Chennai City flying under the radar in adopted home of Coimbatore
Saravanan, 42, has been in Coimbatore all his life. A cab driver since 2015, his vast knowledge of the city comes in handy while transporting patrons to and from various corners of the city.
Naturally, Saravanan was taken aback when he couldn't find the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in ATT Colony, Gopalapuram. Even after putting his topographical pride aside and resorting to Google maps, he still had trouble reaching the actual location.
"Football na inga dhaan, sir (If you're looking for a football ground, this must be it, sir)," he said with uncertainty, pointing to a small acre of land filled with a dozen school kids.
In Saravanan's defence, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium hasn't exactly been the most sought-after destination in all his years of chauffeuring. Coimbatore has never hosted a high-profile football tournament before, and there aren't many indications that it is hosting one now.
It was only fair Saravanan had no idea that he was still one street away from the home of Chennai City FC. He has never heard of the I-League, so has no reason to care that Chennai are currently leading the table, on course to a historic title win. Not one of his customers once spoke to him about head coach Akbar Nawas' philosophy, so he wouldn't be expected to know that Chennai have outscored all other teams in the league.
Saravanan isn't alone. Outside football circles, most of Coimbatore is still in the dark about the club it has been hosting since last year.
In fact, the closest you'd come to finding any reference of the sport in the city is teenagers discussing PSG. At least until you realise they're talking about the Arts and Science College, rather than the pace of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. "But that is to be expected," explains Guru Krishna, who runs the Chennai City fan club Southerners. "Obviously there is more knowledge and awareness of football in Chennai than in Coimbatore, so what we're trying to do is organically grow a fan base here.
"Every home game, about 30 of us go to the stadium with flags and banners, singing and chanting the players' names. It's all about supporting them however we can."
Guru does have a point.
Chennai isn't really starved of representation (or even success) in franchise sport. Chennaiyin FC, ISL champions in 2015 and 2018, fill up the football quota, while in cricket, Chennai Super Kings are current holders of the IPL crown. On Friday, Chennai Spartans carved their own place in the city's history by winning the inaugural Pro Volleyball League.
All three of those teams enjoy a fairly substantial following on social media, with their laurels covered by the media, and unabashedly celebrated by the fans.
The I-League, in stark contrast, functions at a surprising level of anonymity in Coimbatore. Press conferences are conducted in a small room without any microphones or cameras, with sometimes as few as three reporters present. To encourage more local coverage, journalists aren't even required to get accredited before a match.
There are practical difficulties, too. ESPN understands that the stadium lacks a proper sewage system, and still faces a challenge in getting a regular supply of water from the local corporations.
It is not all bad, though.
"When we were playing in Chennai, the attendance was not good due to the ISL, so the club had to find a new home," Guru says.
"We had to move to Coimbatore in the last minute, and the pitch initially wasn't great. We had to make multiple requests to revamp the stadium. Thankfully, Chennai City stepped in themselves and invested in various things, including new floodlights."
With the race for the title heating up and sensing the need for a more vociferous home crowd, Chennai on their part have decided not to charge fans for the vital game against Mohun Bagan.
"The crowd here has been fantastic," Nawas admits. "I don't have the actual numbers with me, but I was told that more people turn up for our matches here in Coimbatore than in Chennai, which is highly encouraging."
According to Guru, a large part of that is down to Nawas' attacking brand of football, as well as the emergence of local talents.
"The attendance here has been around 8000 on average. Yes, that's not the biggest number, but it shows that the interest is growing.
"So many casual fans, including school children, turn up regularly for matches. For them, it is about watching 90 minutes of action and seeing players show determination. That is the crowd puller here."
Of course, ultimately all of that could amount to nothing more than temporary respite, with the very future of the I-League itself currently under a cloud.
Even so, Guru believes every Chennai fan should hold their heads up high, come what may at the end of the season.
"Last season we were on the verge of relegation, so even finishing mid-table seemed like an achievement at the time.
"Akbar Nawas and the owner Rohit Ramesh deserve every bit of credit for this transformation. They scouted and recruited players from across various places such as the local league in Kanyakumari. Nobody else in Tamil Nadu could have thought of that.
"As fans, the one thing we cherish most is local talents being nourished. People often call India as the sleeping giant in world football. What they don't realise is that Tamil Nadu is the sleeping giant of Indian football."