The fever begins

In most parts of the world, football is not just a sport, it’s a religion. With a faithful fan following of more than 30 million television viewers around the world, there is little doubt this game takes precedence over other sports.

Professional footballers are a pretty superstitious lot. Scores of players enter the pitch with an endless string of symbolic crosses. Some rely on amulets, identical goal celebrations, lucky innerwear, locks of hair, pre-game rituals and wedding rings to help them succeed. Many will only step onto the pitch with their right foot, all in good faith, of course. The list of pseudo-religious superstitious quirks is virtually endless. And one thing is certain — the colourful rituals will not subside for the upcoming World Cup in Germany this year.

The list of football-related superstitions is as intriguing as it is endless. At one time French defender-general Lauren Blanc would ceremoniously kiss the bald crown of his talismanic goalkeeper Fabien Barthez before the kick-off of every one of France’s seven World Cup matches in 1998. Though forced to miss the final for shoving Croatia’s Slaven Bilic in the back in the semi-final, Blanc made it a point to kiss his keeper’s shiny crown before the match — only this time on the sideline, sombre and suited. Though the origins of this ritual are unknown, it was believed to bring success to the team.

It’s not only the players who follow rituals. A sizeable number of adoring fans are willing to do whatever it takes to see their side succeed.

Thirty-year old Bob Kabli is a pricing manager with Emirates airlines who is known for his passion for football. “I am not just an enthusiast, I am over enthusiastic,” says Kabli. He has just purchased a 32-inch TV in time for the World Cup and says he would buy another if it could give him a closer view of the upcoming FIFA event.

TV sets in offices

“The passion for football is not a new thing,” he says. “It is not unusual for television screens to be set up in offices around England to ensure that people will not claim to be sick and take the day off. These companies would rather allow their employees watch a two-hour game in the office so they can later get back to work.”

Kabli is a larger-than-life supporter of the Liverpool team. It’s no wonder he is part of a group that supports the team in Dubai. He says, “When I travelled to Istanbul there were about 35,000 fans who travelled all the way from England to support their team.” Kabli says that there’s always a battle for flights close to the World Cup. “I had to take a Singapore Airlines flight as Emirates was full,” he says.

Abu-Dhabi resident, Lionel Mathias, says, “I make it a point to never miss the World Cup and have been following the games since Diego Maradonna played in 1986. Four years ago, I was the only one among a big circle of friends who received the World Cup matches on TV. It became a ritual for people to meet at my place for every game. When Brazil won the World Cup we could see fans on the streets, most of them Indians, waving Brazil flags and placing the flags on the bonnets of their cars. Only football can bring that kind of fever in people.”

Diehard fans

He adds, “Recently the Brazil team played a friendly match against the UAE in Abu Dhabi. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see some of the world’s best players on home ground. I wore my Brazilian jersey to support the team and it was such a warm feeling when the Brazilians welcomed us Indians to their pavilion since we were supporting their team.”

Kabli says there are many quirks that players follow before the start of a match. “It is believed that one must never touch the trophy during the Champions League as it brings bad luck to the team. Milan’s players attribute their loss to this ritual as one of the players is believed to have caressed the trophy, casting doom on his team,” he says.

Kabli is himself a football player who plays for the five-a-side league but jokes that things have changed now that he is married. He says the highlight for him was playing with old members of the Liverpool team. He will be travelling to catch the final match in Germany at this year’s World Cup.

“I make it a point to be there. I have travelled to Japan in 2002 and I am hoping I may be able to watch a few more matches of this year’s games,” says this football fanatic.

He believes that the passion for football is inexplicable. “When we meet for a Liverpool game there are always songs sung by people who have specially coined them for their favourite and not so favourite players. These are always witty and add to the excitement of watching the games,” says Kabli.

“Last year a group was handing out tickets to watch the Liverpool team play but I would have gone even without a free ticket. I don’t mind spending money on something such as this. You will do whatever you can to watch your favourites,” says Kabli.

He adds, “People sometimes don’t understand the magnitude of those interested in the game.” Kabli tells the story of a man in England who became a millionaire selling flags of the Union Jack during the games. “It was as if the whole country went crazy to support their team. It also showed how this sport brings communities together.”

“At first people used to think we acted crazily, but now most of our families have grown familiar with our enthusiasm for football.” Those who may not follow the game might find the superstitions alarming. To the fans, they are willing to do anything to help their heroes win.



Published in Gulf News, May 23, 2006

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