It’s a LOT more than just a game.

(Repost from SB’s personal blog, December 2009.)
Football – it elicits varying reactions from various people when it is mentioned. Some people are put off by the thought of a sport being taken as seriously as it is. Some people are not averse to it, and enjoy watching the odd game – but that’s where their interest ends. Some people are indifferent and shrug it off to go enjoy a soap or some equally unintelligent show on the telly. (These are the unfortunate lot who have no idea what they are missing out on!)

And then there are some….

Football wasn’t always my biggest obsession. Like most little boys in India, I grew up heavily influenced by the cricket culture and was nuts about the sport till I was about 10 or 11 years old. Football was always there in the background and the occasional kick-about was always fun. I don’t remember very clearly what it was, but at some point along the way, I lost all interest in cricket (the little interest I have in it now is more patriotic than an actual love for the sport!) and football became the one thing I could not (and still cannot!) get enough of.

There are many people who describe The Beautiful Game as “22 people chasing after a ball for an hour and a half”. Sure, that’s what it can be. The same can be said for any sport – Cricket is 22 people using a piece of wood to knock a cork-and-leather ball around a ground, Golf is a number of people using a stick to try and put a ball into a hole a third-of-a-mile away….you get the point! Football, you see, is more than just that. It is, for many (myself included), a way of life. A passion. Something one relates to and loves more deeply than can be described in words. A religion. Simply, a way of life!

I have been at the receiving end of numerous yellings, arguments and lectures about how football is not (or rather should not be) the be-all and end-all of my existence. But it is hard impossible to try and explain to anyone, the deep love I have for the game. It is just something one has to understand. Fortunately for me, I am blessed to have a brother and a close circle of friends who are as mental about football as I am. We can (and do!) have endless discussions/arguments about our favourite teams and the goings-on in the world of football almost on a daily basis. What more, I ask you, could anyone want!

Having said what I have said about football in general, the meaning of the game is incomplete for me without Manchester United. A club with a rich history, a burgeoning trophy cabinet, one of England’s oldest and most majestic stadia and everything that means football to me. (I am yet to be fortunate enough to watch United play live at Old Trafford, but I hope to fulfil that dream sometime soon!)

Nothing makes me feel quite the way I do when I watch United play. Sure, there are games when us fans feel like tearing our hair out and smashing things. There are games where we have been robbed in broad daylight either by opposition players or worse still….the referee.

That said, the rollercoaster of emotion is probably, among other things, what has us hooked to the game. Take last season, for example. With back-to-back defeats to Liverpool and Fulham having seemingly dented their title hopes, United were heading into the final third of the game against Aston Villa 2-1 down. 17-year-old Federico Macheda was thrown into the deep end for his first-team debut with 30 minutes left to play. The rest, as they say, is history…

THAT goal, that wonder goal, scored by young “Kiko” Macheda, not only turned the tide in United’s favour but also galvanised them for the rest of the season. From then on, they only got better and stronger and went on to lift the Barclays Premier League for a third season running. I still remember watching that game. Like all United fans, I was praying for a miracle that would turn the 2-1 deficit around and win us the game. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried openly when Macheda’s shot curled into the back of the net, and I still do, every single time I watch that replay.

United went on to reach the finals of the UEFA Champions League in Rome as well, where they were to meet, and eventually lose to, Barcelona. We were outclassed on the day, we have to admit. Barcelona were by far the better team. It was a pity we couldn’t emulate our own heroics from just the previous season, where we faced Chelsea in THAT game, the very same fixture – the Finals of the prestigious Champions League. That is another game I can watch over and over again – and manage to cry tears of joy every single time. I remember that night very clearly – all of us huddled around the TV, as tense as tense could be. How my parents could ignore such a brilliant game and go to sleep – I still do not know! Worse, we had strict instructions that there would be no shouting, no matter what. Pfft.

When John Terry slipped and skied his crucial penalty, we knew we had a shot. We had played well on the day and would not be undeserving Champions. Just four spot-kicks later…
….this happened. And we erupted. We couldn’t care less about getting yelled at (we didn’t!) or behaving like animals (even though it was within the confines of our own home). For us, the entire world, in that moment, meant winning the Champions League. We had last won the Champions League in 1999, when we also completed a remarkable treble, but poor television coverage of the tournament back then meant that this was the first Champions League trophy we had seen our team earn. Every step of the way. It was the greatest feeling to watch Anelka’s stupid face register a trademark look  of bewilderment after our hero, Edwin Van der Sar, guessed right and kept his penalty out. John Terry’s tears of disappointment and sorrow added to our joy and excitement. We were the Champions of Europe. We were the Champions of England. Nothing else mattered. 
In recent times, the image of football has been marred by numerous incidents. Ranging from simulation/diving, to poor refereeing decisions and from nasty challenges to off-the-pitch controversies surrounding youth players and how teams are going about signing them. The only attempted justification one can give, is that “it’s all a part of the game”. Hard to stomach at times, but I guess that’s the only reasonable way to look at it. If us fans, who were baying for a referee’s blood after he cost us an important game with a ridiculous decision, succeeded – football as we know it, would come to an end. I’d much rather have a referee whose guts I can hate for eternity, rather than not have any football at all.
I must admit – I have engaged in loads of (very!) heated debates about clubs spending indiscriminately and buying themselves titles (not to mention “fans”. Chelsea Football Club – this means YOU) but I guess it was going to happen sooner or later. The rich do, after all, only get richer and the poor do just the opposite. It is unfair, yes. But what can we do about it? Lay down regulations riddled with loopholes? One day it will all blow up in their faces and football will have a new beginning. I hope.
As much as I hate the club he once managed, late Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said – “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
I couldn’t agree more!