You’re just a kid. Maybe you’re about 12, in your formative years – catching shape. In any case, you’re looking for yourself and actively searching for passions to sow, seeds that will grow along with you and form into an identity to be reaped.
Maybe, during this search of yours, you discover for the first time something that, in the past, you’d ignored. Maybe, one completely ordinary day, you trap a ball with your foot. Or rather, you try to, as it bounces away like it just hit a tree trunk. Nevertheless, curiosity has you in its grip. You’d like to try again. And again. You’d like to try lots of other things that you’ve noticed in passing on TV, when your dad is glued to the screen, watching matches you never really understood.
Perhaps you’re lucky to have mates who have always chased the ball around in between classes – ten hectic and exuberant minutes. Mates who soon become both the means through which you can explore your new curiosity, and teachers that initiate you in the arcane ways of this art. Like any subject matter which easily ensnares the spacious and impressionable mind of a child, football begins to preoccupy you. You start to look for it, and there’s a strange feeling that it’s returning the search.
Then, one Wednesday evening, you turn on the telly. It’s dusk outside, you’re in the living room, fondling the remote. Until your thumb freezes on the button. You’ve stumbled on an image which fills your eyes with colour and assaults your ears with noise. Maybe that colour is green. Lots and lots of green, and it’s not only the pitch clad in this shade.
Done, you’re hooked. The commentators tell you, in the harsh tones of your mother tongue, that you’re watching the final of a European competition you’ve never heard of before. Two teams are waging war, two colours are doing battle: green versus blue, the field of play against the sky above.
But you have eyes only for one of them. It seems more thunderous, almost brute and raw. Their players must be running at the speed of light, or so it seems to your unripe eyes. They must be superheroes, tall and strong, flying all over the place. It is love at first sight, and you know it, because your heart is suddenly pounding and your breath is halting. The name of the team becomes music to your ears. Perhaps you might spend many years from then on, trying to explain that experience to yourself as much as others, to rationalise why you cried so bitterly when your new idols fell at the final whistle, defeated and broken. After all, you’d only just become acquainted.
Maybe the world was different when you were younger. As such, you struggle to feed and sustain this connection to your team. Because that’s what it is now: your team. You might not know exactly what that means yet, but you already catch yourself saying the words next day at school. They escape your mouth naturally and unprocessed, like speaking an undeniable, self-evident truth. There it is, your new definition, one of the first that you take on willingly and with conviction.
But dial-up internet means that you can’t spend much more than a few minutes per week with your team, at least not without bankrupting your parents. You’ll have to make do with less than your passion demands. So you get to know the players through an old, outdated computer game, which can’t keep up with the latest transfers and squad turnover. But it’s something, and you take great pleasure in building this virtual relationship.
Nevertheless, you never forget that your team exists out there, in the real world, far away and playing every week. The media in your country seems utterly indifferent to your heroes. Your mates intimate that they’ll never be able to truly understand what you feel for this club. Nothing on the screen, nothing in the papers. So you loiter on international channels, CNN and BBC Worldwide, any football show you can find, in the hope you’ll hear back from your boys.
The broadcast teletext becomes your best friend. At times, you spend 90 minutes on the couch, staring unblinkingly at the score. You feel like screaming at it to change. This is how you support your team in the beginning. This is how you experience your first tragedy alongside it. From under the covers, you watch in horror as 0-1 turns to 2-1 in the nanosecond it takes for the scores to update. Deep nausea and shock, a nightmare unfolding in broad daylight. It’s a whole new kind of pain, unexplored territory for you.
Years later, the fact that you were a witness to those dark Sunday events will become a badge of honour, which you wear proudly as testimony to your dedication. Like any wound sustained through love, you get over it, but the scars remain and they help you deal with similar moments. Like a rite of passage, the experience feels like a step towards maturity. From now on, your development as a person is inextricably tied to the way you grow into this role of a supporter. The two flow into each other like two strands of helix and so the relationship becomes serious, long term.
The world moves on and you along with it. Dial-up becomes broadband, sports channels on TV sprout up like mushrooms after rain. You still can’t watch every game, but you might start to discover the first relevant community you can directly participate in: fan forums. Many of their members are there, close to your team. They tell stories about trips to the stadium you dream of seeing. It feels like huddling around a fire, listening to legends whispered in awed tones.
