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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Why I Love Football

They needed just one more goal. This couldn't be happening. This was impossible. We - WE - were up 4-0 at half time and yet here we were about to succumb to one of the most embarrassing, humiliating come-backs of all time. Newcastle needed just one more goal to make it 4-4 with only a few minutes to play. Our boys were tired, they were dejected and they didn't know who to turn amidst the deafening roar of the Newcastle home support.
And then it came. The inevitable goal. 4-4 and I stormed out of the room and looked out our balcony into a night that offered no consolation. My parents were chuckling. They really don't 'get' it. So today I will explain it to them and to you and to whoever is reading. Those low points, those heart-breaking, morale sapping moments of sheer sadness where there is no solace to be found anywhere - I will live with those. The moments of absolute panic when the five measly pixels that make up your internet stream freeze for a split second as Theo Walcott is raining down on their goal - I will live with those. The hours after another defeat at the hands of Man Utd, when it seems everyone wants to talk about football and everywhere you look, you are reminded of the failure - I will live with those. Because for all those moments, there are ones right on the other end of the spectrum. My parents do not understand why I love football and why I love Arsenal. I will explain.
One night a few years ago I fell in love.
It was cold. It was rainy. It was dark. It was England.

And yet the energy that surged through the frigid air was charged with excitement and anticipation. Small streams of people in reds and whites and blues and blacks merged into a mighty river of middle aged men. It was my first time in Liverpool and my first away game. Edd and I walked quietly with other nervous Arsenal and Everton fans. It was a league game relatively early on in the season, exactly the kind of occasion that Arsenal are known for slipping up on.

It was a good 10 minutes from the pub to the stadium and by the time we got there, hunger clawed at my inside. The dirty burger is a greasy patty served with burnt onions on soggy bread with some 4 month old ketchup and probably at STD but my God it was divine. I can still taste it now. I shovelled it down my mouth in seconds and we followed the other Arsenal fans, who had by now pulled their shirts over their jackets to show their colours, to the away block. We queued outside the turnstile discussing who should start up front. The songs had begun. I think a freezing night in a decrepit tin-can stadium is just about the only place a man is allowed to sing his heart out without any inhibitions. And how we sang. The narrow white corridors and flights of stairs that led to our section provided great acoustics as we marched up. I had been to five games - I knew all the songs by now.

Words cannot do justice how it feels to walk out into a floodlit stadium. There is just no sight like it. It's a feeling that draws us sports fans to our temples every weekend. You emerge into this cauldron and it never gets old. You have been couped up inside the claustrophobic bowels of the stadium for the best part for 10 minutes, absolutely itching to get out into the middle and when the glorious green of the grass hits you, well, you are never ready for it. Each time I see a football pitch inside an arena, it feels like taking your first breath after a long dive in water. It's that all encompassing euphoria that is topped by only one thing - a goal.

Unfortunately for us, the goal came for Everton. A corner was swung in and Tim Cahill planted a header into the back of the net. Cue an explosion from all three sides. The home fans exploded. Flailing limbs burst forth from the previously seated Blue's fans. Such contrast in emotions - you had to have been there to truly know it. Silence and stillness from the 2,000 of us and raw release from the other 30,000. We stood, arms folded, watching the curious mixture of happiness and aggression bellow forth from the Evertonians, like a quiet peninsula. The red eye of a blue storm.

The rain fell harder still. The wind, almost as if it sensed our disappointment, quickened its pace. Time was ticking away. We were playing badly and there was no escaping it. Passes got stuck in the water-logged grass, which was by now more sticky and slick. Tackles flew in - as is always the case in England, the good ones were greeted with cheers and the poor ones with groans. Time was ticking away. We deserved to lose this game. But we did not.

Alex Song fed Abou Diaby who up until then, had played worse than a cardboard cut-out of himself. He cracked a long pass that fizzed through the drizzle at the same height for about 30 yards till it met Robin van Persie's chest. We took a collective breath. One entity inhaled in anticipation. One unit, one being tensed its leg muscles as it lent forward and watched with bated breath.

"G'on Robin" came the cry from around me. The Evertonians now covered their eyes. His touch was perfect - he controlled the powerful pass with the finesse of a dancer. In one fluid motion all the pace and venom was taken off the ball and it bounced harmlessly in front of him. It bounced ready to be smashed into the back of the net. My grip on the shoulder of the man next to me tightened as Robin pulled back and fired away a shot with just over a minute to play.

For a moment reality was suspended and all that mattered in the universe was the ball and Tim Howard in their goal. The angle was tight but the ball just kept going. You can tell as a fan at the stadium, which shots are heading for the soft white net. Bang. 1-1.

It was euphoria like I'd never experienced. Better than sex. Better than anything conceivable. It was our turn to explode. We had no idea what was happening. Arms, legs, beers and bags sailed into the sky and the mosh-pit around us. You hold onto the guy next to you for dear life as you jump and scream and let out all the tension of the last 90 minutes. There is nothing in this world that comes close to the delirium of the last minute goal. It is the reason we love football. It is the reason we wake up in the morning and it is the reason we dreamed the night before. Absolute, glorious pandemonium. Unrelenting anarchy that takes over ever fibre in your body.

That overpowering joy of that moment is what I remember. It is seared into my memory and into my outlook on life and football. For every last minute goal against, there is a last minute goal for. And for me, the joy outweighs the disappointment. There is a reason I say “we” when talking about my beloved Arsenal. There is a reason I skip appointments to sit in front of a screen. There is a reason that Saturday is sacred. Through the cold, rainy English night, songs of happiness and glory and brotherhood ring out forever.

I would not trade it for world.