Thursday, June 19, 2014

To be truly miserable over football...

I remember 2002 very distinctly. I was clutching a purple coloured pillow that I had nicknamed Germany and staring intently at the screen. The final whistle blew and Germany had lost the finals. The remote control I clutched with my other hand flew across the room, hit the nearest window and shattered the glass. To this day I wish I had thrown my pillow in anger. Because what followed was my mother yelling at me and disconnecting our cable connection for two months. But that didn't hurt. Germany had lost in football. Here's the kicker...I have never ever been to Germany but I have rooted for this team to win for over 16 years now.

Football has been part of most of my life now. I watch a lot of sports. I am your typical tomboy (who loves unicorns and pink) and I love competition. Tennis. Cricket (lots and lots of cricket). Chess. And of But football is not just a sport for me. It's a way of life. And when you are a football fan, you just have to accept some indomitable facts:

1) You WILL be miserable most of the time. It does not matter if you support a consistent team like Barcelona (I will keep digressing to league football, so just go with me on this rambling session) or a team like Arsenal that shows a lot of promise only to never win for many years when it matters (but hey we finally won the FA Cup!). You will be miserable. Not just for the 90 odd minutes when the game is played. But during the week, when you will sit and worry about injuries, transfer drama and future fixtures that could make you miserable. Oh and your Fantasy League team almost never performs and you are miserable about that too.

2) Your personal life will sometimes revolve around the big games. That friend of yours who is getting married? Well, what if it's the same day as the Arsenal-Man City game? You miss the wedding coming up with a bad excuse ("I have so much work dude!"), and you spend the evening watching Arsenal get pummeled by Man City. Which of course means you are miserable again. And you don't get free food to drown out your feelings either.

3) You will actually take pride in this misery. Sure, your team has not won anything in close to a decade. But you have been miserable for the team and suffered through pretty humiliating defeats. That means you are a "real fan". The more you suffer, the more you are accepted as a football fan. Newbies just aren't accepted in our fold. We are a frustrated lot. We don't like fresh fans with too much hope in their eyes. We are jaded and pissed and until you become that yourself, you're not a "real fan".

All this brings me back to the current day. I am a 26 year old exhausted football fan. I have not slept well since the World Cup has begun. I am currently training for my first full marathon and I don't like missing my training. I love to cycle AND I have a full time job. The current world cup is my Holy Grail of suffering. I am simply not having any fun. I am just tired and exhausted and unable to quit. Oh and the games have been so unexpected so far that I don't want to miss any of it. The vicious cycle continues. I just don't want to miss anything. I am eating badly. My whole body aches. I have stress breakouts and I zone out at times. For instance, today I forgot it was a Friday. I panicked en-route to work as I was dressed in casual clothes. When I did get to work, I realised I lost the keys to my work station. I know I had stowed them away in my bag but I don't quite recollect actually doing it. For all intents and purpose, I have lost my keys because of the world cup. And oh...England lost. I stayed up to watch Rooney celebrate his first ever World Cup goal and his team's millionth flop. I am truly miserable. But I can't quit.

Am sure there are a lot of football fans like me out there. Ones that realise that as you grow older, your body starts betraying you. You can't quite pull off all-nighters like you used to and missing sleep on consecutive days will lead to your losing your ATM card (I am so afraid of losing my ATM card that I have given it to my mother for safe keeping until I know I have my wits about myself).

So, what do we do? Do we miss out on moments that have for the better part of our lives defined us, so we could sleep just a little bit? I know what I was doing when Zinedane Zidane headbutted Materazzi (I was eating pizza and I spit most of it out the second it happened). I know what I was doing when Wayne Rooney got sent off after Ronaldo the cheat baited him (I was eating pizza and nearly spit it out in frustration). I know what I was doing when a team mate forced the then Arsenal captain Fabregas into wearing a Barcelona t-shirt after Spain won the world cup in 2010 (I was eating pizza and nearly spit it out in frustration).

But I don't know what I did yesterday. I think I ran. I know I ate a lot and I watched England lose to Uruguay. This world cup has been harsh and wonderful but I don't quite know what my future lies as a football fan. As the years roll by, I find myself oddly disassociating myself from that identity. I feel gutted when Arsenal loses, but I no longer sit and obsess over it for weeks torturing myself. And yeah, it sucks when Robin van Persie scores yet another wonder goal but I am not actively plotting his murder (ok I like to day dream about it every now and then but then who wouldn't want to murder RvP?). My failures and successes have nothing to do with the clubs and team I support. And yes, I am contemplating sleeping through some crucial games in the near future, so I can get some shut eye and be able to function a bit like a human being.

