My journey to Goonerdom.

When people think of India, their thoughts may often jump to cricket, and with good reason. For years, cricket here has been almost a religion and its players, the equivalent of gods. People clung to the cricket as if it were a sacred thing of great worth, and it brought communities together, as they ‘ooh’ed and ‘aah’ed their way through a game.

But since the early 2000’s, the Gavaskars and Tendulkars have been replaced by the Messis and the Beckhams in our homes and on our streets. The grip that cricket once held on the country is loosening as football is making a niche for itself. As this new sport continues to develop itself into a major ‘brand’ in India, I see a larger number of kids playing football in alleys, in parks and in schools all over the country. It’s a phenomenon taking place across our cities and states as the youth are flocking to a new revolution – they’re changing the game.

There have been plenty clubs across Europe, from Barca to Celtic, that organise camps for promising youngsters in many of the metropolitans in India. Unfortunately, too many of these very same footballers, despite their talent, tend not to take up football seriously or professionally, as it just doesn’t pay well here. I’ve played alongside some superb players, who are forced to give up the beautiful game, to take up studies instead, which are still a priority in many Indian households.

Since going to a club’s stadium all the way from the sub-continent presents itself as a slight logistical problem, Indians all over are glued to their televisions and social networking sites as they tweet, comment and exult over match proceedings all at the same time, creating an electric atmosphere in spite of not being ‘there.’ Many a time, supporters get together, beers and pizza on hand, as they live the match on screens in front of them. I’ve been to a few match screenings myself, organised by “Bangalore Gunners”, and have watched as fans from different states and backgrounds unite as one during these thrilling 90 minutes. Of course, I hope to witness the great game firsthand as well – with a probable short trip through some parts of Europe on my agenda this October/November, I definitely have a couple Arsenal games in mind, and hopefully a North London Derby will be my first at the Grove!

Having just recently turned 18, access to all pubs and bars is now a lot easier and I look forward to these meet-ups this season. A lot of the time, I’d rather sit at home and watch Arsenal get down to business with some Chinese take-out than go out with my friends. I am a bit superstitious, and I always watch the big, big games at home with my red flag suspended over the telly!

But when I do attend these match screenings, I meet fans from every walk of life. All united by the glorious game on the screen, and for that hour and a half, an irreplaceable aura surrounded the room giving you a feeling that you belonged. Hearing everyone hold their collective breath as players like Wilshere and Arteta hovered over the ball, with the goal in sight; those are the moments you cherish and savour. A moment to forget, and I’m sure all Indian football fans will agree with me, is Blackburn’s relegation from the top-flight. Indian poultry giant, Venky’s, agreed to take over Rovers in November 2010, promising a finish in the top 5. They were linked with shock bids for Ronaldinho and Beckham, which quickly faded away, and were replaced by the uninspiring and almost unheard-of recruits in the form of Mauro Formica and Ruben Rochina. From that point, I knew it would end in tears.

It all went downhill from there, with the Rao family refusing to contribute necessary spending on bringing in fresh faces. Rovers fans were pushed further apart from the board after they refused to sack Steve Kean, who took over from Fat Sam and failed to impress. They stuck with him, but all Kean could do was watch as Blackburn, who were League champions in ’95, plummet to The Championship. It was a deal that never should’ve happened, as they never kept their promises and let down the fans in so many ways. I just hope that they somehow make it back up to the Premier League soon.

The state of both India’s economy and footballing fanbase have been the same for the past few years; growing. Consequently, as Indian spending power gradually increases, more and more fans are seen lined up in front of stores (of course, not always the ‘official’ ones) to buy the latest kits or their team’s branded goods, in an effort to take their support for their club to the next level. So just because they can’t make it to the stadium doesn’t mean they can’t contribute; and one look at the global football spectrum sees Indians making up a large percentage of each club’s world footprint. It infuriates me when I see people label overseas fans as “armchair supporters.” I hope they know that at least some of us probably know as much about and also love the club as they do, especially after seeing thousands of Arsenal fans gather to watch their favourite side during the Asia tour.

I must to admit, I have a friend who knows a guy who works at Nike in Bangkok, where most football jerseys are made, and he often gets rid of the “rejected” stock, which often have a stitching error or a slight stain, by selling it for almost 1/3rd the price. The official jerseys cost about Rs. 3,200, but I have picked up a few of these “first copies,” as we call them here, for about Rs. 1,300.

Indian supporters don’t have the luxury of coming from generations of a club’s loyal fanbase, and so need to make an important decision in their lives; which club to support. This is a decision that often separates even the closest siblings coming from the very same home. The majority of fans I’ve met, around my own age of 18, belong to the ‘big clubs’, with United winning most of them, and Chelsea claiming almost as many. Quite surprisingly, I do happen to know three Spurs fans and one City fan. The latter certainly isn’t a glory hunter as he’s backed the Sky Blues for about ten years now.

