THE SPORTS FAN AND HIS EMBRACE OF TORMENT
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. Spinoff appears every fortnight
A tense Arsenal supporter during a match against Tottenham Hotspur.