On a cold and wet Boxing day in 2019 at Stamford Bridge, Southampton shocked Chelsea with a two-nil victory. When referee Jonathan Moss blew the final whistle, and as the travelling Southampton fans cheered in the rain, the celebrations extended far beyond West London. Nearly 5,000 miles away in Mumbai, a small group of Southampton fans were also celebrating the final whistle with the same jubilance displayed by the 1,543 away fans at Stamford Bridge.
When a video of their celebrations surfaced online, it caught the eye of the Premier League India Twitter account and ITV Meridian Sport here in England, highlighting how far the reach and pull of England’s top-flight division really is.
“It’s a really big thing to be a fan of Southampton Football Club in India” says Srijan Pathak, reflecting on that night.
“We arranged to meet and watch the Chelsea v Saints game in Mumbai at Café 24, and the five of us were surrounded by 30 or 40 Chelsea fans. Then, Michael Obafemi scored and we were jumping around whilst the Chelsea fans were sitting down, and then the second goal went in and it was absolutely brilliant.”
Srijan and fellow Saints fans Devarshi Paul, Bharath Vishal and Saral Saini all met through a Whatsapp group, set up for Southampton fans in India to connect and share their love of the club. Srijan adds “I thought I was the only person in India who supported Southampton and then I found these guys.”
When the status quo is to follow Manchester United or Liverpool (or insert another top-six club here), supporting a team like Southampton bucks an all too familiar trend and in India, goes against an unwritten expectancy to disregard any club that lies below 6th in the Premier League table.
“It takes a lot of guts to support a team that is not in the top six because supporting a team which is always winning would be way too easy,” according to Saral.
“Your emotional and mental capacity to support a club (like Saints) which is going up and down is more testing. The top clubs already have so many fans, so many. It doesn’t make sense to keep supporting the same clubs and following the same masses. For me personally, since I fell in love with Southampton, I have been stuck with them ever since.”
Devarshi Paul, adds “When I’m asked why do I not support a top six club, I take a lot of pride in the fact that we have a brilliant academy and we have produced some great players. We have a great culture of promoting the youth and making great players.”
Behind each individual fan, who supports a club that resides thousands of miles away, is a story of what sparked their long-distance love affair. Whilst each story is as unique as the last, the majority will share a common theme. By chance.
This was the case for Bharath, “In 2012, Championship football was never really streamed in India, but we had the Football Review Show. I turned on to watch the last day of the season when Southampton played Coventry to get promoted to the Premier League. I didn’t have a clue who Southampton were, but that match, 4-0 with Lallana, Sharp and those guys playing at the stadium, I had no idea they were playing for promotion to the Premier League but at that very moment I got goose-bumps. I was like OK, let’s see how this goes.”
“The questions then started; Why do you support Saints? What do you get out of it? People say you don’t have a trophy, but I live for the small moments like the 8-0 against Sunderland and the 1-0 against Manchester United at Old Trafford. For me, that’s how my story started”
Devarshi explains how he first started supporting the Saints. “In India, the first sport that people start watching on television is cricket, but eventually I started playing football in school. I started following the Premier League during the 2011-12 season and I always had soft spot for the underdog. I was fascinated by the tactics used by the team under Nigel Adkins and also, we’ve had some really good players such as Victor Wanyama, Dušan Tadić, and Adam Lallana of course”
Saral recalls “The moment that made me support Saints was when my cousin bought me an Xbox and I played FIFA 07. As I was scrolling through the teams, Southampton were the team outside of the top six that caught my eye and from there I started playing with them. That was the era of Shaun Wright-Philips, Grzegorz Rasiak, Claus Lundekvam. It was just amazing and that is how I started following the club”
The Premier League is so often described by many as the best league in the world, but when compared to other top European leagues such as La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliga, is that an opinion shared by football fans in India?
Srijan explains “The Premier League is actually the most followed football league in India because of its competitiveness, not because they have the best teams. The Bundesliga have better teams than the Premier League. Think of Leicester winning the title, that happened out of nowhere and shows the competitiveness of the Premier League”
When it comes to delivering English football to foreign shores in TV subscription shaped parcels, the Premier League nails it with monopoly-esque dominance. This is evident in India especially, and when compared to the amount of television content offered by other top European leagues such as La Liga, The Bundesliga and Serie A, it is no wonder the Premier League attracts more fans in India than any other league.
Saral describes the current lay of the land for televised football in India. “The broadcasting thing in India is the reason it is much more famous in India than La Liga or Serie A. So here, we had a couple of broadcasters competing for the right to show Premier League games. Star Sports have a huge margin in terms of the number of channels, app and online streams, so that has also been a major factor in attracting many more fans. Compared to La Liga or Serie A, you don’t have that much streaming or broadcasting channels especially for the non-top clubs of the respective leagues. The Premier League in India broadcast games of all the clubs, not just the top clubs. That doesn’t happen for the other top leagues here in India. The exposure of the Premier League is a big reason why it attracts so many fans”
Saral’s view is also shared by Bharath. “The one thing the Premier League has done so right is the advertising. It is the only football league that is shown across all different channels, and that is one of the main reasons the Premier League is so visible and has so many supporters but if you look at other leagues, they rarely have supporters in India of the smaller clubs like Southampton have. It is marketed so well in India”
Looking forward to the remainder of the season, Devarshi believes Southampton are moving in the right direction under the guidance of Ralph Hasenhüttl, “For sure. Absolutely. One of the things I look at when judging how good a manager is, is how much we change after half time, how much our tactics change and I think Ralph does a good job at this. I think Saints will finish 7th this year.” Bharath also thinks top ten is achievable “I think I’m also going to go with an 8th placed finish”
In what turned out to be a busy end to the transfer window for the Saints, the club signed highly rated French midfielder Ibrahima Diallo from Ligue 1 side Stade Brestois 29, and also secured a last-minute homecoming loan deal for Theo Walcott from Everton.
Srijan feels that the new signings show Ralph Hasenhüttl was backed during the summer transfer window, “The club gave the money to the right man (Hasenhüttl). The signings we made this summer are really good”.
When asked which new signing will have the biggest impact on the team, Srijan replied “Ibrahima Diallo. We have looked disarrayed in the midfield since Pierre-Emile Højbjerg left for Tottenham and Ibrahima will fit into our midfield well”
The journey of Srijan, Devarshi, Bharath and Saral’s friendship, and their immense pride in supporting Southampton Football Club, is a warm reminder of how the passion for Premier League football for millions of fans around the globe, stretches so much further than the stadium, the pub or the sofa here in England.