November 2015
#Football , 1641 Views
Control, Command, Score
Byline: Maya Prabhu

You are the manager. At the season’s turn, you weigh your budget – a cool hundred mil, sterling – and go shopping for young men with voluptuously muscled calves and celebrated hairstyles. The 24-year-old Belgian with the improbably fine-tuned balance? His magic feet, will set you back £11.5 million. You’ll need to compensate for his purchase, perhaps skimp on defense. You go for a doughy giant whose price reflects the assumption that he’s past his best. You’ve been watching him though; you’ve trawled the pre-season blogs, and you think he’s got another good Premiership year in him.

The season begins. Each week you pick your starting eleven from your meticulously curated squad of fifteen. They’ll trot out on the hallowed pitches of Old Trafford in Manchester, or Stamford Bridge in London, shake out their glorious legs, and play what you probably think of as the beautiful game. You’re watching from the dugout, on the sidelines. If a player comes off limping, you’re there to pat him on the back. If a player disappoints you, you’re going to have to let him go.

You are a 21-year-old engineering student in Kolkata. But geography won’t hold you back here. Your squad is online; a tappable, clickable graphic: limbless metonymic jerseys arranged in a tactically symbolic grid. You’ve flexed your footballing expertise, culled your players from the deep talent pool of the English Premier League’s 20 clubs. Now, each week, you’ll pick your line-up from their number. The team represents your forecast of top goal scorers and defenders – you win points for being right. Their victory is your victory, even though you’re ten thousand miles away.

It looks like cricket-mad India might be experiencing a football boom. Last year a million spectators flocked into stadia countrywide during the inaugural two-month season of the Hero Indian Super League. 364 million television viewers tuned in to watch the matches, which were broadcast in five languages across eight channels. The figures are incredible.

But I was intrigued by a far more modest statistic: 108,500, the number of Indians playing English Premier League fantasy football. I was working on the hypothesis that this number represented the hard-core of Indian football enthusiasts. Fantasy football is not for fairweather fans – the game runs 38 long weeks, and, to be played well, demands considerable expertise. And, as devotees of an English league, Premier League supporters face obstacles of access that are unfamiliar to ISL supporters.

I pictured them, these 108,500 football geeks, as pinpricks of light on a map, glimmering in the way that urban lamps light up pictures of the world by night. I imagined the lights clustering around the cities where young, connected India lives; most of the vast heft of the subcontintent is in the dark. Zoom in, and the bright pinpricks are the bluish glow that smartphone screens cast against concentrating faces. I wanted to know who they were, and what it felt like to care so intensely about something so far away.

We are in a bar in the navel of New Delhi, behind the betel-stained arcades of colonnaded Connaught Place, when Gautam Sridhar leans in and tells me, “This is Stamford Bridge.” “It’s what?” I ask, because it’s noisy, and we’re in a small, low-ceilinged room rather than a glittering West London stadium. “Ok,” he says, with a shrug. “It’s like a virtual Stamford Bridge. To us.” He later tells me, grinning, that ‘Old Trafford’ is a cafe in K Block. I can’t tell if he thinks I’m a pedant, or just an outsider.

I am an outsider, but I start to see what he means. Stamford Bridge is Chelsea’s homeground. It’s where fans in London gather to cheer their team. The bar we’re in, Attitude, is the regular haunt of Chelsea’s official Delhi fan club, who have arranged this screening of Chelsea v Manchester City. Tonight, it’s a jostling den of young men in royal blue Chelsea jerseys. They vastly outnumber their rivals, the Man City fans wearing ice blue, who are huddled in a fist by the bar. There is Foster’s on tap, and there are club sandwiches on the menu.

As the game kicks off, the burr of bar chatter swells into an arena roar, then coalesces into a chant. Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is on screen; his Delhi disciples are singing for him. It’s the same song, I notice, that their counterparts in England are bellowing from the stands.

Gautam, a Manchester United fan, says I’ll find fantasy footballers easily in this crowd. He’s right. At half time, I fall into conversation with a pair of regulars called Naman and Abhishek, who speak like twins in movies – alternatingly, and for each other. Chelsea is down 1-0, and the pair of them are pumped on adrenaline. “We hate all other clubs,” says one. “We literally hate all other clubs,” affirms the other.

How does that work, I ask, when fantasy football only allows you three players from each side? It’s different, I’m told. Fantasy football is about love for the league, and for the game, not for club tribalism. “We don’t put our hatred into fantasy.”

