Sunday, March 28, 2004 : Arsenal vs Manchester United at Highbury, London was the first live football game I watched (on TV, of course). I’d only ever followed cricket before that and played some football, but this was unlike anything I knew in sport. It was fast and full of action. These players were really passionate and the tension was palpable. Then on 50 minutes, Arsenal’s number 14 scored from a brilliant long range effort, a stunning goal by any standard! The game ended at 1-1, but Arsenal were beautiful to watch. They counter-attacked with breathtaking speed, defended like a rock, and had brilliant individuals. I would go on to watch a few more Arsenal games that season. When I visited Mauritius the following summer and saw a banner proclaiming “Arsenal – Champions 2003-04”, the club’s global reach made an impression on me – I had made my choice.
I support Arsenal Football Club. I watch their games, follow their activities, feel happy when they win, disappointed when they don’t. But why all this long-term affection for a team that’s based thousands of miles away, in a city I’ve never lived in? Why spend so much time and energy worrying about what is “just a game after all”? In short, what does it mean to support a club?
The football season, to be honest is pretty much the same affair every year. Each team will play every other team twice – home and away in the league, and there may be two or three cup competitions. It might look painfully monotonous to an outsider. To quote from the movie Fever Pitch1
Anthropologists have always had a hard time with Football. The trouble is, you can only see what’s on the outside, but there IS an inside, believe it or not. We all have our reasons for loving things the way we do.
The inside for me is that it’s not about the season, year after year. It’s about having something to look forward to in a normal week. I can have a disastrous week, yet, I will tune into the weekend game with unsullied fresh hope, hoping for a victory. And when it happens, I temporarily forget all there is to worry about, and rejoice. Each week presents a new challenge, and this is what keeps fans going on. The flip side is that a bad day for the team can make it worse for you. But then, that’s a gamble we’re all willing to take. Football fans often believe that the fortunes of their favorite team are invariably linked to their own. The team doing well coincides with life moving uphill, and the team doing badly means life sucks. I’ve experienced that, and it honestly is irrational and crazy. Yet it’s a very comforting and hopeful feeling, one that I don’t want to give up.
One’s relationship with the football club evolves over time. I think there are three broad stages – What, How and Why. At the start (the What), it is greedy, you want results from your team. You want to have bragging rights. If you manage to stay in it long enough, things change, and you come into the How of it. You gradually start taking more interest in the team’s affairs. You start being worried about how individuals combine to actually make the team work. How is it that the team plays as it does? How does the coach contribute? When this happens, you’ve crossed a certain threshold. After this, it will be hard to start following a new team. Finally, the Why of it. This is the part when you have surpassed your purely on-the-field relationship with the team, and you see it as something more. You know the history. You know club legends, and you have finally accepted the team as a part of your life. The team influences you, and you feel your support makes a difference, however small. It is an obsession of some sort, but then this is what Hornby says about it
Why is it that adults aren’t supposed to go mad about anything? You’ve got to keep a lid on it, and if you don’t, then people are apparently entitled to say what they like. You haven’t grown up, you’re a moron. Your conversation is trivial and boorish, you can’t express your emotional needs. You can’t relate to your children, and you die, lonely and miserable. But you know, what the hell?
Moving on, there are certainly social aspects of football, being the one true global sport that it is. If you want one example of absolutely diverse people coming together, forgetting their differences and cheering for the same thing, then you need to look no further. I’ve bonded with people just because we support the same team. This makes it worthwhile, and fosters a lot of positivity around the world2. Quoting from The Fever Pitch again
It’s not easy to become a football fan. It takes years. But if you put in the hours, you’re welcomed without question into a new family. Except in this family, you care about the same people and hope for the same things. What’s childish about that?
But teams aren’t constant entities, they change. What happens if an important player leaves your club and joins another team? Many people do not buy the idea of supporting a club. Of course, players will rarely keep playing for one club their entire careers, but supporting a club is different from rooting for your favorite player. It is an involvement with the entire philosophy, style and ideas of the organization as a whole. A single player can be important, but never bigger than the club. Supporting the club is about feeling connected with its history, being bothered with its present, and hoping for a successful future. Players will come and go, but a club stays on. You pin hopes on a player, feel sad or angry when he leaves, but you move on. How is that very different from life anyway?
Thinking back to why I started supporting Arsenal, it was the way they played – slick movement and ruthlessly effective – qualities I hugely admired. Those were also Arsenal’s glory years, when they won trophies and were feared. I was a defiant young person and it was a match made in heaven. I watched every game expecting a win, and that was a good feeling.
Over the years, a lot changed, including the club’s fortunes. Arsenal went from being the best in the country to a good team that famously stopped winning trophies, until only recently. All those years were about hope and belief. It was the time when I grew as a person, and learned that things weren’t always good or easy, that disappointments were real. Arsenal frustrated me, but also let me enjoy moments of pure joy. I’m not the same person I was a decade ago, but my support for this team has stayed all along. I’ve grown with it, and it feels like an integral part of the things I believe in. Does that sound ridiculous? Maybe, but I don’t care.
Arsenal aren’t your average club. It’s one of the few that value their history and try to stick to their philosophy and style of play. A club that has persistently shown class and maintained standards. A big factor in this is the current manager, Arsène Wenger, and the way he has kept the team competitive despite financial constraints and immense pressure. Make no mistake, the modern football manager’s job is both glamorous and risky, several get fired in a season for underperforming. Yet Arsenal are one of the rare clubs that have stuck with the manager for more than 19 years now. He hasn’t seen as much success as I think he deserves, but he has provided stability and nurtured some great talent in a climate where clubs are often left with two choices – pile on more debt, or lose their edge (and players). None of that for Arsenal, who have successfully built a new stadium and are now gradually getting back to being the best. Despite frequent vocal opposition against him, he has set a great example, so much that for many fans (including me), he’s a major part of the club’s current identity (his first name helps too I guess!). He’s a man who breathes football, protects his players, believes in maintaining standards, is passionate not just about his job, but the club too. Of course he won’t be around forever, but what he has achieved here will be hard to emulate. If football clubs are built in the image of people associated with them, then Arsenal is the club I’d want to support without doubt.
Success is only one part of the equation. It’s true that Arsenal have never recaptured the glory of 2004, are no longer title contenders by default, constantly written off by the media. But that doesn’t affect me anymore. My bond to this team is different now. It still looks the same on the outside, but has been tempered by many strong feelings over the years. Trophies were an expectation before, but now they’re just a response to those that write us off. Winning against the odds is totally different from winning when you’re favorites. Winning isn’t always important, because this team has made me see failure, defiance, and ultimate success. A few years ago, I maintained a safe and objective distance, like the single-minded love of the new fan. Today, it’s about memories and moments that swept me off my feet. I no longer wave my allegiance around in people’s faces, nor do I expect others to adore the team. It’s just a constant source of joy, like a successful long-term relationship with its highs and lows, but never doubt.
When it comes to intermittent memorable moments, football abounds in them. Going back to May 26, 1989, when Michael Thomas scored in the last 10 seconds, the goal that won Arsenal the championship, you can see the drama and emotion that I’m talking about