THE SPORTS FAN AND HIS EM­BRACE OF TOR­MENT

Hindustan Times (Amritsar) - - Think! - SOUMYA BHAT­TACHARYA Spinoff ap­pears ev­ery fort­night

Last Sun­day, I watched Arse­nal, the foot­ball team that I sup­port, lose 1-3 to the reign­ing Pre­mier League cham­pi­ons, Manchester City. It did not even come as a sur­prise. In the past 21 away games against the other five top teams in the league, Arse­nal has won just seven points (out of an avail­able 66). It cur­rently sits sixth in the league ta­ble, has been knocked out of both do­mes­tic cup com­pe­ti­tions, and no longer com­petes in the Cham­pi­ons League, the elite level of Euro­pean club foot­ball.

It has been a grim time to be an Arse­nal fan. The club last won the league ti­tle in the 2003-04 sea­son. Since win­ning that par­tic­u­lar tro­phy, Arse­nal went 3283 days with­out claim­ing a piece of sil­ver­ware. Last sea­son was Arse­nal’s worst since 1995-96. Yet, as my team took on Hud­der­s­field Town in a league game yesterday evening, I was back watch­ing. Which was no de­par­ture from my usual, Arse­nal-watch­ing be­hav­iour. All through the lean years, I have watched, at home, on hol­i­day, in bars, in the of­fice, evening kick­offs, af­ter­noon kick­offs, out­ra­geously late night kick­offs. I can­not bear to not watch.

True sports fans can never walk away from the team they adore. Some­times, it feels like a broth­er­hood of mis­ery. How­ever grim the string of past re­sults, how­ever hope­less the prog­no­sis, how­ever cer­tain we are of an im­pend­ing hu­mil­i­a­tion, we can­not turn away. Masochism is built into the men­tal makeup of the ar­dent sports fan. Throw him as many un­palat­able re­sults as you like, he will keep com­ing back for more. Well, per­haps not for more. But he will keep com­ing back. It is not even a choice. It is a com­pul­sion. Addiction does not have ra­tio­nal­ity at its heart.

In­dian cricket fans of a cer­tain vin­tage will recog­nise this feel­ing. As some­one who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, I fell in love with the game at a time when In­dia did not — other than some no­table ex­cep­tions — win any­thing much at all. Cer­tainly, we won far fewer matches than we lost. Our thrill lay in ad­mir­ing a bat­tling in­nings by one of our bats­men in a los­ing cause, a re­mark­able spell from one of our bowlers that was still not enough to tilt a Test our way.

But that did not stop fans like me from be­ing sta­tioned next to the tran­sis­tor. And then, when it ap­peared like a bene­dic­tion in the life of the sports fan, in front of the TV. An­other ham­mer­ing on the way? Bring it on. I can take it. But un­der no cir­cum­stance will I not be in front of the TV at dawn in win­ter, watch­ing the cricket from Aus­tralia. Wake up and smell the cof­fee? Bet­ter still, wake up and watch the cricket.

This is be­cause the covenant be­tween a sports fan and his team is sacro­sanct. It can­not be bro­ken. It is not like the co­las or the credit cards the play­ers en­dorse. Don’t like it? Flush it down the toi­let. Sell it off. Ex­change it for some­thing bet­ter. Buy a new one.

Over the course of a life­time of sport­ing fan­dom (even for sup­port­ers of im­mensely suc­cess­ful teams such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Brazil in foot­ball and the West Indies and Aus­tralia in cricket), there are more mo­ments of dis­ap­point­ment than joy. Ev­ery fan recog­nises this. He recog­nises, too, that feel­ing mis­er­able is part of the deal. But rid­ing the mis­ery and stick­ing with it is the real deal. You sud­denly can­not choose to sup­port an­other team. The covenant you have made with a cer­tain team is too hard to break. (Un­less you are an oli­garch and can buy a team of your own and back it.)

There is only this or noth­ing. And noth­ing is so much worse.

GETTY IMAGES

■ A tense Arse­nal sup­porter dur­ing a match against Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur.

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