NEW DELHI: There’s something about a game of football played in a packed stadium. As Barcelona found out recently, the Nou Camp is not quite the same without thousands of vociferous faithful in the stands. To hear, word for word, what Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez whisper to each other, takes a lot away from the illusion. In this trick, the audience is perhaps the most vital part of the act.
The chanting, the shouting, the dash of colour and the scent of smoke from flares, all mix together to form a potent drug that somehow convinces the onlooker that some of the things he sees on the field lie in the realm of the supernatural.
When the Indian U-17 team’s matches were shifted to New Delhi, there was always a worry that India’s first ever World Cup game would be played out to a half-empty stadium. Football in the city, especially at the far-removed Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, had never known packed stadiums. Kolkata, Kochi or even Guwahati would have made for a better base, detractors argued.
On Friday afternoon, it appeared that they had got it wrong. The U-17 World Cup, at least the New Delhi bit of it, kicked off to largely empty stands. Granted, a game between the junior teams of Ghana and Colombia might not have attracted much of a crowd anywhere but Ghana or Colombia. But this was a football World Cup, the first of its kind in India. And the hosts were playing in a couple of hours.
Outside the stadium, the scene was not quite what one would have expected of the occasion. Long lines of students, dressed in blue, crawled towards the entrances with the kind of discipline that would have made any schoolmaster proud. They were the 27,000 free tickets that the government had distributed among schools.
The police were doing their usual bit, barricading almost every road that led to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. But that had to do with the Prime Minister arriving more than anything.
One frustrated cab driver, irritated at the blocks and the barricades, even asked “Olympics shuru ho gaya kya?” (“Have the Olympics begun here?”)
But somewhere around the 60th minute, a roar went around. The assembled press and officials were looking around puzzled.
A Ghanaian player had pulled off a not-so-spectacular shot, so it couldn’t have been that. Had the Indian team run out to warm up? Had the PM arrived? No, it was just a reaction to what had happened on the field. Somewhere along the match, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium had silently, almost stealthily, filled itself up. For now, well played, Delhi!