It is just great to have the Premiership season started again, though Manchester United look a little bit strong for my liking! Without a World Cup or European Championship, the soccer less summer seemed to go on for far too long.
As it all gets going again, my mind has been drawn back to a Sunday afternoon in April when I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, turned up the stereo and tried to give up being a football fan! For a good five minutes it all seemed like a good idea. I could do it. Lots of my friends have no interest.
What had caused this mad rush of blood to my head?! Well, my beloved Manchester City had just been destroying Arsenal for 45 minutes in the FA Cup Semi Final at Wembley. They should have been 6 up at half time in chances missed, did score a perfectly good goal and the score was still goalless. At that stage you know that it is not City’s day. Indeed, I had left when after a late equaliser, Arsenal went ahead in Extra Time and I knew… I could miss the rest of that match and soccer itself for ever after!
It was deep psychological hurt. A sense of real injustice. One up at half time and we were in the FA Cup Final. A bad lines man’s decision about the ball behind out of play, when it wasn’t, and my wee heart was in short term trauma. Too easily for a 55 year old man I hear you say but it is that ridiculous impact on my life that had me trying to give the whole thing up. Football fans invest a lot of emotion in their team. With such investment, justice is the least we deserve.
This however is not a blog about refereeing technology. It is about why I could not let go of the beautiful game. So why not? Why did I decide to get up after the inevitable final score at Wembley?
Well, the first thing is obviously the near impossibility of it all. As Rod Stewart put it in the sleeve notes of his last album, “the two things you cannot change in life are your mother and your football team.” Soccer is an addiction. You can hear the kind of money being thrown around. Neymar’s transfer to Paris St Germain for £200m and Manchester City paying the same for a new defence seems utterly obscene if you have spent some off your summer in Uganda. BUT… the darn game gets into your blood before you are old enough. A transfusion is yet to have been found!
As I left the room in April though I had decided I was sticking with it for a more positive reason. Football is a universal language that I have used across the world.
It all started one night in 1990 in Shanghai. Walking the streets looking for a KFC we bumped into a Chinese chap wanting to learn English. He has been teaching himself through BBC World Service and he started enthusiastically talking about Packie Bonner’s penalty save in the recent World Cup. It was humorous but taught me something about this game. Thousands of miles from home it is a connector.
Arriving in South Africa a decade later some of the first conversations we had on the Khayelitsha township was about a soccer team; the Kaiser Chiefs. Indeed it seemed almost everyone, male or female, old or young wore Chiefs shirts. The rest supported the Orlando Pirates. After discovering that the local team Cape Town Ajax were considered Dutch and therefore white, so no fans on black townships supported them, I became an ardent Pirates fan. The Chiefs seemed a little too Man United!
For the next decade I engaged with black South Africans through Orlando Pirates shirts and hand signals. I wore the shirt on the townships as much as the odour allowed. People would stop for a chat, in amazement that a white was a Pirates fan. In moments when I felt a little insecure I’d lift my sweat shirt to reveal my Pirates’ top and tensions turned to a laugh and African handshake. At every petrol station I asked what team the attendant supported and told them I never tipped Chiefs!
Arriving in Uganda in 2015 it was English clubs that had me conversing. Arsenal and not Manchester United surprisingly rules in Uganda. At the school we partner with I took the name Ya Ya after City’s African player Ya Ya Toure. Immediately Gilbert was Ozil and Norman was Suarez. Two year later we all still are and the kids have a few Ya Ya chaats as I walk across the playground.
In a tricky situation on the wrong side of town, Jasmine and I found ourselves a little isolated. Looking down at a few tough looking guys, sitting watching us, I spotted a bicycle in the middle of them with a Chelsea sticker and started some banter. All fear and tension immediately evaporated and we left with them laughing at the Manchester City supporting muzungu!
Football frustrates me and angers me and with all the money too often lets me down but it was my best geography teacher as a child because I know where towns and cities and countries are by football teams. If your town ever made the FA Cup First Round I’ll know what part of England you are from! Most of all though it is a universal language that has given me inroads to connections around the world. So here’s for another season of painfully unjust afternoons like that one last April. Give it up? Don’t be daft!