Whenever I hear the term ‘fan culture’ my brain rattles through images of smoke engulfed terraces and graffiti daubed bed sheets exclaiming a hatred of modern football. But what if modern football was all you knew? Would it make your support any less valid?
I got in touch with Karthik Deivarayan, an integral member of Arsenal Chennai, a southern Indian supporters group about how he found the boys in red and white.
“My support for Arsenal started with FIFA actually. I used to pick them on FIFA 02 as they were first alphabetically. I then started watching them on TV and was hooked for life.”
This is very distant from having the team you support handed down by your family or picking the winners of the 1974 cup final. But who gives a fuck where you find your team? I’ve always found the ‘I’ve supported them since…’ willy measuring contest between fans an absolute bore.
As Nick Hornby said “I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.” And talking of love, Karthik seemed to be more enamoured with Islington’s favourite bottlers than anybody he’d ever met.
“(Seeing Arsenal for the first time) was the best moment of my life hands down. This relationship has lasted more than anything else in life and it’s much more special. My family have come to realise how important Arsenal and football are to me.”
Until this year’s preseason tour of Singapore, Karthik had never seen Arsenal and even though his only contact with the Gunners is via a screen, his support for them seems completely undiluted. His match day experience is much the same as any old Londoner who lives close to the Emirates; he meets his mates, they have a drink and watch the dazzling feet of Joel Campbell, the only difference is that he is 7468 miles away from the stadium.
“I think we are just as loyal and maybe more committed to our club than someone from London. We have to make a lot more sacrifices and football is not a way of life for everyone around us, so they won’t understand why we are being so intense. Without Arsenal I am incomplete. They are a big part of who I am.”
It’s hard not to embrace my inner hippy and suggest that the beautiful simplicity of football and football fandom is a pleasure that everybody should have the chance to enjoy, no matter where or when you found it.
It’d also be easy to throw the ‘you should support your local team’ line at him but he does regularly go to his hometown club of Chennaiyin FC. A club founded in 2014, they can hardly tout the same history of the North London giants.
The stories of Kenny Samson lumping balls out of his area, or Pat Jennings’ dinner plate sized hands between the sticks would have been in the local headlines when Karthik was in elementary school. But in a country like India with a long standing, yet under represented history with football, fan culture has had little space to grow organically, in the way that it has in Europe.
“You can’t ignore football at home. I went to every home game last season but the level of support won’t be the same. Very few people watch league football here in India.”
Today, fans like Karthik have grown up during a unique era in which football matches are a global phenomenon. Advertising, entertainment, and new media regularly use the image of football to promote international brands and campaigns. Unlike the way it is in Europe, where fandom is largely about locality and tribalism.
For supporters from countries like India, who are new to fan culture, their clubs become a way to belong to something bigger. “There are guys who consider the players and the manager as part of their family. If they see them get abused they take it up as an offence.”