For The Love Of The Game

Illustration by Adoracia Nongkhlaw

My grandfather who played for a number of amateur football clubs in the 50s and 60s and authored Phutbol: Kumno Ban Ialehkai (How To Play Football), a seminal book for its time, does not like to watch European club football.

He despises the play-acting, the flopping and the over-commercialization of a sport he once adored.

“They were entertainers,” my grandfather remembers the football of his time. “Apart from the passion and determination to win a game, their main objective was to entertain the crowd.”

“The role of the star players was to get the crowd off its feet,” he elaborates. “It always has and always will be a team sport but the crowds were never short of ‘goosebumps’ and entertainment.”

While I attribute his scoffing of the football that I and my generation follow with a passion to a crankiness that comes with older age, I also take his cynicism with more seriousness because he is using a grade to compare it to.

I live in a place that is obsessed with football. The watching of it, especially. World Cups and European Championships become events that galvanize communities. I observed a couple of things during the recently-concluded European Championships where my team of choice lost in the Finals.

One, people of my father’s generation and older adore and love these once-every-four-years competitions.

Second, I and others of my generation prefer club football.

My father is a notable exception. He’s a senior college professor and rarely misses a Liverpool game. It makes for fun banter at home because at one stage I picked Manchester United and stuck with it.

Eric Mawlong, whom I’ve been friends with since our school days, partakes in my support of the Red Devils. His love for the club started with FIFA the football video-game and not the governing body. Rarely does he miss a game. Sleepless nights and frustrated/happy mornings are now a ritual as a Manchester United supporter.

Most people I know and the majority of those surveyed for this picked a team and have stuck with it.

The ones who have changed and chopped teams infuriate me. Those who support players and change loyalty with that player’s transfer are a strange bunch. What happens when that player retires?

Saksham Sharma, a resident of a town in North India supports the global superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and his team of choice is whatever club Ronaldo finds himself in. It perplexes me because when I decided to become a United supporter, I imbibed all of it. The United Way, the history, the success, the failures, Sir Alex and the Class of 92, Sir Matt Busby and the Busby Babes. Everything.

A major goal of mine is to watch a United Premier League game at Old Trafford.

When Chelsea were crowned Champions League winners this year, a part of me smirked when another close friend Bash celebrated in our group chat. His support of Chelsea was an accident. Had the Spanish forward Fernando Torres stayed put at Liverpool or moved elsewhere, Bash would have never been a Chelsea supporter.

Few teams in the world of sports are as iconic as the Brazilian National Football team. Die-hard supporters are found in every corner of the globe.

Professor Ban is one of them.

It does not surprise me when none of his favourite players are the stars of the modern game. As far as he’s concerned, six-time and five-time Ballon d’Or winners Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are not at par with Brazil’s greatest – Ronaldo Nazario (R9), Roberto Carlos or Rivaldo Ferreira.

His disregard of the modern players notwithstanding, he still considers himself to be a huge football fan, but because of his disappointment with ‘modern football’, he now only sticks to major tournaments or finals.

His dream is to watch Brazil lift the World Cup once again.

Others in his age group feel the same.

The introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) into the game is a controversial affair. Among fanbases of the older generation and the new. And most fans find it an unnecessary addition.

Mr. Arvind Chatterjee agrees, “It has considerably slowed the game.”

He finds the modern game to be “prosaic” and the supply of ‘goosebumps’ to be limited.  He prefers the “Pele, Platini or Eusebius of football.”

In our survey 6% of the respondents revealed that they would follow only major tournaments in which the club they supported participated in.

Coincidentally, they all support the same club – F.C. Barcelona.

Let me add that with tax evasion cases to the never-ending saga of Messi’s transfer hullabaloo, most fans of F.C. Barcelona have been on an emotional rollercoaster.

But not Kumar Sinha, a casual fan.

He declares that “not all matches are worth watching in club football.” He supports the ‘Blaugrana’ because of the “classiness” in the way they play and naturally, because of football royalty, Lionel Messi.

He does not concern himself with the turmoil the club is in.

In sharp contrast is Meban Marbaniang, an architect and a huge fan of Liverpool. He is extremely grateful to his cousin brother who introduced him to the rich history of ‘The Anfield Fortress.’ Without whom, the 2019-20 Premier League triumph celebrations, would’ve been incomplete.

The influence of our family and friends has a huge impact on our lives.

So much so, that 27.5% of our responders admitted to supporting a team because of outside influence – friends, family, boyfriends.

Tori and Alexandria, Manchester United and Chelsea fans, were massively influenced by their boyfriends.

The Theatre of Dreams was an instant attraction for Tori who fell in love with the culture, the atmosphere and the Premier League. She was all in.

Her support for the team grows each passing day and visiting Old Trafford and being seated at the Stretford End, cheering on her team, is now a dream of hers.

Alexandria tells us that her boyfriend Zach is a passionate Chelsea fan who constantly talks about the highs and lows of his team. His constant fits or extreme jubilation would confuse her. How could a sport affect a person to such an extent?

This piqued her interest. She wanted to find out what the “fuss was all about.”

Eventually, Stamford Bridge would be visible on her flat screen TV every weekend.

She had gotten hooked.

And conversations with Zach? They’ve never been better.

Illustration by Adoracia Nongkhlaw

In our journey as football fans, the stories make it worthwhile. The intense and nerve-wrecking moments are what makes the best stories. And cliched as it sounds, these individual stories of discovery, of choosing a team, of passionately following that team are what makes the sport the most popular sport in the world.

My grandfather reminisces about his playing days and I marvel at his stories. It makes me smile when he speaks of his admiration for the football he played and watched. He waxes eloquence of the entertainment value that the football of his time brought forth.

“They were endlessly entertaining and it showcased the simplicity of the game,” he says with conviction. “The sport always has and always will be known as a spectator sport.”

“Keston, a Jaintia fellow”, my grandfather fondly recalls, would “run about the field embarrassing even the best defenders in Polo ground. He was a small fellow, who used his height to his advantage. He would run the opposing players in circles and if needed, would run under the tall players to escape with the ball.”

“People from Sohra, Jowai, and various outskirts of the city would come to Polo ground only to watch in awe of Keston’s various antics,” my grandfather adds. “They would laugh, cheer and be merry as the game of football was their main source of entertainment.”

Author: Neil Wallang

Neil Wallang is a staff writer. He has a Masters in English from Delhi University. An avid Manchester United fan, he loves technology, cars, and books.

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