Sport and spectatorship: a common goal uniting India and the UK

This article was written for The Telegraph, India and can be viewed online here

My day today began fairly uneventfully. I got into my Uber driver’s car, said hello, and focused on the road ahead, hoping that I wouldn’t get stuck in traffic and be late for work. About five minutes into my journey, my driver very politely asked me where I was from and what brought me to India. After telling him that I was from England and interning here at t2, his eyes lit up. “Football!” he exclaimed, and I nodded in acquiescence. It is, after all, our national sport – despite the fact that no English manager has ever won the Premier League (I admittedly stole that fact from British High Commissioner, Bruce Bucknell, who kicked of tonight’s event… thanks Bruce!). My driver went on to tell me that Christiano Ronaldo is his favourite player, and he laughed along with me when I intimated that he could have picked less of a cry-baby player to champion, referring of course to the Portuguese player’s propensity to roll around on the floor after he has been ‘fouled’. In spite of the slight language barrier between us, I found myself struck by the ability that sport has to bring people together. Little did I know that this brief but heart-warming interaction would set the tone for the rest of my day.

Fast forward six hours, and a raucous cheer ricochets throughout the room. It suddenly hits me how the unmistakable roar of hardcore football supporters could just as easily have been lifted from my hometown city of Sheffield as it could the reality, which is this room in the British High Commission in Kolkata, where a FIFA tournament is currently well underway. The event this evening deliberately coincides with the launch of the 26th Premier League, and is the brainchild of Trade & Investment Adviser, Sandip Chaudhuri. Tonight fifteen randomly selected teams will be pitted against one another in a battle to the ultimate title of ‘FIFA champion’. The stakes are high, and the passion in the room is definitely palpable.

Before coming to Kolkata from the UK a week ago I will admit that I googled ‘India and cricket’, desperately hoping to educate myself to a basic level so that I could at least hold my own in a conversation about India’s national sport with cab drivers and inquisitive strangers. But what I didn’t expect before coming to Kolkata was to be quizzed on my English Premier League loyalties – it never even crossed my mind that my Uber driver or my co-worker might be dreaming of visiting the UK to see their favorite football team play in the flesh.

I’ve watched the Manchester United squad training at Old Trafford, and as they completed their exercises I remember sitting there bored, thinking about what I was going to have for lunch. It never even crossed my mind that people would kill to swap places with me, and sit in those uncomfortable red plastic seats to watch their idols train. Although back home Premier League tickets are expensive, and notoriously hard to come by (unless you are a season ticket holder), at least in England football fans can watch their favorite team play without having to save up for years of their life. This is certainly something that visiting India has taught me that I should no longer take for granted.

This seems like an opportune moment to mention the fact that I am in the fortunate position of having four younger brothers, which means that I grew up in a household that would routinely be watching some form of sport, whether that was football, tennis, cricket or rugby. Crucially, my family environment means that I probably know more about sport than your average British female. When you have one Liverpool supporter, one Chelsea supporter, one Manchester City supporter and one Manchester United fan living under one roof, watching and supporting football in my house was always going to be an intensely competitive (and loud) affair. Growing up in such a diverse household prepared me well for tonight’s event – where there were all sorts of supporters coming together under one roof to (loudly) celebrate their love of football. No matter what colour jersey the competitors were wearing, it was clear from the outset that tonight’s event was about fans of all ages and allegiances coming together and simply having fun… although admittedly, scoring goals mattered a little bit as well.

Although I came to India fully expecting to make cricket small-talk, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised to find that people in Kolkata are avid fans of the Premier League too. After all, these English teams are made up of players from all over the globe – so why shouldn’t people from Kolkata follow and support them here in India, too? I came to this realisation as I was stood listening to a pair of ten year old identical twins enthusiastically regale me with an anecdote about the time that their parents took them to an Arsenal versus Liverpool game, where the outcome of the match – a 2:2 draw – left both of them happy, for Zayn supports Liverpool, and Rayyan supports Arsenal (for those of you confused by the fact he is sporting a Liverpool jersey in their photo, he offhandedly remarks to me that he is only wearing the Liverpool kit “to impress [his] Dad” – ultimately his true loyalties lie with Arsene Wenger’s team). The twins’ friend, Arjun tells me that he routinely stays up past his bedtime to watch the Premier League. These boys, young as they are, clearly live and breathe football. It’s listening to these young fans speak that I realise that these boys care about these teams just as much, if not more than, my younger brothers do back home.

Not only has it been encouraging to see young people coming together in one place and sharing their love for sport, it’s has also been heartening to see that the despite England’s problematic involvement in India’s past (and that is putting it lightly), we are beginning to write a new chapter for the history books, which sees us share a united future of sport and spectatorship.

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