Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am:
a beggar for good soccer.
I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘
A pretty move, for the love of God.’
And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle
and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.
I wish I had known about Eduardo Galeano before January 16, 2010. Then, I would at least have had words to match the feelings that my 5-foot-2-inch frame was hopelessly too small to contain. But, on that chilly night, as one of 99,000 others, all I had were snapshots I stored away in my mind; all I had was a grainy photo with the friends who were with me.
Wait a minute, all I had? I had just witnessed, if nowhere near a memorable game, a game made memorable because after that night we could say that we watched humans manipulate space with only a ball at their feet; we could say that we had finally watched already-bonafide legends like Leo Messi (who scored two goals at our end, no less), Andres Iniesta and Xavi at the peak of their footballing genius, collectively and individually.
The year before Camp Nou, I had been to my first live football game, watching my team, Arsenal, beat Manchester City on a perfect spring afternoon in North London. Two years on from Camp Nou, I would be similarly lost for words at a truly redemptive football moment as my sister and I watched, live in North London, a Thierry Henry on loan scoring a goal that we cherish more than any of his other 227 simply because we had given up our dream of seeing him play live for the Gunners after his move to Barcelona.
But, it wasn’t until May 2018, when I personally witnessed Hoffenheim create club history by qualifying for the Champions League for the first time, that I started to make sense of what these seemingly disparate memories of my life added up to. As a writer, I finally had the narrative threads I needed to articulate the collective whole. And, if you haven’t already guessed, the biggest, most important thread of them all is football.
It’s not a matter of choice, becoming a supporter. Many people will call me crazy and dramatic, but fans will know exactly what I mean when I say that the sport claims you, the team chooses you. People joke about fans ‘having relationships’ with their teams. The only difference is that with a team, you gamble with your heart weekly, sometimes even twice a week when there is European football, knowing all the while that it’s a life-long bond; you’re at risk of a lifetime of potential pain, frustration and heartbreak.
As a 12-year-old mesmerised by my first taste of the beautiful game, it was easy to be in the moment, easy to be greedy and demand more once the 2002 World Cup ended and I needed her football fix. Knowing then what I do now, what George Orwell articulated so well when he said that football is a game where ‘everyone gets hurt’, would I prevent middle-school me from falling headlong into the craziness?
The short answer is no. No. The long answer is what this piece attempts to explain: you may come for the sport, but more often than not you stay for the people.
More than the football, which was, of course, great, I’ll cherish the day at the Rhine-Neckar Arena watching Hoffenheim beat Dortmund because of the friend I went to the game with (incidentally the same friend who was at Camp Nou with me) and the people that I met; because being amongst the electric atmosphere of 30,000 united, even if just for those 90 minutes, reminded me of the why. Why I’ve let a sport so overwhelm me, my heart, my life–and why I do so happily and gratefully. And it wouldn’t be the same without the people, without the community you gain immediate membership to.
Similarly, on that chilly night in Barcelona, there was me—the Indian girl—and my friend—a German guy—and his friends. I was in the city to visit a Spanish pen pal for the first time and that trip had luckily coincided with this game and my friend’s visit. After the match, we met up with a friend from India and his wife, who’d also been at the game. Looking back, just thinking about the nationalities involved, the quirks of coincidence and fate that contrived to bring us all together that night, it feels nothing short of miraculous. And the catalyst was, of course, a love for the beautiful game.
Growing up in India, my sister and I didn’t have a lot of access to fellow female fans, or even Arsenal fans in general (it was the era when Manchester United rose to become a global superpower, aided by the brilliance of that squad under Sir Alex Ferguson), and so, the mere act of being out in public in Mumbai and spotting an Arsenal jersey was cause for excitement, any shyness or inhibitions melting away in a desire to connect. Looking back, it was nothing more than wanting to find more of ‘our tribe’.
I still remember our first experience of meeting an Arsenal fan abroad. In the summer of 2007, we were at a restaurant in Copenhagen, getting ready to leave, when a guy walked in with a Bergkamp jersey. After about ten minutes of squirming indecision, my sister and I walked up to him as he waited for a table. It was only a five-minute conversation, but he was friendly and engaging. Learning he was a season-ticket holder, on holiday from London, changed our perspectives; for us, up until then, the larger Arsenal or even football world had been purely theoretical–we knew it existed but had no first-hand knowledge about what it felt like to be one with the almost-mythical ‘them’.
Retrospect can be beautiful in the way it fills in the gaping spaces and creates this unbroken narrative that stretches back across time and lifetimes. Back then, I didn’t know that I had just taken the first step towards a future where the sport would find me a place in its larger story. A year and a half later, I moved to the north-west of England for university; it wasn’t North London and there were very few Arsenal fans up there amid all the local teams vying for attention, but for the first time I was among such a large group of fans, and, also, for the first time, I realised how easy it was to make friends when we were already part of this collective history, no matter which team we supported. My sister, a fellow Gooner, joined me in England two years later, albeit in Birmingham. We became Red-Level members and went for as many games as we could manage.