This very same lack if direct association between our country and the seat of International football however, lends a bitter taste to fans’ choices. It almost sickens me that a lot of them don’t know much about their clubs, and don’t necessarily watch most of their games, but when it’s time to lift a trophy, they’re all big fans. I’ve seen a fan from the sub-continent quickly switching loyalties when frustrated by Liverpool’s team’s lack of success, obviously eager for the triumph of Man City. He got some flak from fans all the world, including me, and the funny part was that he tried to defend his flighty decision, by saying that he’d been thinking it over for some time and was “fed up” of Liverpool.

Personally, it’s an amusing story as to how I became a Gunner. Coming from a school that only has basketball and football, I chose the latter sport for some reason and played it every break. I slowly started grew more interested in the game and so I started joining my brother, three years older than me, on the couch every Saturday and Sunday night watch 22 men knock the ball about for 90 minutes. And as all brothers do, we fought and argued about everything. He’s somehow made his way into United fandom, and so, for the sake of controversy, I decided to be a “supporter” of this club called Arsenal, who seemed to be their fiercest rivals. The fact that the club had a cannon on their crest further encouraged me to pursue my interest in the red and white army. The cannon; an instrument of battle, a symbol of strength, power has always appealed to me far more than any random fire-breathing lion or chicken on a baseball ever would. It was undoubtedly another reason for me to join the ranks of Gunner fans.

My first real memory as an Arsenal fan is that of watching Martin Keown, Ashley Cole and Lauren terrorize and torment Ruud van Nistelrooy after his dive and penalty miss at Old Trafford in 2003. For some reason, that thuggery, not only amused me, but also drew me in and I became a more frequent watcher of Arsenal games, eventually becoming a dedicated fan. At the time, I really didn’t care if we were winning or losing, I just wanted to watch The Arsenal.

I can honestly say that I don’t remember watching many games during the Invincibles era and of the FA Cup winning squad after, but from ’06, this weekend hobby evolved into an obsession. ESPN replaced Cartoon Network and my favourite t-shirt soon became that red and white Arsenal jersey (with a certain Henry on the back). Waking up for school on Wednesday or Thursday mornings ten minutes earlier than usual to check the Champions League games’ scores on the Internet became a tradition, as my parents banned me from watching the games past midnight until I was about 13. I soon caught up with our history and the games I had missed over the years through a lot of reading and watching countless youtube videos. When I think it over, Henry was undoubtedly my favourite player, and what I loved most about him was his ability to make something out of nothing. He would turn a match on its head in a blink of an eye with ease and make it look like it was all part of the plan.

One game that I’ll never forget is strangely the home win to Porto in the Champions League, back in March 2010. I had the most important chemistry exam of my life at 8 AM that morning, but I still stayed up till 2:30 AM to watch Bendtner run riot against the Portugese side. Needless to say, I didn’t fare too well in that exam, but it was worth it. (In my books, Nick went from hero to zero immediately after THAT miserable first touch late at the Camp Nou, which could’ve buried the game after van Persie was given his marching orders. Unforgivable.)

Another fond memory was when I was to stay a night at the hospital after having a bad neck injury while playing the game myself, which caused my spinal cord to shift in September 2010. I reached my hospital room after a series of scans only to find out that the TV didn’t have the channel which was showing the Arsenal vs. Standard Liege game. I asked my Mum if we could request for another room, but she shut me up with a lecture about not having my priorities set right and I was forced to ask my friend to send me updates via text, which I hate.

Over the years, there have been many low points in my journey as an Arsenal fan. One that particularly stands out was the week in February of 2011, where we went from quadruple contenders to title pretenders in just two weeks, after just one calamitous half at the SJP. I confess, in that time, I had one foot on the Arsene out bandwagon, but I realised soon that I was quick to jump to that conclusion and that there was a lot happening behind the scenes that we didn’t know about. (Sorry for that, Arsene!)

When teams lose games, the amount of banter thrown around between fans in India is pretty big as well. I play for a local club, and our captain, who is six years older than me, is a Chelsea fan. He received quite a few texts from me after our win at the Bridge last campaign, but gladly returned the favour when they won the cup double. Honestly, most of my closer friends who support other cubs don’t dare say anything to me after Arsenal losses, because they know how much the club means to me and how badly I take teasing sometimes!

Football in India is undoubtedly on the rise. It’s not going to go away any time soon. This new-found Indian pastime, and as ‘Podolski turns and shoots!’ the screaming shouts of ‘Goal!’ will only get louder as more and more Indians join in the chorus. Yes, us Arsenal fans have to look back to May 2005 for the last time they had had a celebratory, trophy-winning drink, but that will not dampen our spirits or lessen our adoration for the club. The Arsenal is here to stay.

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