Supporting a sports team is a lifelong commitment, one that defies logic, rises above setbacks and, once established, pulses deep in the veins. But what does that mean for a new migrant, thousands of miles from his homeland, in need of a regular fix of sporting action.
It’s a question that has nagged at me for years, ever since I gave up my Liverpool season ticket when my family moved to Denmark. But at least Denmark was close enough for the occasional pligrimage to see the boys in red play. Australia, well, that’s another matter entirely.
This notion of sports team loyalty has intrigued me for years. When I was a teenager, I remember the British politician Norman Tebbit commenting that, if you wanted to see whether Indian immigrants had really integrated into British society, you should ask them whether they supported England or India when the two met on the cricket field (yes, he really was as odious as that comment suggests).
Several years ago, on a long coach journey to see Liverpool play, I sat next to a fellow supporter who now lived in north London. I asked him how he came to support Liverpool and why he continued to make the three-to-four-hour journey north, sacrificing his weekends, every second week.
“I tried going to watch Spurs one season,” he conceded. “It’s nearer, and worked out cheaper, because of all the travel costs of getting to Anfield. But…” He paused, his face saddened, and he said: “My heart wasn’t in it.”
I still think of him, from time to time, sitting in that stadium, week after week, wanting to care about the outcome of events on the field, but unable to transfer his loyalty from the team he’d supported as a boy, all for the sake of logical convenience.
The same thought occurred to me just before Christmas. Liverpool were playing Basel of Switzerland in the final group game of the UEFA Champions League group stage. Both sides needed a win to go through to the next phase of the competition, and both sides were trying everything to win the game. Thankfully, free-to-air station SBS has the rights to show Champions League games in Australia, so I was up early, tea and toast to hand, and willing my team to score the goal that would secure victory.
As the clock ticked down towards the final minutes, I became aware that my heart was pounding with visceral excitement, my fists were clenched white-tight, and the odd breakfast-time expletive was being hurled, involuntarily, from my mouth (incidentally, I once had a fascinating conversation with a group of lads about what their default swear-word was, all agreed that watching their football team in a tight game was guaranteed to draw it forth).
The reds didn’t score — in truth, they didn’t deserve to. They were knocked out of the Champions League and next month will continue in the lesser Europa League competition. But the fact was, I cared. I cared because I was invested in the outcome. I have been since 1974.
Contrast that primal response with my experience of watching Melbourne Victory play — great crowd, perhaps an English Championship standard of football. Or of watching the Asian Cup — interesting spectacle, shocking defending, with team choices largely made on the basis of each country’s human rights record (North Korea v China is going to be a difficult one to pick sides for though).
All of which raises questions about belonging.
Tebbit may have been a reactionary right-wing old goat, but there was something deeply philosophical at the heart of his question. When do you belong in a place sufficiently to not feel like an evening guest at a wedding, but like a family member at the top table?
Perhaps if Canberra is granted an A-League franchise and I’m there from the beginning of the team’s story, I’ll feel just as entitled to cheer them on as any born and bred Canberran. Or maybe I’ll always miss the fields of Anfield Road, pie and chips from the chippy, a swift pint in The Sandon, and episodes of Only Fools And Horses all the way down the M6 and M1 back home. Only time will tell.