The Fan

November 4, 2009


I have often wondered about the DNA of the sports fan. Especially in the Indian context. In a country that is starved of a serious sporting culture, being a fan of any sport or sportsman is the closest to attaining sporting nirvana. Notwithstanding the sporadic successes of Indians of late, this is, unfortunately, still the case.

The advent of satellite television has changed things, especially in urban and suburban India. The ability to identify with sporting icons, be it in team or individual sport, has outgrown the narrow confines of national boundaries. Whilst this was always the case, their prevalence and pervasiveness, thanks to the explosion in the media industry, particularly television, is wider and deeper now. In India, with its predominantly young population yearning for sporting success stories to identify and associate with, the absence of national sporting icons worthy of “loyalty allocation”, means that we are a nation of the “undiluted television sporting fan”. I would define a UTSF as anyone with access to view the best of sporting action happening anywhere in the world but who, for a variety of reasons, not the least being his unwillingness to distance himself from the comforts of his arm chair, has precious little working knowledge of the sport that his icon, be it a team or individual is engaged in. Typically, children grow to like a sport by playing it. And they play it by watching older people play in the neighbourhood. This is how I learnt to play cricket and soccer. Physical accessibility to the sport was crucial in defining my interests. My first love was playing cricket and once my eyes were opened to the joys of television, over a very short period of time, Sunil Gavaskar became my favorite cricketer. At least in my case it was not a case of the tail wagging the dog. However irreverent it may sound, and ignoring the perverseness of the underlying logic in the statement, I idolised Gavaskar because I thought he played like I would or I did. And to this day, Gavaskar remains my favorite sportsman, cutting across all sports and generations. Once cricket won my heart over, soccer became the casualty. Much as I would like to say that cricket’s gain was soccer’s loss, subsequent events would belie that statement. But this has never come in the way of my contention that with a little more encouragement (and a lot more ability, which I refuse to disclose), I would have been the Indian Paul Collingwood. However, in my case, what this translated into was an abiding love for these two sports, as opposed to the purveyors of the sport, much more ingrained and a lot less fickle than my allegiance to other sports. Inevitably, in the intervening period cricketers and footballers have come and gone. At various points I had to choose between Zico and Maradona, Socrates and Rummenigge, Rush and Rossi, Sachin and Lara, Mark and Steve Waugh, Warne and Kumble and so on. But the overarching allegiance was to the sport. However cliched it may sound to the rest of the world.

On the other end of the spectrum, I enjoyed watching tennis on television primarily because I enjoyed watching McEnroe. For me, at an impressionable age, tennis WAS McEnroe. I, inexplicably, chose to favor McEnroe over Borg (curious isn’t it, given that Borg was more in the Gavaskar mould). To me, tennis stopped with the retirement of Mac. I did flirt occasionally with the Agassis, Ivanisevics and Brugueras, but it was just not the same. To some extent, Federer, thanks to his pervasiveness, has come to occupy a special place. But to usurp Mac’s place in my pantheon, not even close. To this days, I have not set foot inside a tennis court. Maybe that partially explains the obsession with the players as opposed to the sport itself. Similar was the fate of F1 motorpsort. Being part of a generation that grew up reading (not viewing) Senna’s exploits at the wheel and his legendary rivalry with Prost, the idol equated to the sport. Again, Hakkinen threatened momentarily, especially the way in which he stood up to Schumacher, but it was altogether much too brief to leave any lasting impression.

To put things in perspective, I have to explain the case of my father-in-law’s obsession with, of all things, Indian football. True Goan that he is, he has a genetic predisposition towards soccer. This is understandable. But what makes it weird is his obsession with Indian football. In my own case, once having tasted the elixir of world football, thanks to Brain Glanville and the Sportstar, the affair with Indian soccer was terminated abruptly and decisively. In his case, the affliction with Indian soccer is chronic. To the extent that he refuses to have a Tata Sky connection in his house because they do not offer Z Sports in their bouquet. To this day, he follows the fortunes of Salgaocar, Vasco and Dempo. Although he has never explicitly mentioned this to me, I have a feeling that he considers Churchill Bros to be some kind of upstarts, given their lack of tradition and history. He tries his best to catch live action on the ground whenever possible. No one in the family would have held a grudge against him for that, but for his insistence in analysing ad nauseum the relative performance of the team for the benefit of the few unfortunate enough to be around him on his return from the ground. The unintended consequence of this has been my mother-in-law developing an intense loathing for Indian soccer. Not for my father-in-law, the glitz and glamor of the EPL or the Serie A. The concept of sport as a spectacle does not move him. At best, he may condescend to watch the World Cup Soccer Semi-Finals and Finals.

Is it any wonder that I am left wondering about the DNA of the Sports Fan.

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