When you work in professional football, you always get asked the question, “Who do you support?” Once that question is asked, people just assume the next word out of your mouth will be “United,” “Chelsea,” “Arsenal,” or “Liverpool,” and if the person is very young then, “City.” My answer always surprises the questioner as well as anyone within earshot of the conversation who slightly understands global football as I proudly proclaim that I support “Everton.”
I support Everton because when I was studying in London back in 2000 my dorm-mate, Will Mitchell, had access to Everton FC season tickets and took me to matches across the United Kingdom. Given the fact that I didn’t support a club back then, it was inevitable that I would choose the team whose supporters I rode in trains around the UK with, drank in multiple pubs with, sang Everton love songs with and fought other club supporters with (actually I never fought anyone as my role was more of the scrawny, American cheerleader who remained in the back of fight scenes trying not to get arrested or punched).
While I do support Everton and like them more than any other club in the Premier League, the truth is that I’m not emotionally connected to the club. There are only two teams that I am actually emotionally connected to – the first is the US National Team and the second is the Indian National Team. These are the two teams whose results can actually impact my happiness or sadness levels and ensure that butterflies show up in my stomach prior to any big matches that they are playing. And this is true for the men’s and women’s senior teams as well as all youth team matches.
So imagine my chagrin when India was drawn to play against the US for the first match of the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup. I was so excited that I did something that I’ve not done for the past 15 years – actually purchase tickets for a football match. Wherever I am in the world I can always find a way to get free tickets to a football match thanks to the relationships I’ve made in the industry however this time I didn’t want to take a chance of missing out on watching this dream fixture in the stadium. I ended up purchasing 4 tickets and chose to take my wife and in-laws as part of my ongoing strategy to make them fall in love with football.
On the day of the match my heart was pumping faster than normal. Partly because I was nervous as both of the teams I support were involved in the game and partly because I know how terrible Nehru Stadium logistics can be and I was worried that we would be stuck in hours of car and foot traffic to get into the ground. After hours of chaos to actually pick up our tickets and get into the stadium (which would require another blog post to describe) we felt the excitement and jitters of watching the home country play in a FIFA World Cup match – live. My initial thought was that I would secretly cheer for the US National Team to win as that is my country of citizenship and I’ve been supporting them since I was 4 years old however when we walked into the stadium and saw 48,000 passionate, hopeful Indians - I completely changed my position.
This was bigger than a group stage match at the FIFA World Cup. This was about India’s arrival on the global football stage. This was an opportunity for India to prove to the rest of the world that with the right training & preparation our players can, in fact, compete with some of the top players in the world. This was about proving to the 1.25 billion people in our country that we can excel other team sports besides cricket and Kabbadi.
In the end, India played much better than I expected and the 0-3 final score did not reflect the match at all. In all reality, the score should have been 1-2 as India was unlucky to hit the bar on a clear goal scoring opportunity and then got scored on the counter-attack.
I wouldn’t say that I was on pins and needles throughout the whole match as I thought I would be but I can say that the whole experience (after actually getting into the stadium) was like a dream. I smile just thinking about it: watching India vs US kick off the 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup in Delhi live at Nehru Stadium with my wife and in-laws. This is something that I never ever could have dreamed about when I arrived to the nation’s capital city for my first time back in 2007.