My school was soccer crazy. Actually, let me rephrase that — the kids at my school were soccer crazy.
The administration and teachers were very much anti-sport. They saw it as a distraction from the absolute main purpose in our lives: getting good grades. Even our physical education teacher shared the same opinion!
He was a middle-aged man with little interest in sport. What was funny was that he spent a lot of time boasting to all of us about he used to play soccer for the state team. But he seemed far more passionate about discipline, the cleanliness of our uniforms and our English class. He was a bit of a laughing stock. But then again, when it came to sport, so was our school.
We didn’t have soccer fields, running tracks, tennis courts or anything of that sort. We had one singular basketball court that was used for soccer, volleyball, athletics and badminton. It really makes you wonder why all our schools’ teams were so bad.
In my senior year of high school, the entire soccer team had to write a letter to our principal requesting — no, begging — her to let us go for a big tournament and to assure her in writing that we wouldn’t compromise on our academics.
You’d think that such an environment would kill our love for the game, but it did the opposite. Lunch breaks were spent in heated debates over Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, time was passed in class building fantasy teams, and when I look back now, it’s almost embarrassing how much Soccer Atlas we played. Soccer was the only language we all spoke.
For the big games, our group of about 10 guys would get together at a friend’s place to watch the match. I remember the 2014 World Cup final was on a Sunday, and because of the time difference between Brazil and India, all of us went to bed around 4:30 a.m. Half our grade called in sick the next morning.
There was a flourishing trade network for soccer posters, news clippings and merchandise that existed in our school. I will admit with great pride that I was the kingpin of this setup. All the Sportstar and Shoot magazines I had been hoarding for years served me well.
The club you supported was a huge part of your identity. I wasn’t seen as just Shubi Arun in school, I was seen as Shubi Arun, the Arsenal fan.
Now, keep in mind that this was just the start of the money era in soccer, so the “big four” clubs still dominated. Manchester United and Chelsea had the largest fan base at school, there were a couple of Liverpool fans and, sadly, I was the only Gooner.
Monday mornings were something else. Most all of the Premier League games took place on weekends, so on Monday we’d all get together on the playground and discuss the games. And by discuss, I mean stand in a circle and poke fun at the person whose team had lost on the weekend.
It’s no surprise that a majority of the fights that broke out in school were all on Mondays.
When Fernando Torres joined Chelsea from Liverpool, I remember my best friend and Liverpool fanatic, RK, was put in detention for shoving a Chelsea fan that spent the entire day taunting him. Ego didn’t spark fights in my school — soccer did.
How your team had fared determined if you walked in through the school gates with your chest puffed out or your head bowed. Bragging rights was the currency on which our school operated.
Being an Arsenal fan, my head was usually bowed. Arsenal’s nine-year trophy drought, one of the worst phases in their history, coincided perfectly with my time in high school. I think a large part of my dread for Mondays stems from Arsenal.
The night we lost 8-2 to Man United, my phone didn’t stop ringing with calls from laughing, taunting United fans. It wasn’t just the United fans who were my friends who called — even guys who I hadn’t spoken to in years suddenly became very keen on renewing acquaintance.
RK called me, too, that night, offering his condolences and telling me stay strong for the following morning. As a Liverpool fan, he had been though his fair share of ignominy and strongly advised me to bunk school the next day. In the eighth grade, RK rarely came to school on Monday. And if he did, he would ignore us the whole day, sulking in a corner.
Football, bloody hell!
My parents weren’t as understanding as RK’s, and I had to endure an entire day of, “Shubi, my stomach is hurting, I think I 8-2 much,” and numerous other contrived, painful jokes. One whole week of having to put with the endless jabs and taunts from everyone (even the non-soccer fans!) instilled in me this deep anger and mentality of “me versus the world.”
“Look at all of them laughing now,” I thought to myself. “I’ll show them just how great my team is, and how wrong they are to write Arsenal off.”
We were playing lowly Blackburn Rovers the following weekend, the perfect chance for redemption.
I went to sleep the night before the game dreaming of a 6-0 win and walking into the school like a king on Monday. We lost 4-3.
It’s funny when I look back on those days now — I’m filled with great nostalgia and a sense of sadness. After school, we all scattered across the globe, and the rivalry that existed between us waned. Now when Arsenal wins, I feel joy, but not that elation I used to feel in rubbing that victory in the faces of my friends.
When we lose, I feel the disappointment, but no longer that fear. There are times when I find myself craving for those Monday mornings on the playground. They were instrumental in sparking my passion for the game and helped me understand the beauty of rivalry and fandom in sport.
In December, Arsenal were emphatically thrashed 5-1 by Liverpool. Wallowing in my hole of self-pity, I began to wonder how much easier my life would have been if I wasn’t an Arsenal fan. I checked my phone and found that I had two missed calls from RK. We hadn’t spoken in close to a year, but some things never change.
I called him back and was greeted with him singing, “We’re going to win the league,” at the top of his voice. I already regretted calling him.