For a long time now, Chennai has had a deep and intrinsic relationship with art, culture and sports. Thousands of auto-rickshaws take to the road each day, proudly sporting a poster of their favourite actor or sportsperson. At the beaches, teenagers -- coming straight from school -- indulge in a quick, but intense game of gully cricket, complete with one bat, two stones and a widely accepted 'one-pitch-one-hand-dismissal' rule. Music festivals run to packed houses, while at cinema halls, the release of every major blockbuster is treated as a festival of its own.
It's hard to see, though, where football fits into all this. Chennaiyin FC of the ISL -- winners of that league in 2015 -- hold a special place in fans' hearts, but Chennai has barely had any representation at the highest level. Until now. On December 11, Chennai City FC were given direct entry to the 2016-17 I-League season, making them the first club from the city to take part in India's top-tier tournament since Indian Bank participated in the National Football League back in 2004.
And current circumstances haven't helped bring football into the public consciousness. December began with the death of Tamil Nadu's chief minister Jayalalithaa, leading to a week-long mourning in the state. No sooner did Chennai find its feet than it was hit by Cyclone Vardah, which destroyed much in its path, including trees, buses and (perhaps most crucially) internet connections. Throw in a Chennai cricket Test to hog the sports headlines with a memorable triple-century by Karun Nair and a dramatic last-day victory for Team India, and it's easy to see why people don't really know much about CCFC.
They have actually been part of the city's fabric for 70 years. Originally founded in 1946 as the Nethaji Sports Club, Chennai City were stuck in limbo in the First Division before they were taken over in 2013 by media baron Rohit Ramesh, who invested heavily with both money and local talent. The results followed immediately, as Chennai City gained promotion to the Senior Division and finished the 2016 season in third place.
If the club has taken giant strides forward in the last three years, they are nothing compared to what has happened behind the scenes in the last three weeks. Getting into the I-League was one thing, but building a competitive team from scratch while also promoting homegrown players and registering four foreigners before the season began was a completely different challenge.
Robin Charles Raja, appointed as the head coach on December 13, was the first piece of the puzzle. Raja has coached a number of teams in the past, including Tamil Nadu in the Santosh Trophy, but his latest gig is a "major, yet special task". "A club like Chennai City FC is going to help in the development of Tamil Nadu football as a whole," he says. "We need to start thinking about the future of Tamil Nadu on the football map. Chennai has finally got a slot [in the I-League], and now as much as possible, we need a solid 25- or 26-man squad, with a good back-up of local talent."
Raja uses the words "local talent" frequently, and it is not hard to understand why. Chennai City will be captained in the upcoming season by Trichy-born defender Dharmaraj Ravanan, who plays center-back for Pune City FC in the ISL. The team has also signed another Tamil Nadu player in Dhanpal Ganesh, as well as Chennaiyin's goalkeeper Karanjit Singh.
From outside, the club brought in Brazilian strikers Marcos Tank (24) and Charles (22) as well as Nigerian defender Echezona Anyichie. Raja has also roped in former Madras Eagles player and Australian coach Andrew Oakley as his assistant to "infuse new ideas into our South Asian culture".
Besides the struggle to fill up the squad and the race against time, Chennai City face another big challenge in the long term -- bringing in a new generation of fans to cheer for their local team.
When asked about Chennai City's prospects for the upcoming season, most people near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium respond with a "Therile pa" (I don't know), or "Are you talking about Chennaiyin?"
While Raja admits that there is always room for more supporters, as far as he is concerned, there is already a "football-loving crowd" eager to support the club. "The players and spectators who are more involved with the game will always support Chennai City," he says. "(In a friendly) against Tamil Nadu XI, for example, there were a lot of people in the stadium. Former players, current players, coaches, you, me. All of us are aware of what's happening. Once the team starts performing regularly, and with a little more marketing, Chennai City will become an even bigger name. We can't compare our fan following with that of Chennayin, who have a lot of global stars. Here, it's our homegrown kids playing."
Former India striker Raman Vijayan agrees with that assessment. Vijayan was born in Tamil Nadu, but a lack of opportunities in the state meant he had to move to Kolkata to pursue his football career, eventually playing for East Bengal. During the 1997-98 National Football League season, he ended as the top scorer for FC Kochi, with 10 goals. "Having a club like Chennai City is a huge boost for the younger generation," Vijayan says. "It has been a long time coming. Back in my day, we had to go to Kolkata to get the right exposure. There were very few followers of football in Tamil Nadu then. But the ISL has given everyone confidence. The fans are now waiting for our own state players to shine when previously we had to move and play in Goa."
With as many as four teams in the CFA Senior Division having the word 'Chennai' in their title, Raman can understand why the Chennai City brand needs time to grow, but much like Raja, he too believes that the club is on the cusp of something special. The fans, on their part, are doing their best to give the players a rousing welcome when Chennai City open their campaign against fellow debutants Minerva Punjab on Sunday.
"The people of Chennai are very patriotic to the city. Anything related to Chennai, and they'd go for it," says Jay Shree, who runs the Chennaiyin fan group Supermachans. "Not many people know about the league or the team yet. Once they do, I'm sure they'll all support the club wholeheartedly."
Coming to the season itself, Raja is keeping the bar high, but he knows that a mid-table finish coupled with the emergence of several homegrown players would constitute a promising start. "We will plan the tactics on a match-by-match basis," Raja says. "It will be good if we can play five or six games and bring the whole team together. One thing is for certain, we'll give it our all. Chennai City FC will win over the people of Tamil Nadu eventually."