USA's Chris Durkin probably heard the rumble inside the belly of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium long before the roar when he walked on to the field. The voices bellowed deafeningly as the midfielder, along with the rest of the USA Under-17 team, stepped onto the turf on Friday evening.
All of them, 46321 to be exact, had turned out, eager to claim this bit of Indian history as their own, when India competed for the first time at a FIFA World Cup. In a part of the country where interest in the sport hovers around the apathetic, these were staggering numbers.
At the end of a match, Durkin, who scored a goal in his side's 3-0 win, remained suitably impressed. "When I walked out of the tunnel, I had a smile on my face, seeing 40000 people in front of me," he gushed. Long time USA coach John Hackworth too acknowledged "one of the best atmospheres I have ever witnessed in a U-17 game."
The hashtag #FIFAU17WC had been trending on mobile phones outside the venue, and sport-stars and celebrities had been publishing videos in support of the team since the morning while the atmosphere had been building up since the early afternoon. Tickets had been hard to find. Many of course had been bussed in from schools around the capital to fill up gaps inside the stadium. But most wanted to be here. The magnitude of the challenge faced by India didn't seem to daunt them.
"Of course we will do well. USA may be strong but we are no less. And it is the first time we will watch a World Cup. We had to come," said Gideon, one of a group of six college students who stood waiting for other friends to meet up with them at the JLN metro station.
The road leading up to the stadium saw a steady stream of fans. Many were waving flags, some had the tricolor painted on their faces. Others carried homemade posters. While several were wearing the blue Indian jersey, it was not the Indian football team's but the cricket one's. It was only another reminder of the share of mind-space football has to win back.
This evening was about football though. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi was here and he felicitated a number of Indian football captains. The cheers for Bembem Devi were dwarfed by those for Sunil Chhettri, who in turn found less favour than Baichung Bhutia. Modi himself got the loudest cheers, but they too were drowned finally by the electric chants of "India, India."
The chants would continue after the national anthems and through the moments before the kickoff when Jitender sank to his knees, folded his palms and looked skyward in prayer. It was what coach Luis Norton de Matos had wanted. A day before the match, he had called for the crowd to play a decisive role against an opponent that was by any metric the superior one.
"I want us to be playing 12 men against 11," he had said. It was that 12th man who appeared to do all the work at first as team USA ran the ball nearly entirely inside the Indian half.
The setback at the half-hour mark, when an arguably harsh penalty decision broke the deadlock, couldn't take the fans out of the game. The concrete bowl hissed in disapproval but stayed firm in support. Even Durkin's strike in the start of the second half did little to dampen their enthusiasm. A Mexican wave went across the ground while another section attempted a Viking chant.
Perhaps it nearly worked, or maybe the USA just grew complacent. The anticipation inside JLN stadium swelled nearly to burst, with nine minutes to go, when Anwar Ali's rocket off a Komal Thatal pass clanged against the USA cross bar. All that hope deflated instantly when the immediate counter saw the ball streak past the desperate palm of goalkeeper Dheeraj Singh to settle into the back of the Indian net.
"A cruel result for the side," was what coach Matos called it. It was as cruel an outcome for the fans in the stadium. Several would have been sorely disappointed as what could have been a fighting 2-1 loss ended in a 3-0 washout. Indeed, the fans thinned out by the time the final whistle was blown. Many more remained though, for there was enough that would give them heart. They remained even though no water was provided at the stadium; many fans resorted to drinking from taps at the venue. They stood and cheered once more as the players applauded them in appreciation for the support.
Undoubtedly, the boys, dejected no doubt, had done enough to warrant that backing. "Win or lose, we support you," a raised poster proclaimed defiantly.