A friend of mine asked me recently why people followed football if it made them so miserable. It's because football stuns you with some amazingly euphoric moments. Also, people are willing to be miserable for football because they love it. I don't quite know any other sport where millions actively root to be miserable. But only true love can make you truly miserable. So, as I mull over whether or not I will continue to be a miserable grouchy football fan (it might be years and decades before I decide), I want to thank this beautiful game for turning me into a miserable grouchy football fan. It's been such a pleasure stressing over things I can't control.. And I want to especially thank Arsenal. I have spent more time being miserable and unhappy thanks this club than I have due to actual problems in my real life. It's obvious. I love you guys.

P.S I really hope Germany wins this year...and I promise not to break any more windows :) 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The secret life of winners

There is a difference champions and winners. Champions weather all odds to make it through to the day, winners on the other hand do everything in their power to win. There is a difference and I never felt it more than when I was reading The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle.

For months now the people around me have nudged me to read this book and I resisted. I had already made up my mind about Lance Armstrong and his "posse of dopers" and I couldn't care less about what one ex doper cyclist had to say in his defense. I have always hated it when those who have been disgraced from their fields sign six figure publication deals to tell their sides of the story. Cheats, I would mutter under my breath, square my shoulders with a sense of superiority and stalk off. There are good books to read, I would tell myself. But this book refused to let me go.

In a rather ironic twist, at a the time when I found myself incapacitated and bedridden due to a rather serious cycling accident, I was lost in a book that deliciously details the sketchy world of professional cycling where the real race happens in shady makeshift hospital rooms with immoral doctors and the stakes have nothing to do with a cycle.

The Secret Race is a no-holds barred look in a world where cyclists like Tyler Hamilton did everything they could to sustain. So, if it meant taking drugs like EPO, testosterone, Cortisone and everything else under the sun, then that's what they did. Hell, even if it meant removing and adding blood to your system, then they would do it. They were all by-products of a corrupt system with each one trying to beat the other in the game before the race had even begun.

The book rarely falters into melodrama. Hamilton pauses in the beginning to talk about his childhood, his roots bur then immediately thrusts you into the world of professional cycling. He talks about pushing himself hard enough to taste blood every time he rode. Because cycling is one of the hardest and most competitive sports on the planet, you have no option but to push beyond your own capacity to even be mediocre.

But what happens when your best is not enough because everyone else is going faster than you are, pushing harder than you are but with far less effort? Cycling is among the sports where not doping is exception to the rule. Cyclists like Scott Merrier who refused drugs simply faded away because everyone around them was riding on supernatural strength and boosters. Men like Hamilton merely saw taking drugs (or Edgar as they affectionately called EPO) as a way to level the playing field. If everyone was amped up on drugs, wouldn't it mean that the person who wins among them all is the true winner?

I have thought long and hard about this argument. And I believe there is a tragic flaw in the logic. Drugs are tricky to say the least. Performance enhancers can have varied effects on the human physiology. So, the reaction my body might have to EPO might be different to what it did for Hamilton. I am not saying these men didn't have raw talent (how could they not, having made it to the top?) but many deserving winners might have been sidelined because EPO or any other drug didn't work for them. But here is the biggest problem I had. They were all liars. Drug users or not, they made money from making fools of the public that flocked to support them. Hamilton never talks at length about lying but when he does, he mumbles that the truth set him free. What he does not realise that both his lies and truth hurt a sport, its fans...everyone.

As I read the book, I was torn between being impressed with the competitive spirit these men displayed, their histrionics (Hamilton breaks his collarbone and kept at it) and being angry at the flippant way they seemed to treat the sport they professed to love. I could never shake a sense of dread prevalent throughout the book. While not explicit, the tone of the entire book is ominous. Mad cyclists, mad scientists, and mad doctors...ingredients to a horrific tale. Hamilton may not apologise but at least he does not defend his actions. He knows all of this is wrong. Period.

Enter Lance Armstrong. Tyler Hamilton has spent the majority of his life under the shadow of his enigmatic teammate and competitor. Unfortunately for him, he gets overshadowed by Armstrong even in his own book. Armstrong is a strange Machiavellian character. He battles cancer. He battles other cyclists. He battles death. His only motive is to win. It's not just to be better but be better than everyone else. His dogged determination is admirable. His 'never say die' attitude is laudable. His need to destroy everything and everyone is his path is despicable. Armstrong is not a hero, he may not be a villain either. He's just flawed. His personality and strength do not let him quit. He can't process losing and he is most definitely a meglomaniac. Even right now, he may be disgraced and dethroned and the world may have turned its back on his. But he still refuses to go away. He still has not apologised...

There is a difference between champions and winners. Winners win but mostly they are scared of failure. They are cowards. A champion does not always win. A champion takes on every challenge and a champion knows that the easy road might be tempting but the honest road is what makes life worth living. Lance Armstrong is a winner. He is not a champion.