Why we stand by the teams we support, in victory and defeat

By Sushmita Bose

When I was 8 or 9 years old, living (and studying) in Calcutta, I was witness to a classroom fight between two (about-10-member-strong) “teams” of Standard III girls (who said girls can’t/don’t fight?). It had started out as a regular day in school, and we were waiting for our Geography teacher to walk in to take over our second period when, randomly, a few girls called a few others “LOSER!” A counter-gang formed immediately, who threw themselves at the name-callers — punching, hitting, even pulling at pigtails and plaits. Soon, there was a full-fledged battle on in progress.

I giggled nervously a safe distance away, not quite understanding what was going on.

A couple of teachers stormed in, both “teams” were marched down to the principal’s office — where they received an earful — and then brought back to class, where glares persisted in the midst of an uneasy calm.

The matter was demystified during our tiffin break. There were two football (club) teams who vied for top honours in the Bengal League back then (I think they still do, but football fever is not the same as it used to be in the 70s and 80s): Mohun Bagan and East Bengal (it’s a qualitative long shot — but they were like counterparts of the English Premier League’s Manchester United and Arsenal). These two had clashed the day before, and one of them beat the other. That day, the young “fans” of the winning squad called a few girls who professed allegiance for the defeated team “LOSER”. And therefore the fight broke out. “How dare she insult my team?” one of the girls explained to me.

There was a nebulous geographical logic as far as team loyalty was concerned — and it was a throwback to an undivided Bengal. Mohun Bagan represented the western side; East Bengal, as the name suggested, was rooted in the east. Even though the origins of family were (apparently) from the Mohun Bagan side, I went on to become an East Bengal fan. My half-baked loyalty was derived from a Bengali movie titled Mohan Bagan-er Meye (The Mohun Bagan Girl). It was about a father and son’s enduring conflict over which side they supported: dad was a Mohun Bagan supporter, son an East Bengal one. Alright, said father, be my guest, but when you get married, the girl has to be on my side: she needs to be a Mohun Bagan supporter. Now, son already had a girlfriend, an East Bengal-supporting one. But they fake her loyalty, and a make-believe drama plays out — until on the day of the league finals, the truth (inadvertently) slips out, and all hell breaks loose.

I was obviously on the side of love, so I emerged an East Bengal fan after watching the film. I’d follow the club’s fluctuating fortunes on radio (live commentary) and sports magazines. A few years later, I lost interest in the beautiful game… but every time (even now) I heard “East Bengal”, I’d feel a slight frisson of excitement.

Much, much later, I got reacquainted with soccer again, and, this time, thanks to the motor force adulthood brings in its wake, my loyalty for a team I’d marked out as my “own” — the England national team (I already did a piece on how it came about a couple of weeks ago) — was, unlike my childhood fixation, abiding.

Google “football” and “loyalty”, and you’re bound to get a few life lessons; football is being used to foster values such as constancy and integrity. Helen Neale, a mom blogger, writes in kiddycharts.com how she’s not going to let her son get away with trying to make her switch sides (to a team he favours): “Gradually, he is realising that the joy, and wonder that you get when you watch your football team play, is built up from years of being involved with them. You can’t switch off that loyalty just because your son doesn’t share it with you. This just isn’t fair to your team, and to all the years of dedication that you have given; from the tears at a loss, to the ecstasy of a hard-fought victory… We have compared the loyalty and love for our football teams to that which he feels for his friends.”

So, how far am I willing to go for loyalty?

The extra mile, I think. Yup, definitely.

Last Saturday, after a bout of banter with a WhatsApp pal, explaining to him that, no, I don’t support England because of Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes or Harrods but because of feelings and emotions, I consciously chose to take up an England vs Sweden match-watching offer from a friend who declared she’d root for my team (she doesn’t particularly care for England, but was being a sport… for my sake). And I consciously chose to watch the match at a “football village” in JBR where I knew there would be a lot of English supporters.

Within the electric confines of the venue, I discovered community — brought together by the love for a team — in a way I’ve never experienced before. A motley gathering of complete strangers, smiling at each other, exchanging high fives, rising to their feet spontaneously each time “our” team netted a goal or came close to netting one, and singing pitch-imperfect “It’s coming home” at the top of their voices.

Believe me, it took my loyalty a notch higher.

That will go down in my personal history as being the greatest takeaway this watershed World Cup.


Sushmita is editor, WKND. She has a penchant for analysing human foibles

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