BFC fans crowd the stadium early
It's a 7 pm kick off, but it is after all a big cup final. So even though it is a Saturday and effectively the second day of the weekend, I make sure I get to the Suhaim bin Hamad Stadium by about 4. I deliberately stop at the end near the fans' entrance, curious to find out what the pre-match build-up is like.
I run into the Bengaluru FC fans, who pose for pictures and videos with their banner which calls them "loud and proud". The first fan I speak to is a bit nervous, as is evident when he lets slip an "I hope..." when asked who he thinks might score for Bengaluru. Others around him are more assured, as one fan predicts a 2-0 win with Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Sunil Chhetri scoring. When I joke that they should at least give one goal to Air Force, another fan chips in: "First we'll score, then they'll score. And Cameron Watson will score the winner in the 80th minute."
India rallies around Bengaluru
There are fans streaming in, especially into the VIP gallery right next to the media gantry. The gantry is building up, but at a comparatively leisurely pace. The representatives from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and local stewards and stewardesses with their shirts identifying them as 'Spectator Service' are being generous, though.
As Indian fans make their way in, they greet Indian journalists and members of the Bengaluru FC media team. There are middle-aged men wearing mufflers in stripes of red and yellow, indicating their preferred choice of team to support in Indian football is East Bengal. But they have all made a concession with at least one piece of clothing bearing either the name BFC or the colour blue, sometimes both. Some have the jersey, some are carrying a scarf, and most of them are wearing BFC caps.
The man the coach calls Mawia
Lalthuammawia Ralte couldn't have timed his recall to the Bengaluru first team better, could he? A suspension to Amrinder Singh meant little Ralte was playing only his first full match since starting at home against Ayewady United in the group stages of the same tournament in April. The start was nervy for him, as the ball slipped out of his grasp a couple of times.
It didn't help that the constant pressing of Air Force players made the defenders often pass back towards him. In the 36th minute, left-back Nishu Kumar sent over a feeble ball that Ralte did well to dart towards and clear to safety before an Air Force player could get to the ball. Nishu earned a stern rebuke from coach Albert Roca from the touchline, and was subsequently one of the first to be substituted.
Also read: Bengaluru lost but they'll be back
Ralte was good in the second half too, and in the post-match press conference, the coach initially didn't understand the specific question as the reporter used his full name. Once it was clarified to him, he had genuine warmth in his smile as he began his reply with "Oh Mawia..."
The winner who rebelled
Close to the last five minutes of regulation time, Chhetri went in hard on a tackle on right-back Sameh Saeed. With a 1-0 score to defend and with the opposition showing more urgency, Saeed took advantage of the opportunity to go down quite dramatically, which Chhetri didn't appreciate.
The stretcher had to be wheeled in. Saeed went out, and as is often the case in these incidents, miraculously recovered as soon as he reached the touchline. In the meantime, coach Basim Al Suwaid had kept a substitute in Halkor Taher ready, but Saeed would comically sprint back into play without looking at the bench.
When he was told by the referee to get going, he would throw a mini-fit. His teammates tried to persuade him to go, and fellow defender Al Bahjat offered a high-five, which was ignored. The first hand he eventually shook was that of Al Suwaid. You know what they say, the boss is always right.
Chhetri's champion touch
As soon as the final whistle was blown, the Iraq players were going to pieces. Most of them sunk to the ground, and the left-back Ali Al-Saadi was bawling his eyes out. Chhetri took the initiative in walking over to the victors, first clearing with Saeed that his tackle on him was not meant with any malice.
The Bengaluru players then went up to the stands to acknowledge the crowds. They gave away bits and pieces of their kits, and Chhetri was happy to hand his armband to a young boy in the crowd. They may not have won the title, but as a fan prophetically said in a chat before the game, "We will make sure we get ourselves heard." In amongst a motley crowd of 5,806 people, they certainly did.