Kerala Blasters toes AIFF line but coach Ivan, backed by fans, strikes defiant note

Kerala Blasters head coach Ivan Vukomanovic takes his team off the pitch after Sunil Chhetri's goal. R. Parthibhan/Focus Sports/ ISL

At 9.41 pm on Sunday, the Manjappada Twitter handle - the "official Twitter handle" of Kerala Blasters fans - tweeted a minute-long video. A lovingly filmed appreciation of what the team coach Ivan Vukomanovic meant to them, it was an extraordinary moment in Indian football - perhaps in Indian sport. And it explained much of what had happened before, and what was to happen in the next few minutes.

At 9:57 pm Vukomanovic posted a tweet, from his Twitter handle, with a message. There were around 250 words in the message, but the relevant bit was in the middle: "I regret being part of such an event."

This tweet had come after the disciplinary committee of the All India Football Federation had issued an order asking Kerala Blasters and their head coach to issue public apologies for the "event" that Vukomanovic wrote about: when he led his team off the field in a walkout that eventually led to a forfeit of their playoff eliminator against Bengaluru FC.

Half an hour later, the club tweeted out a statement too. It had just about one-third the words used in their coach's message but it was delivered in a far more straightforward manner. "Express our sincerest regrets" came in the first line. The incident was clearly mentioned, and described as "unfortunate". A promise of prevention of incident recurrence was made.

The differences in the responses to the two messages were as stark as the messaging itself. This being football, the ridicule and the banter from the opposition fans rolled on across both tweets, but what was much more telling was how the Blasters fans themselves took it.

The club had tweeted their message out with the hashtag '#Onaayiporaadam', 'we will fight as one' but for quite a few fans, the message meant just one thing -- surrender. For (exactly) a month now, they had been fighting as one, defending their manager, raging against the referee and the pivotal player-on-field in this incident (Sunil Chhetri), and generally asking the league and the Federation to do one. The essence of their messaging was simple -- 'what are you without us?' So when the AIFF said apologise or pay Rs 2 crores more (in addition to the Rs 4 crore levied) as a fine, the response from the Blasters faithful was: Don't.

In a state where rebelling against authority comes as second nature, there was no way an apology could be tendered for something they don't think was wrong. And yet, the Blasters did. What meaning does 'We will fight as one' even hold anymore, asked the fans.

Where the club management was put on full blast for the apology, the message to Vukomanovic was succinctly summed up by the hashtag that the fans have been using since ground zero: #IStandWithIvan. I stand with Ivan. For them, he has now become a revolutionary figure. They see him as the man who got AIFF to announce the introduction of VAR-lite, the man who forced a conversation around refereeing standards. The man who put his professional career at stake for the good of the club.

He wasn't and he didn't, but that's beside the point. Not only had he made them a fantastic football team, but he was now their will personified. He understood what the club meant to an entire state, and he was ready to fight for them. Now, the club is him, he is the club... the decision makers above him, simply management.

This support is pan-state, and it's loud and vocal and unapologetically aggressive. If Vukomanovic issued one of the all-time great non-apologetic apologies, it was because he knew this, he knew they would stand with him. Making him "apologise" itself has met with such severe backlash, the management knows they can't even consider replacing him at the moment.

So now the cards have been dealt. The Federation did their bit and raised the bet. The Blasters saw that and folded. But in the corner, with that trademark smirk on his face, sits the man holding what he believes is the royal flush. On the back of those cards is the simple message that powers that smile: #IStandWithIvan.

It's a high-stakes game, and it's not over just yet... It remains to be seen now who comes out the winner.