WITH all the hype around one of the oldest rivalries in the Premier League, I was naturally tempted to share the big occasion with a larger group of people, and a fan screening at one of Bangalore’s oldest pubs – The Guzzler’s Inn – looked like a good choice. I had never been to such a screening before but what I witnessed during Liverpool’s 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford startled me. I have no qualms about the result. We had a poor first half where we were slow off the blocks, United took advantage and scored and in fact, we were lucky not to be down 3-0 at the break. There was a spirited fightback from the Reds in the second half but with a goal conceded early in that half too, getting something out of this game was never really on the cards. But that’s not what startled me. What startled me was that at a fan screening where I hoped to connect to fellow fans, I had a genuine communication problem. I just couldn’t connect because although I know a few languages, I do not speak hate.
It was remarkable and embarrassing to see fans from both sides mixing the jingoistic with the juvenile, something that took significantly away from the pleasure of a viewing experience with a set of fans. Give me my 8 year old TV set and the comfort of my living room any day. I was sitting with a German guy, Alex, who remarked that ‘Indians are crazy when it comes to watching football. Screenings like these happen in Germany as well but people don’t shout this much.’ Alex had a point. There seemed to be screaming and shouting interspersed with abusive language regardless of what was happening on the pitch. It was remarkable how little of even fundamental football these guys seemed to know.
They knew the taunts very well though. Someone laughed and taunted Gerrard as he over hit a pass to Suarez. I don’t know about you but I could never imagine saying something like that to a Ryan Giggs or a Paul Scholes even in my mind. Then another started a chant of ‘We play LOLpool for practice’. That statement was so classless, I’ll not even qualify that with a comment. The icing on this tasteless cake was when someone in the Liverpool camp remarked that the referee Howard Webb had had a good (read ‘controversy free’) game thus far and a Manchester United fan proudly announced that Howard Webb is ‘our best player’. I can understand the Howard Webb jokes when others are making it, but a callous statement such as this from a ‘fan’ was for me the lowest point of what was turning out to be a miserable evening – and not just because Liverpool trailed 2-0 at that point. I know a lot of football fans. A fan of United, a fan of Juventus, a fan of Chelsea, a fan of Arsenal, a fan of Barcelona and a fan of Real Madrid are among my closest friends. And they have way more knowledge of the game and respect for the players than I saw demonstrated amidst a hundred odd ‘fans’ who were rightly classified as ‘posers’ by the said Man U fan who I just mentioned. My shoulders dropped further when I realized my club’s ilk who were there weren’t exactly stellar either. A club’s anthem is their identity. Ridiculing it (‘Who the f*** are Man United’ sung to the tune of ‘Glory Glory Man United’) doesn’t make you superior in any respect. I am all for wearing your heart on your sleeve as a sports fan. You make an emotional investment in your team and you deserve the right to demand returns on that investment. You have every right to whoop and cheer when the good stuff happens; every right to sulk when things go south. But that doesn’t give you a license to hate or be jingoistic – support someone just because you want to be against someone else with little or no understanding of the sport you’re following. I have always disliked jingoistic fans. From as early as when I was eight years old.
A betel nut chopper is a pliers like implement made of pure iron. It has a base and a blade joined by a bolt like mechanism and is, in short, pretty heavy and dangerous. India v Pakistan. One day match. 1989. India are suffering a batting collapse. Wasim Akram comes on to bowl. A neighbour watching at our house eggs him on. I sulk a bit. Wasim strikes. ‘Son of a tiger!’ my neighbour screams. The betel nut chopper goes flying and hits him smack in the head. Luckily he isn’t hurt. A weak eight year old can throw heavy iron only so far.
My reaction was not a moment of madness based on that instance. It was, I now realize, all the pent up anger at having watched these people watch the sport with no technical clue and taking sides for thoroughly non sporting reasons. I grew up in a town where you would find these fans of Pakistan, who wouldn’t follow any other Pakistan cricket game other than those vs India. And needless to say, support Pakistan. I found it annoying because they would never be able to add anything intelligent to the proceedings. Only whoop like agitated monkeys when Pakistan played well.
Imagine yourself sitting in dark room where the TV is running off a car battery as you watch Sachin Tendulkar battle the Pakistani attack at Sharjah. There are 9 other people in the room, all willing for Sachin to be dismissed. The glow of the TV set faintly lights the room enough for me to make out the smirks as I applaud a Tendulkar straight drive. Meanwhile, there is no acknowledgement when I also nod approvingly to a terrific delivery from Akram. Ten people in a room watching TV. Only one is watching cricket. The others just fulfilling some kind of base emotion.
Now before you judge me, let me assure you I have no personal agenda against those folks. They were the best of friends outside of that room – the sweetest, kindest souls I know. People who I played cricket with every afternoon. But when it came to being fans, they really had more badges to earn. Initially sports fandom used to be an expression of identity, some kind of ancient tribal belongingness instinct that drove it. Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’ where he so beautifully explains how he became an Arsenal fan and how intricately connected it remains to his life is a book I am reading right now. You will find these explanations there. You will also find them in Franklin Foer’s ‘How Football explains the World’.
But with sport getting more globalized, it’s ridiculous if someone comes and says that they have to become ‘fans’ of a club/team because of local roots or other deep seated identity issues. The biggest thing you are likely to identify with is the game they play and not necessarily import every prejudice and all the hatred that seems to spew in the name of fandom. Limited knowledge only makes it easier for that hatred to take root and manifest itself for no good reason. (We almost had a brawl at the pub just after halftime.) I believe that a true fan has a bigger respect radius and rises above all of this and I am lucky that I know a whole lot of people who are like that. And I also know they find such behaviour difficult to take; even if it is coming from fellow ‘fans’. One of those Tweeted today before the start of the United-Liverpool game: #TwitterOff for the next few hours or perhaps more |Timeline will be filled with truckloads of hatred.
We all talk about sportsmen having to preserve the essence of sport by not cheating, holding up the spirit of sports etc. But, dear fan, you have that responsibility too. Feel free to support whichever team you like. There are no compulsions. But please don’t be jingoistic. Of all those jingoistic Pakistan fans I mentioned, the one I affectionately called ‘Pakistani’ (he sadly passed away in 2011) wasn’t jingoistic at all. He tracked Pakistan’s every series and move. He knew Pakistan’s cricket history very well. And he acknowledged and admired the technical superiority of a Tendulkar; the steeliness of a Dravid; the guile of a Kumble, something the likes of the likes of the ‘betel nut chopper’ fan never got themselves around to doing.
You, dear fan (whichever sport or team, doesn’t matter), have a responsibility to be more knowledgeable. If you have made an emotional investment in a sport and a team, I urge you make a small intellectual investment too. Read a bit about the game; delve a bit into the team’s history; try to appreciate a broader context. And then there will be utopia. My fellow Reds fans, maybe next time you want to sing, go ahead and sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ as loud as you can but please avoid ‘Who the f*** are Man United’. Liverpool supporters are universally acknowledged as a patient and respectful lot. I’d like ourselves to stay that way. And for everyone else to be that way.
Like that famous quote goes in the movie ‘American Beauty’ – ‘It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world.’