When one begins to like and follow a particular sport, the first immediate, important and binding choice that he is forced to make is that of choosing a particular team to root for. Who you decide to root for, however, can and will go a long way in determining your mental state every weekend (and many mid-weeks) for the rest of your existence. Your expectations and aspirations will largely be a function of the team you decide to dedicate all your energy, passion and commitment to – week in week out – for the rest of your life. Not to forget how often you get to win the bragging rights or feel awesome watching THAT look on your friend’s face when his team loses (- very important)! Also to be kept in mind, is that there is strictly no jumping ship, and if you do jump ship, you will forever be treated as an outcast. So you see, making that one choice is perhaps as important , if not more, as choosing your life partner. Well, come to think of it, you can still change your life partner without being treated as an outcast! There is really little doubt that this one decision or choice really does go a long long way in dictating the level of happiness in your life.
When it comes to football (if you are in America, it is still football – the other game is Hand-Egg), the first tournament everyone talks about (and rightfully so) is the Barclays Premier League or the English Premier League – arguably the best league in the world, both in terms of quality of football AND the popularity. And when you first begin to watch the sport and realize you like it so much that you have begun to watch it week in and week out, you also understand that it is now time for you to pick a club to support. And one of the factors strongly influencing that choice is going to be – your friends circle.
Everyone likes to be accepted in their friends circle and nobody likes to be treated as the odd man out. And so, for the most part, any newcomer to the sport almost inevitably ends up choosing the team his friends have been supporting. This facilitates the newcomer to feel one among the crowd, allowing him to share the SAME feelings as the rest of his group – irrespective of whether the team wins or loses. And really, who doesn’t like to belong to a group with similar interests?
And when it comes to the BPL, there are really only so many teams you can support without subscribing to a higher risk of feeling crappy every weekend. As of today, those teams are Man Utd, Man City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and to some extent Tottenham. Any other team and, as pointed out, you run the risk of feeling depressed every other weekend for the rest of your life. So unless you live in England and near one of those mid-table clubs, or your great great grandfather did, it is highly likely that your friends support one of those few above mentioned clubs. And so will you.
Back in the day when I started watching football regularly (it was early 2003), I was surrounded by people who either supported Arsenal or Manchester United. At that time I tried to find out which club I would perhaps enjoy supporting. During my subsequent conversations with those fans, one thing became fairly clear.
There are many ‘reasons’ that are provided by passionate and over-enthusiastic football fans as to why one should support the club THEY do.
If you spoke to a Manchester United fan, you would learn that he supports the club for its ‘rich history’, great players, great culture of ‘winning trophies’ and also because they had the greatest manager in the world – Sir Alex Ferguson. He will also make sure to point out that United is the only valid club to support – again, for the same reasons – and that other clubs have no history whatsoever. And that this fact, for some reason that is never really mentioned, automatically makes ALL other clubs ‘unfit’ to support. And if you look around, you will find every Tom, Dick and Harry mouthing off self righteous praises in favor of United, completely convinced that all other fans are not supporting a ‘real’ club. Oh! And of course, you will also be subjected to that inevitable chant: “Glory Glory Man United!”
Now if you spoke to an Arsenal fan, you would be subjected to this inevitable lecture on how Arsenal plays the best, most entertaining, free flowing, passing football in the league. And that Arsenal is the only club that follows the sacred philosophy of investing and developing youngsters from their teenage and moulding them into world class stars. You would also be told about a particular Frenchman by name Arsene Wenger and his affinity to get young French teenagers into his squad. You might even get the impression that Arsenal is the proverbial underdog trying to make it big with limited resources. (And in all fairness, it is true to an extent). The Arsenal fan essentially tries to convince you that even though Arsenal does not have the ‘habit’ of winning trophies, it is still the ONLY club fit for supporting because of the way the club is run.
At the end of the day, you have two sets of fans, each supporting either United or Arsenal – and who strongly JUSTIFY why they do so. In all honesty, I haven’t met a single fan so far of either club who has not told me WHY he supports them. And perhaps THAT was the reason I never really developed a liking to either of them. I just could not wrap my head around the idea of having to justify my choice of team to support.
And so, back in early 2003, I never really liked either team, which meant I took turns deciding which team I hated more – United or Arsenal. (In fact, I clearly recall an event back in my Pre-University years (in 2003) when I was asked to participate in a class march which would feature a flag of our own design. And due to the fact that there were more United fans than Arsenal fans in my class, it was decided that the class flag would more or less resemble the Manchester United symbol. When I got to know about this, I simply refused to participate in the march – as a matter of general principle). But I digress.
Going back to 2003, there was this bunch of young lads just going about their business trying to finish as high as possible in the table. A spot in the Champions League was considered to be the target to aim at. And they calmly secured 4th place and eventually did make it to the UCL. These lads wore blue shirts and shorts and they had never heard of anyone by name Roman Abromovich. And neither had I. They just seemed happy playing their football and to have qualified for the Champions League. These young lads played for Chelsea FC and I was just happy supporting them.
When I was asked why I chose to support Chelsea, I realized I didn’t really have an answer. But then, in just a few months time, I would learn that the answer would be forced down upon me – whether it was true or not. And it probably had to do with a certain Russian going by the name of Abromovich who decided to spend a small fortune in building the club.
Sure, along with a billionaire bank rolling the club came good players, managers and even trophies. But the package also inevitably came with a branding. And the branding said that ALL Chelsea fans were ‘the new breed’ who were in existence only because they have a billionaire bank rolling the club’s finances. And then suddenly I was pushed into the tricky situation of having to JUSTIFY why that was NOT true!
Since then, life as a Chelsea fan has been fairly interesting. The Russian has not left and so hasn’t the branding. Sure Manchester City fans now seem to have taken over the spotlight – but I am still told that I am not supporting a ‘REAL club’! There have been a lot of ups and downs but an eventful ride nonetheless.
In my next post, I intend to write about how it has been since. All the arguments about which club is better – both online and offline- along with all the memorable and forgettable moments I had to go through and the subsequent not-so-amicable ‘conversations’ with fans of other clubs. And also more on the short term and long term consequences of the branding. All that in my next post.
Till then, KTBFFH!