Your regard these people as wise elders who have seen the light with their own eyes, while you still receive everything second-hand. At this point, maybe you still feel like you don’t belong, like you have no right to this title of ‘fan’, since all you do is scream and shout at a screen. So you start looking for ways to prove your membership. You’ll look to wear your team on your sleeve, quite literally, so that all and sundry can see your identity. Birthdays and Christmases don’t come with requests for toys and video games anymore. The wish lists now read like the catalogue of your team’s online store. Tops, hats, backpacks, posters, even bed linen. You want to paint your entire life green. Sometimes, you imagine yourself a missionary, sent far away from home to spread the news of that wonderful team from that wonderful land.
Your new online friends initiate you in the important rituals. You’ll learn to see beyond players. So often, they are just individuals with numbers on their back and roll in and out through a revolving door. Neither do the managers receive unwavering loyalty from you anymore. Because you start seeing the abstract concepts behind the shiny exterior of your team, principles that remain like sturdy rocks, even as the water rages on in constant movement.
You read about the things and ideas your club stands for, the origins that maintain continuity in other areas than the team sheet. It’s a history which distinguishes itself from its great rivals, who you slowly grow to detest. At first glance, it seems to you like a religion: have faith and don’t doubt. But you quickly decide it’s something else. It’s like a philosophy, a worldview that strives to be as coherent and all-encompassing as possible, but always updated and debated.
With this realisation come the first fights of your relationship. You’ve grown up and you shake away the naivety, that dust of youth. Your newly acquired maturity and knowledge present you with a different picture of fandom: one based on critical thinking. You now consider it a disservice to remain blind to your team’s defects. Unconditional love now has a new meaning to you, a sharper edge to its blade. Always wanting more from them, you argue in silence with players, managers and board members who, you feel, trample on your club’s ethos. You feel betrayed by the symptoms of creeping commercialisation, a malaise infecting the entire sport. You feel shame when you hear of other supporters acting disreputably. But it’s like a family: you can’t pick your relatives, and some of them might embarrass you.
Shame is also there when your mates tease you for supporting a foreign team, always there to point out painful defeats. You face them alone, bereft of allies in this fight. All these feelings are lived in isolation, between the conviction that your opinions are right and the hesitation caused by the distance. You keep asking yourself if you have any right to criticise from behind a laptop.
As you’re now a full-fledged teenager, more universal experiences come into play. Friendships are cemented and a love that seems different in kind to what you feel for your team begins to strike. Later, though, you come to believe that they’re not really that dissimilar. Both are tumultuous, bipolar and, in the end, indispensable for your life.
The girls that come close to you quickly clash with your team, like an intrusive affair. But you always want to introduce them to it. Almost subconsciously at first, you look to share this big part of you to see if it’s worth sharing your entire life with them. You postulate a simple equation: if you love your team, then whoever loves you must feel the same for it. It becomes a test, one that’s bound to always fail. Because, as you’ll learn, this relationship with your team can’t be forced on others, even if what they feel for you is real and honest. It’s a stinging lesson that you repeat many times before truly understanding it.
The years pass and they bring with them travels which expand your horizons. You leave the nest and make your own way. Packed in the suitcase, together with the books and clothes, is your team. You display it everywhere, in the rooms you let or the shirts you wear on strange and unfamiliar streets. When you feel lonely and lost, homesick and missing your family, it’s the only constant, the calming presence of an old friend. Your team is always there, in hard times, successes and the climax of graduation. In sickness and in health, as you’ve always been there for it, year after year.
And then, a day comes when wishes do come true. On a November evening, a decade later, a destiny which first emerged when you were a boy is fulfilled as a man. You’re there, after all those plans for which you’ve worked so hard have become reality. With your back stiff from the bus ride, you stand, knees shaking, in front of a temple sparkling in the night. To your left and to your right, songs ring out, lyrics that you’ve learned over time only by turning up the speakers in your room. Ahead of you, a path of about a hundred yards leads you into your Paradise. You would almost miss the match you’re there for just so you could take in every single brick and drink in the most extraordinary sight of your life.
Those pre-game pints have done nothing to settle the nerves. You stare at your ticket and try to ignore the myriad horror scenarios unfurling in your mind. What if it’s fake or something else goes wrong, just as you’re about to reach the promised land? But before you can finish this paranoid train of thought, you’re already climbing up the stairs. With each step, you’re closer to the noise which sounds like the loudest symphony to your ears. It’s all green, everywhere you look, but this time you’re part of it, belonging.
You head towards the light and step into it.