The game ends in a wicked, 3-0 loss for Chelsea. The royal blue legion has wilted a little; their opponents are bouncing on the spot. At the final whistle, the Chelsea lot lay arms around each others’ shoulders and rally for one more chorus. I know this one from London bars. It goes: we know who we are.

Outside the bar, under the white Georgian arches of the old imperial capital, the air is sticky with the threat of a monsoon downpour. Watching the Chelsea game, I was struck by the homogeneity of the crowd: young, Anglophone, privileged, they were the kind of people who stream late-night matches on their laptops and don’t worry too much about a Rs 300 cover charge. Everyone I spoke to for this story – in Attitude, and later – was either a university student or graduate. Gautam, at 24, has a Bachelor’s of Commerce, and works “the US shift” (read: nights) for an international firm in Delhi. Naman, 22, has a degree in IT, and Abhishek, 23, just left a finance job.

23-year-old Jayanth Venkatram, an entrepreneur from an entrepreneurial family, recognises Premier League fans as his peers. It’s why he’s so confident that his new venture, a daily-play fantasy app called Ultimate11, which takes commission on legal bets, will be a success. He told me, “The customer base I am expecting to reach is middle class, or upper middle class. No one from poor backgrounds watches English football”.

It’s an online demographic – where online denotes perpetual, fluid connection. Almost everyone I spoke to discovered fantasy football through Facebook fanpages; they DM me their Skype handles on Twitter. They are people with online selves, less tethered to geography. They are the people for whom distance seems almost to collapse. Almost: the cracks are filled with fantasy. This is Stamford Bridge.

I like the word fantasy and its febrile, not-quite-grownup, counter-cultural overtones. And I like the thought of fantasy as shared; it makes me think of sci-fi conventions, of hangars full of fantasy junkies dressed up as invented creatures, and the generalised intimacy that must swim between them, because they are haloed in mutual permission to imagine.

I set out to talk to India’s fantasy footballers about fantasy and community, but they really just wanted to talk about football. In the days after the Chelsea match, I’d hear football described as an addiction, an obsession, a thrill, a marriage, a religion. And, as I learned in Connaught Place, it’s also intensely tribal.

So I asked them how they chose their clubs, in part because, to me, this was a hallmark of an Indian experience of football fandom. In England, your club is the one you’re born into, your parents support, in reach of whose stadium you grew up. Their answers were carefully crafted, like personal manifestoes of support. Or love stories.

Debangan Dey, a statistics student from Kolkata, understands the English tradition of inherited club support. Ancestry decides whether Kolkata kids support East Bengal or local rivals Mohan Bagan, he tells me. But it’s Arsenal that he describes as his club. “As a child, I just liked the jersey,” he says. But, at twenty years old, he has developed a more sophisticated aesthetic appreciation: “I love to watch them. They play one-touch football, keep it passing. It’s visually beautiful.”

Shivam Vij, a twenty-five year old aspiring sports marketer from Mumbai, was visiting university friends in Pune when we spoke. His support for Arsenal is a reflection of his own personality, he says. Their game-play is more tactical, and their management shows a preference for long-term vision over short-term gain. “That’s what I want for myself, too. I’m a little idealistic.”

Nandita Jain, 21, from Aligarh, is wearing Manchester United red in her Mumbai flat when we speak over video Skype. She remembers the game that won her allegiance: Wayne Rooney scored the goal that shattered an Arsenal winning streak. “They were sublime, fluent on the field” she says, “And Paul Scholes was really nasty, but always came up looking clean. I love him.”

I reached Mudeet Arora at home, the evening before a United match. He’d have to leave ten minutes before kick-off, he warned me – he needed to change into his jersey. Mudeet discovered football in the late 90s, when Star Sports showed replays of Premier League matches in the mornings before school. “I saw just one game with Manchester United, and I fell in love,” he says. “Then I sat in front of the TV, just hoping to see them again.”

The outgrowth of love is longing. In an older form, the word longing meant to reach. Longing is the pain of distance between here and the object of desire. Stamford Bridge. I hear it again and again in voiced resolutions to ‘make it’ to the Premier League heartland. Soudeep Deb, an Indian PhD student in Chicago, hopes to take up postdoctoral work in England, so that he can watch games live in the stadiums he’s only seen on television. When I asked Mudeet whether he’d been to Old Trafford, his answer was tumbled out in a rush: “Oh, I wish! Soon. Amen to that!” The closest Nandita has come was a Google Hangout with a Manchester United relationships manager. “I saw Old Trafford then,” she says. “It was amazing.”

