A win is a win, well almost

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on August 07, 2020

Camera angle: A few friends jumped into a video call to celebrate the final whistle, but we knew it was a flimsy substitute for the real thing   -  REUTERS/CATHERINE IVILL

An ardent fan celebrates Arsenal’s FA Cup victory in his living room, socially distant from fellow supporters, after the match itself was played to simulated cheers from empty stands

Since the novel coronavirus swept through the world, one of the happier moments I’ve experienced took place last Saturday in our living room, in front of a TV. We watched Arsenal beat Chelsea to win the FA Cup surrounded by empty stands at Wembley Stadium in London. As Arsenal players jumped around the pitch for the cameras and held the trophy aloft, my wife hoisted my son in the air in a distant echo of the celebrations on the field.

For years, I’d taken for granted the weekly rituals of following my football team. I may live in New York, but during the weekends I join a far-flung global collective of fans of a football team in London. Watching Arsenal play, in person (as I was lucky enough to do for a time) or on the screen (far more common), served as a kind of metronome, beating a steady if occasionally dour rhythm through the years. It also was a social activity, something that brought friends together. I’m lucky to have several Arsenal-supporting comrades in my neighbourhood in Brooklyn (we may not be as ubiquitous as supporters of some other clubs, but there are plenty of us, and perhaps even quite a few near you). Far away from drizzly England, we’d gather in each other’s apartments over New York bagels and tea and coffee (English football tends to happen during American mornings) as our kids messed around with each other’s toys. The toddlers rarely took more than a passing interest in events on the screen, but every once in a while they’d join our cheers and indulgently clap an Arsenal goal.

The novel coronavirus shut down sport leagues everywhere. It’s common to hear people complain about how the pandemic has eviscerated their sense of time. For me, the loss of sport was one of the forces that made time shapeless, turning the weeks into a billowing, unending present. The virus also brought our little gatherings to a close. We settled into more atomised and distanced routines, quarantining from others, sealing our homes from that now strange, seemingly impossible presence: The guest.

The return of sport, of course, has not revived normal routines. There are no fans in the stadium, a startling and eerie sight. Broadcasters are keenly aware of how much the perception of a football match is governed by the noise of the crowd — the sense of anticipation building in a fluent passage of play, the indignant fury at a poor refereeing decision, the gasps after a near-chance, the climactic roar following a goal. So they play artificially produced crowd noises over the images of a vacant stadium, as if ghosts clapped and yelled from the empty seats. It is an odd adaptation to the realities of Covid-19, one straining for a chimerical realism in absurd times. But the broadcasters seem to understand that football played in silence is hardly football at all. Without some phantasm of an impassioned audience, sport becomes merely the motion of bodies on a green field.

Just as teams cannot play before their fans, so, too, can fans no longer share the experience of watching a game together, of being part of a boisterous collective. Social media now unites those who might otherwise have been in the stadium together, or in the pub, or — in my case — in the same living room. We have an ongoing WhatsApp thread on all things Arsenal that, in the wake of the pandemic, has become more important. A number of friends jumped into a video call to celebrate the final whistle, but there was something sheepish about it, as if we were aware of how flimsy a substitute it was for the real thing. If watching sport allows you a momentary escape from the pandemic, trying to share joy by staring at squares on the screen of a phone only reminds you of just how inescapable the pandemic is.

And yet, to parrot a sporting cliché, a win is a win. The tweets and WhatsApp messages and Instagram pictures rolled in of friends and fellow Arsenal fans savouring the triumph. My two-year-old son — an obliging singer — yelled the lines of a quaint Arsenal song about a girl who wore a yellow ribbon. My wife and I drank a beer and thrilled at the palpable joy of the Arsenal players, who seemed in their own euphoric world. They had to unceremoniously collect their winning medals from a box (no dignitaries were on hand to dispense awards). The stadium was an empty, soundless bowl. The pandemic raged outside and everywhere. But for at least those brief moments, it didn’t matter. The cup was theirs, and ours.

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESS LINE


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction; Twitter: @kanishktharoor

Published on August 07, 2020

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