Home >mint-lounge >The football ‘tifoso’

One evening in May 2007, Italian football club AC Milan played a scrappy but tense Champions’ League final against Liverpool Football Club in Athens, Greece. It was 3am in Mumbai, 5,000km away, but 19-year-old Himanshu Parmekar was awake, watching. Milan had scored two miraculous goals, but Liverpool had pulled in a late one. The referee’s whistle seemed to be holding the world to ransom. When it finally blew, signalling full time, Milan won 2-1, and something inside Parmekar went for broke. He ran out to his balcony and screamed into the summer night. “We won!" he shouted. “We won!"

Long-distance relationship: Mumbai-based Malik Sumrani, 22, has been a fan of the English football club Manchester United since he was 14. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Football, like the late-night shift in US-facing workplaces, has made a mess of our circadian rhythms. It keeps us up in the wee sma’s. It takes over our holidays. Like flowers to the sun, we turn our faces in whichever direction it leads us: Now a domestic league match in Stoke; next a European showdown in Kiev, Ukraine, later in Tokyo for the Club World Cup finals.

And then there are the weekends. “Why are you laughing at the screen?" Dinar Nasnodkar’s mother in Goa snaps when he finds himself amused by something happening during a match. “They don’t even know you exist!"

All fans, categorically, are worshippers from afar. But even by love’s absurd standards, the long-distance relationship a new generation of Indian fans has developed with football is intense. Within a decade, European football—especially English football—has become serious business. In 2011, the Barclays Premier League (EPL) attracted a viewership of 76.9 million, a 20% jump over audience figures in 2010. Between 2008 and 2011, viewership for the Premier League experienced a 53% growth. Major English clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea Football Club and Liverpool FC, all run youth football programmes of various kinds in the country, partly to keep an eye out for talent at the grass roots, but also to establish a relationship with growing hordes of fans from what is known, in polite European shorthand, as “the Asian market".

For winning athletes and coaches, European clubs sometimes employ a biological metaphor: They embody “the Barca DNA" or “the Milan DNA". For fans, the more appropriate analogy is a virus. There is an Italian word for persons like us; it is tifoso, derived from typhus. A pathological condition.

Malik Sumrani, a 22-year-old in Mumbai, began watching football eight years ago. “I can tell you two people because of whom football really began to pick up as a sport when I started watching," he says. “One was Bhaichung Bhutia, who is an idol and one true star for the nation. The other is David Beckham. He really brought football to India." Sumrani, who has been a Manchester United fan “from the start", rightly says that the EPL’s success worldwide had much to do with Beckham’s celebrity in the 1990s. “But love has nothing to do with one single player, or one successful manager," he clarifies. “That’s not what fan following is about."

Fan following is about loving the badge, not the player; else you would switch loyalties each time Cristiano Ronaldo switched teams. It means being emotionally invested in a club’s history, not its future, since that way you will love your team no matter what its results are.

It remains deeply ironic that the true fan in India is largely restricted to cheering for one of eight major clubs in Western Europe, because only the successful teams get much airtime in international markets. “The result determines how the next week is going to be," says Kunal Dua, a New Delhi-based Liverpool supporter, about what it’s like to love his “glorious, tragic" team, with which he fell in love because of their relative underdog status. “Is it going to be a beautiful Monday morning (won last night)? Or Monday morning blues (draw or worse)?"

Big European clubs, having moved around traditional match timings and added a variety of exhibition matches to their calendars to appeal to fans in different parts of the world, have told their stories well. Younger fans, in particular, are untroubled by the possibility that globalization has gamed the system, and that they might really just be hostage to market forces. For Valentine’s Day, AC Milan sends out an email circular to all its registered fans announcing their own celebration of this love: a 20% discount on club merchandise (full disclosure: This reporter is a registered Milan fan).

“Teams in Europe are no longer indigenous to their respective places," argues Dinesh Natarajan, 22, a Liverpool fan from Chennai. “They have millions of fans overseas, and they do care for all their fans."

“This was a question I wanted to answer for myself," says Pranav Raje, 29, a Milan fan from Mumbai. “I see a lot of football followers in India get really upset and even get into fights with fans of rival teams. I mean, we’re a continent away and most of us don’t even play the game. I used to feel very weird." Raje and his wife, a Chelsea fan, have started to save money and travel to watch their teams in the last two years, and he says they have come away with a much better understanding of the culture, having made local friends, met fellow fans, and rivals.

“I think fans like me want to identify with a style of play, and a successful club," he says. “Though many miles away, we want to attach ourselves to the character of the club we identify with."

For the majority of his fellow fans, visiting their home grounds in distant climes is a cherished dream. Instead, some corner of a foreign field is forever Madrid, or Munich or north London. Sumrani recollects the visit of Gary Neville, veteran footballer, to the Manchester United Café Bar in Lower Parel, Mumbai, last month. “He looked at the reception he got," Sumrani says, “and the first thing he said was, ‘Looking at you, I want to cry.’"

Like Beckham and the fans he created, Neville has been lucky to play in an era when global multimedia has made this kind of romance, with all its joys and sorrows, possible.

“A weighted random number generator just produced a new batch of numbers," says one stick figure to another in the trenchant Web comic xkcd. “Let’s use them to build narratives!" The comic is called “Sports". It pokes nerdy fun at the human obsession with the trivial pursuit of athletics, but it also gets exactly why they assume such importance for us: The stories within a game are instantly evocative of great emotion. Advertisements targeted at sports fans follow a common narrative. They show us using a television, or drinking a beverage, that collapses the boundaries between our living room and the football field, and allows us to be right there, next to the players and the other fans.

“There’s no good or bad time to follow football," Sumrani says. “Any time is the perfect time when you want to follow a sport. There’s no downside to it, no fallout. It can only do you good, because sport teaches you not to end up as a bitter loser in life."

And so, the other thing Italians are supposed to say: that’s amore.

Barclays Premier League viewership figures for India provided by Rathindra Basu, senior director—corporate communications, business development and event management group, ESPN Software India Pvt. Ltd.

Supriya.n@livemint.com

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