The word fantasy comes from the greek phantazaein, which means ‘to make visible.’ To make visible is to access, to be close to. Fantasy is a project of simulated proximity. Nandita tells me about fans in Delhi who set their watches to British time. Synchronicity, I suppose, is a means of edging nearer.

The words fantasy and fan – the truncated, attenuated style of fanatic – are etymologically distinct, but pragmatically, fan is the kernel of fantasy. To be a fan, according to Mudeet, is to love a team spontaneously and forever. Fandom is judged only by authenticity. Fantasy may be impelled by devotion, but it’s work. And when it’s fantasy football, it gets judged on points.

The weekly labour of fantasy football – logging in to make your substitutions, deciding whether to sell a struggling player – takes less than an hour, says Debangan. But building a points-scoring juggernaut of a team requires an intense kind of savvy. Unlike a run-of-the-mill Arsenal supporter, fantasy football enthusiasts like Debangan nurse a mixed team through the 38 gameweeks of the season; if he wants to perform well, he’ll need to keep an eye on every fixture.

And he’ll need to listen out for the softest whispers from within the Premier League. Everything factors into a forecast of player performance: physical condition, club politics, affective rumour. Shivam remembers benching Yaya Toure after reading that the midfielder had argued with his coach. “I guess I just thought he’d be down,” he says. Soudeep, the Chicago PhD candidate, explains that its about long-term trends, too – the fact that United striker Wayne Rooney has scored more frequently against Arsenal than Chelsea or Manchester City, is significant to his strategy.

It’s difficult to measure the investment in hours. For many players, learning is osmotic; football stats and news runs thickly in the social media soup they swim in. But it’s an investment which excludes the majority of football supporters. Debangan puts it in figures for me: 50 percent of his university intake follow the Premier League. Only 15-20 percent of them play the fantasy game. And most of these will abandon fantasy football as they stride towards their thirties and contend with the strict schedules of the working world, and later, the demands of family life. Now 25, Shivam is seeing heavy attrition in the ranks of his favourite private leagues. “We’re down to five or six from something like twenty,” he says. Gautam, the Manchester United supporter with the nocturnal schedule, is one of fantasy football’s graduate casualties. “I actually miss it a lot,” he says.

I understand his loss as the fraying of his connection to the game. Beyond the back-slapping clannishness of club support (We literally hate all other clubs), the diagnostic gaze is a way of drawing in, engaging with the game. Soudeep tells me, “Whenever we’re watching a game, we love to criticise tactics.” You are the manager. Shivam explains that fantasy football makes him more aware. He compares the game to a ‘second screen’ – another way of seeing. Phantazaein: to make visible.

There’s a social attraction too. “It’s about proving that you understand football, understand its logics, and then showing that off,” he says. Debangan tells me, “There’s always banter.”. Fantasy football quantifies the performance of expertise; it’s banter-by-numbers.

For most people, the global league is too big, too anonymous to feel truly competitive. “When there are so many people, you can’t develop personal nemeses,” explains Shivam. Personal nemeses are clearly a good thing; they raise the stakes.

So the know-it-all rivalries which germinate on the school playground, in college dorm rooms, at screenings organised by local club chapters, are formalised in the fantasy game as private leagues. In these invitation-only contests, the leaderboard is an opportunity for vindication. For Nandita, a woman playing a heavily male game, vindication feels especially triumphant: “When I win, I’m like, in your face, bitches.” The obverse is, apparently, also welcome: “Which United fan in England will care if I’m not performing well?” She asks me, “But my friends will taunt me in the morning: oh your team crashed! Sweet!”

Some of the friendships Nandita mentions germinated online, in fantasy leagues constructed out of Facebook groups. Shivam, meanwhile, says his main rivals are still the clique of guys who grew up in the same Andheri building as him. But it’s natural for groups to swell, and break the banks of real life acquaintance – Debangan describes drifting into his university friends’ school-era leagues. Soudeep, who has lived in Chicago for two years, has found that the game keeps him close to his friends in India. The necessary banter is complicated by a 10.5 hour time difference, but it would appear that Google Hangouts and Whatsapp can sustain conversations littered with lags.

If I thought I’d discover a group of people unmoored from place by the fluidity on online connection and swallowed up into a global, borderless community of fantasy footballers, I was wrong. But I did learn of a project to create a community of Indian fans, built on the analytical ethic of fantasy football rather than club rivalry.

