The knockout clash between the two footballing giants, Bengaluru FC vs Kerala Blasters FC, of the south of the Indian subcontinent saw the first and only walkout of the tournament since its inauguration in 2013. The historic incident occurred during the Indian Super League (ISL) play-offs match at the Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru on the 3rd of March, 2023.
The whole 90 minutes preceding the much-debated incident was a display of athletic and sporting masterclass from both sides. The Kerala Blasters FC, however, seemed to have momentum with their attacking tactics in effect and their domination over possessional play. Bengaluru FC was also no less as the team showed remarkable resilience which ultimately, in a twisted turn of events, proved to be fruitful for them.
Unfortunately for the Blasters, resistance was not the answer to the question raised at them in the 96th minute of the match, as the Bengaluru forward Sunil Chhetri put the ball over and past the whole of the yellow army from a set-piece position without waiting for the whistle. It was an ingenious effort, and the referee Crystal John allowed the goal to stand with the commentator deeming it as “a legitimate goal” and stating that Chhetri had “every right to play that free-kick quickly.”
This prompted the beginning of the controversy which saw the Blasters’ head coach Vukomanovic step in immediately and show his absolute rejection of the on-field proceedings. The coach asked his players to come off the field and refused to continue to play in an effort to overturn the goal as the fans and players stood in shock and dismay.
Soon the towering figure of the Serbian emerged as the source of force which inspired their protestations, taking a drastic stance and receiving the vital vocal support of the Manjappada crowd. The club and the sporting staff followed their Aashaan (meaning Master) and submitted an official appeal challenging the referee’s decision, asking for his ban from future games and a rematch of the eliminator.
According to news sources, Crystal John was present at the committee hearing and justified his stance with the mention of the official rule book which clearly states that if the referee doesn’t ask players to play to the whistle the attacking team is free to play to their advantage. The International Football Association Board rulebook also favors the referee however the allegation of the Blasters captain Adrian Luna proposed that the referee asked him to step back which was considered the unofficial suggestion that a whistle-marked play will ensue—which never happened.
After four days of dramatic events and controversial narratives, the AIFF rejected the appeal for a replay on Tuesday the 7th, the day of the 1st leg semifinal game between Bengaluru FC and Mumbai City FC. The All India Football Federation had set up a disciplinary committee to investigate the matter and the reports say that a “protest is not maintainable in law” and that “no protest can be entertained against a referee’s decision.” According to multiple sources, the committee might consider taking action against the club for such protestations in order to set an example and prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.
The walk-out protest was termed a ‘lose-lose’ situation for the Blasters by many football analysts and critics. Taking into consideration the recent events which have unfolded one has to be realistic and accept the hard truth that with 24 minutes still left on the clock and the raging atmosphere urging for a response from the away side, maybe continuing play and seeing it through would have been the best possible alternative rather than resorting to a pronounced expression of dissent.
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