFC Champions League unsustainable: The current Asian Champions League is "unsustainable", the global footballers' union FIFPRO has said, reports AFP. The union has in a report accused the regional governing body of failing to listen to players and clubs. Starting in the next campaign, there will also be a geographical split at the start of the tournament, but the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final will be held in Saudi Arabia. FIFPRO said this remodelled version, which will see the winner take home an increased cheque of $12 million, was also unsustainable. FIFPRO accused the AFC of adopting "a top-down approach that excludes the voices of players and clubs from decision-making". The report said that the average quality of teams in the Champions League was inferior to the top domestic divisions in Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. FIFPRO also voiced concern about the economic cost for teams, given the long travel sometimes involved, and the effect of travel and match scheduling on the workload of players.

RIP Brehme: Andreas Brehme, who scored the only goal as West Germany beat Argentina to win the 1990 World Cup final, has died, says AP. He was 63. Brehme's partner Susanne Schaefer confirmed his death in a statement to Germany's DPA news agency on Tuesday. Schaefer said Brehme died “suddenly and unexpectedly” in the night from a cardiac arrest. “Andreas Brehme will forever be in our hearts, as a World Cup winner and, more importantly, as a very special person,” his former club Bayern Munich said on X, formerly Twitter. Brehme, who played mostly as an attacking left back, was a star of German soccer in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1990 World Cup, he scored in the semi-final against England, which West Germany eventually won on penalties, and his 85th-minute penalty decided the final in Rome against Argentina. He played 86 internationals. Brehme won Bundesliga twice, with Bayern in 1987 and was part of Kaiserslautern's improbable run to the championship in 1998. He also won the Italian Serie A with Inter in 1989.

Argentina's Diego Maradona (R) fights for the ball with German Andreas Brehme (C) and his teammate Thomas Berthold during the final match of the 1986 Football World Cup Federal Republic of Germany vs. Argentina on June 29, 1986 at Mexico City. Andreas Brehme, who scored from the penalty spot to seal victory for West Germany against Argentina in the 1990 World Cup final, died overnight into February 20, 2024 at the age of 63, his former club Bayern Munich said. (Photo by AFP)(AFP)
Argentina's Diego Maradona (R) fights for the ball with German Andreas Brehme (C) and his teammate Thomas Berthold during the final match of the 1986 Football World Cup Federal Republic of Germany vs. Argentina on June 29, 1986 at Mexico City. Andreas Brehme, who scored from the penalty spot to seal victory for West Germany against Argentina in the 1990 World Cup final, died overnight into February 20, 2024 at the age of 63, his former club Bayern Munich said. (Photo by AFP)(AFP)

Ito’s suit: Japan international footballer Junya Ito is suing two women who have accused him of sexual assault for 200 million yen ($1.3 million) in damages, his lawyer has said, reports AFP. The 30-year-old Reims winger is under investigation by Japanese police over the alleged incident in Osaka last year. He denies any wrongdoing. A report about the accusations against Ito was published in a Japanese magazine while the player was at the Asian Cup in Qatar. He left the Japan squad before their quarter-final against Iran.

Fae to stay: Ivory Coast have appointed Emerse Fae as full-time coach after he led them to success in the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this month, the country's football federation president said, reports Reuters. Fae, 40, was assistant when the tournament in the Ivory Coast kicked off in January but was handed the reigns after Frenchman Jean Louis Gasset was fired when the Ivorians lost two of their three group games. Fae's only previous coaching experience has been with the juniors at French club Nice and as coach of the reserves at Clermont Foot.

Gattuso sacked: Olympique de Marseille have fired manager Gennaro Gattuso a little over four months after appointing him, reports Reuters. The 46-year-old Italian, who has previously coached Valencia, Napoli and AC Milan, was hired by the Ligue 1 club as Marcelino's replacement in September last year. Marseille are ninth in the French top flight after a winless run of five matches.

Exit Klinsmann: Juergen Klinsmann has been fired as head coach of South Korea after an Asian Cup semi-final exit and reports of infighting among star players, ending a turbulent 12 months for the German coach. Klinsmann was already under heavy criticism after South Korea's upset 0-2 semi-final loss to Jordan last week and pressure intensified following media reports of a spat between captain Son Heung-min and young star Lee Kang-in during the tournament. The players have since apologized. As well as his leadership and tactical skills, Klinsmann was unpopular with fans for refusing to base himself in South Korea, in contrast to previous foreign coaches.

South Korea's head coach Jurgen Klinsmann looks on before an international friendly football match between South Korea and Colombia in Ulsan on March 24, 2023. South Korea sacked Jurgen Klinsmann as national football team coach, the Korean Football Association said on February 16, 2024. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)(AFP)
South Korea's head coach Jurgen Klinsmann looks on before an international friendly football match between South Korea and Colombia in Ulsan on March 24, 2023. South Korea sacked Jurgen Klinsmann as national football team coach, the Korean Football Association said on February 16, 2024. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)(AFP)

Two tiers for women’s league in USA: USA will have two different top tiers in the women's leagues, reports Reuters. The new USL Super League was given 'Division One' sanction. The National Women's Soccer League has been operating since 2013 and its clubs have featured most of the USA women's team players as well as top imports. The new league will operate independently from the NWSL and is part of the United Soccer Leagues structure which includes second and third division men's leagues.

Spy chief Kyrgyzstan head: Kyrgyzstan's spy chief Kamchybek Tashiev is set to head the Central Asian country's football association, reports AP. This was after a request from the country's ruler. President Sadyr Japarov consolidated power in the former Soviet country after 2021 when supporters sprung him from prison where he was serving time on kidnapping charges. The post has been vacant since Kyrgyzstan, who are 98th in Fifa rankings, were eliminated early from the Asian Cup last month.

The following article is an excerpt from this week’s edition of HT Kick Off. Sign up here.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata and has been a sport journalist for over three decades. He writes mainly on football.

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