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‘Who needs Messi when we have Passi’

India fans during the Asian Cup game between Thailand and India.

Nineteen-year-old Swapnil is so pumped about the India-UAE game that he and his friends have travelled to the Zayed Sports City stadium almost six hours ahead of kick-off. A college student based in Mumbai, Swapnil is one of 150 fans who have travelled together and will be seated together in the Group A clash on Thursday night. More fans have bought tickets but will be in the UAE section of the crowd because they assumed India would be the away team tonight, while the fixtures have India as the ‘home’ team.

Swapnil’s friend Rizwan is concerned whether the Indian fans will have had their voice boxes recovered enough from the Thailand win on Sunday — among the chants they unleashed that day was “Who needs Messi? Lalalalala…We have Sumeet Passi!” — while calculations are already on about where India might finish in the group, so that further arrangements can be made about travel and stay to follow the Indian team across the UAE for the knockout stages should they make it.

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“The biggest challenge in India is that there’s no common language in which you can get everybody to chant,” says Debanjan Banerjee, a 30-year-old from Kolkata quit his corporate day job to start blogging on football, sell fan merchandise via his e-commerce site and travel the world following football. “The fans down south prefer English, while in Mumbai, the Hindi chants work better. Besides that, it’s still a challenge to get East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans to unite for the national team, or even for that matter Bengaluru FC fans.” Banerjee — who, by the way, supports East Bengal and West Bromwich Albion — is a member of a group that calls itself the Blue Pilgrims and follows the Indian team everywhere.

Banerjee is confident that the country-over-club mindset is slowly seeping into fans. The Blue Pilgrims even tried to organise a group to go cheer for the Indian hockey team at the men’s World Cup in Bhubaneswar in December, but couldn’t get tickets organised on time. “Abroad, you have fans who support their teams across sport. So in Malaysia you might have the same fans turn up for hockey matches, in Greece they would turn up for a basketball game as well,” says Banerjee, who counts having followed a game of Indonesian club PSS Sleman as one of the greatest experiences of his life.

The Indian fans admit to not having watched much of the India-Thailand game — Banerjee, who has followed every India home game for the last two years ago, reckons none of the fans will be able to recall a single minute of action from any of the games, such is the intensity of their support. Swapnil recounts the horror of once having his spectacles trampled upon after an innocuous bout of scarf-waving knocked them to the ground during a Mumbai City home game against Kerala Blasters.

Rizwan admits that while the first Indian goal brought a lot of excitement to the fans on Sunday, by the time they scored the fourth, it began to feel oddly familiar. “I guess we are just spoilt silly by the Intercontinental Cup,” he says.

There are jokes about what is the most outrageous thing they might do, within legal limits, should India pull off a win tonight. A UAE-based India fan has apparently promised to sponsor lunch for all the travelling fans tomorrow if India pick up three points.

Meanwhile, a group of three teenage boys — their brother, who is working inside the stadium, will soon take them in with him — wait just outside the entrance and playfully predict a 10-0 or 20-0 scoreline for the UAE. Khalid, the oldest of them, then comes up with a prediction that should encourage the Indian fans. “This is the best Indian team,” he says. “You guys will win, I think.”

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