In 2007, when Mudeet was a student and Facebook was newly global, he and his friend Mayank set out to create a forum for intelligent discussion of the game. “That was around the time most people [in India] started following the Premiership” he says. “[We thought] if Facebook has provided us with an opportunity to create something where fans can come together, why not do it?”

Within months, they had attracted 3,500 members. To excavate a culture of respectful, intelligent discussion out of the rowdy passions of hardcore fans, there had to be a strict social code: no name-calling, no mudslinging, no escalation. Wary of volatile inter-club tensions, Mudeet and Mayank recruited a group administrator from within each of the four rival tribes: Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Admins wrangled their own. Silent members were axed. Abusive participants were on a three-strike warning system.

They called the group “Football Asylum,” invoking fans as fanatics. But from Mudeet’s description, this Asylum was less madhouse than refuge. It was a haven for India’s swelling, scattered minority of football geeks. Nandita washed up here, looking for a football forum where a girl would be welcomed. Mudeet remembers, “She was sometimes ignored, or dismissed. I’m so bloody glad she got to prove everyone wrong!”

It started to feel like a genuine community with a shared set of cultural values. Through 2008 and 2009 – the golden years, to Mudeet’s mind – membership grew to 5000. At this size, it started to be expensive for the founders to finance competition prizes out of their own pockets. Mayank decided to relocate Football Asylum to its own website, where he hoped the community could be financially self-sustaining, or even profitable.

“At this point, I was barely involved,” says Mudeet, who had entered his final year of university. “I was just discussing matches for one to two hours per day.” The expansion project stalled amid venomous politicking. Mayank became the target of group hostility. “He was someone who was not on good terms with many people” says Mudeet, “He was kind of an introvert. But he was a wonderful person, and a person who supported football and United, through and through.” He left the group, and Mudeet followed soon after.

A smaller group under the same name still exists – Nandita is still a member. But it isn’t what it was. Mudeet has retreated from social media altogether, although he still has a Whatsapp group for the private fantasy league he plays in with friends from his childhood. Does he miss it? He answers carefully: “the group that Football Asylum was created to be – which was all about the love of the game – yes, I miss it. I love it forever.”

Where is the refuge for Indian football fanatics now, I ask him? “For now, it’s in their TV boxes,” he says. I think of 364 million ISL viewers, cheering at their television boxes, and wonder exactly how much longer Indian football fans will need a refuge.

When India’s Premier League fans assert their ownership of English clubs, their demonyms are swallowed by fandom: “Yeah, I’m a Gunner” says Shivam. The team is we, not they. “We didn’t win a trophy for eight years” Debangan tells me, “that was painful.” This radial relationship – the arrow connecting fan and club heartland – is unencumbered by the ten thousand miles between Kolkata and London. And the clubs validate that sense. “[Arsenal’s] tone on social media is like – this is your club” Shivam says. Two years ago, Nandita travelled to Delhi to be among the 1,200 fans at “#IAMUNITED”, an official United supporters party. The club published a film from the event on their website. In it, Nandita beams in front of a red promotional banner. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened,” she tells the camera. I am United.

She is also Indian, and I wonder whether for her, and people like her, the very best thing would be a resurgent Indian side. Nandita is determinedly optimistic on this count: “India is actually not very bad at football,” she tells me. “We have good potential players.” The only problem she says, is investment.

Debangan explains that frustration is a condition of Indian football fandom: “it’s painful. We have one-sixth of the world’s population, but we don’t even play World Cup football.”

There’s a question of loyalty. Soudeep says he feels a little uncomfortable loving the Premier League more than Indian football, but he can’t make a heartfelt commitment to it until standards improve. “I always want them to be better. But I know it’s not going to happen in the near future. We have to accept that.” Shivam puts it bluntly “My priority is quality, not local pride.”

Gautam followed the ISL season as a Delhi Dynamo supporter: “It was definitely exciting to support a Delhi team, a team with Indian players,” he tells me. But he’s been a United fan for fifteen years: “The Premier League feels like a home league to me.”

Among lovers of the game, the ISL’s 2-month spectacle is probably never going to be a replacement for the Premier League. But it could trigger a change in India’s sporting landscape. With money flowing into football, perhaps investment in talent will pick up over the coming years. Perhaps an all-Indian team will, one day, play at the World Cup. Or maybe that’s just fantasy.