So how does one choose a sports team to support? I’ve written on this before, but I thought it might be time to write my definitive opinion on the issue.
One rainy evening in 1997 I was on the Tube heading from Earls Court to Fulham Broadway, which happens to be the local stop for Stamford Bridge – home of Chelsea Football Club. There was a game on that evening, and the train was absolutely packed with people wearing blue, singing, chirping, and basically being a bit of a nuisance. I was quite irritated until the Bangladeshi train driver’s rather resigned voice came over the intercom, letting us know that “if you can’t beat them, join them”.
I grudgingly regain control of my sense of humour, and on this rather arbitrary basis I decided to support Chelsea. I organised tickets to a match (against Liverpool), and got into the swing of it. But can it be that simple? Can allegiances to clubs be such an ephemeral thing? Given the passion and commitment that fans show, surely there needs to be a far deeper reason to provide a team with one’s support? Or not?
I grew up supporting Vrystaat, because that’s where I lived. Simple. When I watched the British Lions playing in 1980 at the DP de Villiers Stadium I had my first conscious experience of A Greater Power – the Mighty Bok. And so my allegiances were sealed. I got into trouble in high school one day for entering “Springbok Rugby” as my religion on a school census form, but that’s another story for another day. So much for inherited allegiances then, but what about chosen allegiances? What about all the Man United supporters living in Mumbai, or all the GP cars you see in Joburg sporting Sharks stickers? Is this just a triumph of marketing departments over substance, or is there something more to it?
I moved to the UK last year, and while my Sky Sports subscription still gives me all my Currie Cup and Super 14, I wanted to get stuck into the Guinness Premiership too. So what basis for support does one use? Closest to where you live? Bugger, no premiership rugby clubs in Kent. How about the one with the most South Africans? Difficult and transient. How about the underdog? Could work, but better get used to losing. I ended up remembering a day at Vicarage Road 10 years ago when I watched Francois Pienaar’s Saracens play Joel Stransky’s Tigers, and wondered if Sarries could provide a local home for my support. When I realised that Brent Russell (South Africa’s most overlooked talent of the last 5 years) was signed up, I relished the prospect of seeing him finally have a fair run, so Sarries it was – signed sealed and delivered. For someone who takes his rugby very seriously, I appear to have bit of a history of flighty support decisions. Or must this of necessity be the case?
Perhaps the real truth that we all come to realise eventually is that the game is more important than our own team. I drank in a pub in Dublin some years ago with a behemoth called Big John, resplendent in his oversized Irish jersey. Fortified by a breakfast Guinness or two, I asked him who was going to win today, the Irish or the Boks? He looked at me with a broad smile and in a thick brogue said “dat dosn’t matter. As long as you stoff d’ English next week!” We roared with laughter, and the scene was set for a great day out. As it happened, we did beat the Irish, but the day remains more memorable for the simple gesture from a man far wiser than I.
When the Kiwis made their unplanned (but not unexpected) exit from the World Cup last year, they went into mourning. The rest of the rugby world revelled in a misplaced sense of schadenfreude, pleased that the “arrogant” All Blacks had had a wake up call. What bollocks was this? My (extremely disconsolate) Waikato mate Jeff told me that although some teams may be better than others, there is no reason why a fan should consider himself superior to others just because his team is better. And he’s right. And this goes to the very heart of what makes rugby so special – the fact that as fans we do not need to be separated by barbed wire or adjacent stands. As I grow older I realise that enjoying the sport with opposition supporters is not just a right. It’s a bloody obligation.
So while my first love remains the Boks, I believe less and less in the sanctity of one’s one team, and more and more in the fantastic joy that rugby brings. And although no one team’s fans can claim to be better because of who they support, rugby fans generally CAN lay claim to being the best sports fans in the world, simply because of this fundamental tenet. So next time you see a miserable Province supporter close to suicide because his team’s lost again, stop and have a beer with him. The beer’s worth more than the result, even with a Province supporter.Tweet