Then, Twitter happened. I made a profile only because I knew how important it was for a writer like myself to have that online presence. I barely used it for those first few months, but when I started writing for Football Paradise, I began interacting with other writers and fans. Just like that, I had an online family, a network scattered around the world, holding each other up when teams went through bad spells or when favourite players left, and rejoicing during the happy times with a joy that doubled, even tripled because it was shared, understood.
Twitter was definitely where I truly connected with my Gooner identity on a level beyond the personal. It was also where I began to explore my own voice–as a supporter, as a female sports fan, as a sports writer. When a friend of my uncle’s asked me to contribute some pieces to his blog during Euro 2008, I could never have predicted that in less than a decade, this hobby, a side-effect of loving the sport and writing, would become an essential part of my life, my ongoing narrative. That I would meet legends of the game, interview players and coaches, interact with and get feedback (and encouraging praise) from my favourite writers.
What more could a girl want?
I moved to Boston in the fall of 2017 for a master’s degree in publishing and writing, a move risky in more ways than one, but that’s beside the point. Thanks to Twitter friends, I already knew a few fans in the city and that the Boston Gooners organised watching games at a local pub. What I didn’t know was that I was about to gain what I never consciously realised I wanted—an Arsenal family that wasn’t virtual.
After all those years of watching just with my sister, or a handful of friends either at home or in a pub, or even alone in my room, at godforsaken hours of the day and night, I was suddenly thrust into this group that changed my perception on what matchday can be like, should be like as often as it can be managed, even when the result goes against us. Now, I know I have a support system for anything the sport throws at me. I have a safe space to escape to when life’s not being the easiest, a set-up that allows me to immerse myself in the cathartic experience of watching the sport (and also other sports which we sometimes watch together) and temporarily forget everything else. It’s like what my Atletico-Madrid-supporting friend and I experienced in an Irish pub in the middle of old-town Barcelona back in May 2015 when Arsenal won the FA Cup again. Except, this is week in, week out, sometimes twice a week—and I don’t have to travel for 90 minutes one way. (And they happily accept me wearing a Hoffenheim jersey underneath my Arsenal hoody when matchdays collide and matchtimes overlap.)
Despite all of this, when the 2018 World Cup poked its head over the horizon, I questioned, for the first time ever, whether it meant the same to me as it had to that 12-year-old who refused to change from a rain-soaked uniform because she didn’t want to miss a minute of the England vs Brazil quarterfinal and was vindicated when Ronaldinho scored that freekick. Had Arsenal stolen too much of my passion for me to care about a tournament that had always made me feel a bit of an outsider, defined as it was, just like the Euros, by patriotism? Had the departure of Arsene Wenger, the only manager I had ever known, and the worst season I had known as a Gooner chipped away at my enthusiasm about the game?
Don’t you love it when you’re proved wrong?
In this case, a summer of unexpected doubt, yet another questioning of purpose, and depression ended in me remembering, via the tournament that started my love of the beautiful game, just why it mattered to me, and to millions of others around the world; I shared space (and sometimes words or knowing looks) with many of them at a variety of pubs across Boston and Cambridge, realising the comfort of being around people who share a common love, no matter what anthem they sing along to or the colours they wear during the domestic season. And then, for the tailend of it all, I was in the land of St. George. For the semifinal, Mum and I were at an open-air screening in Sheffield, and though I haven’t really been an England supporter for a while, the atmosphere was electric; even the chants of the annoying “it’s coming home” were infectious in the hope so characteristic of football supporters. The final was a quieter affair since I watched it at a friend’s house, but no less memorable simply because I get to share the memory with really good friends (City and United fans) who I wouldn’t have known without football, and that day offered us the chance to root for the same team.
The more the technocrats programme it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it, football continues to be the art of the unforeseeable. When you least expect it, the impossible occurs: the dwarf teaches the giant a lesson, and a scraggy, bow-legged black man makes an athlete sculpted in Greece look ridiculous.
The 12-year-old who didn’t immediately realise she was falling in love with the game had no clue about what the almost 30-year-old does now. That the sport would enrich her life, give her an opportunity to see the world, offer her a medium of communication that facilitates an instant connection with strangers around the world, whether transiently or long-term. That it would bring people into her life that might otherwise have not crossed paths with hers, people she can now not imagine her life without, people that, many times, feel closer than many she’s known longer and in person. That it would allow her to find a small fragment of belonging wherever she is in the world.
If you ask me what my life will look like a few years from now, where I will be, what I will be doing–the honest answer is, I don’t know. But, I do know that I’ll still have football, I’ll have Arsenal, I’ll have a football family that just keeps growing, and we will all still have the shared currency of the beautiful game to connect us no matter what separates us. It’s the longest love story of my life and I couldn’t be more excited to see where it takes me next.