Loss and Longing: The Agony of Being a Sports Superfan

Sports

Loss and Longing: The Agony of Being a Sports Superfan

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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osses are strange. They’re manufactured to hurt. It’s in their design, after all. They are the accumulation of all our rosy hopes, our dreams of glory, and our decisions; divided by the cruel hands of fate. It all seems like cold-hearted math at a glance, doesn’t it? Come to think of it, victories too follow the same equation, the same math. But victories leave us on highs, yet our lows are the experiences which truly define us.

Let me take you on a journey. Sixteen years ago, on a summer afternoon. A glory that was promised to us, one that was a long time coming…

Wanderers, South Africa, 2003

I am 14 years old. I have seen India’s first dream run in a major tournament in conscious memory. I have very hazy details of the 1996 World Cup, but I damn well cheered when Sourav Ganguly took off his jersey and waved it in the Lord’s balcony merely a year ago. Yes, I am bleeding blue.

It’s a balmy, summer day. I am at a cousin’s place in Chandigarh. We’re sipping tea. Adam Gilchrist is on strike, and Zaheer Khan is taking his defiant run-up. I am cautiously optimistic, because Australia pulverised us in the group stage. But my hopes have latched onto Tendulkar, Dravid, and Ganguly, the holy trinity of Indian cricket, and a collective team spirit that I’d never seen before.

Adam Gilchrist is on strike, and Zaheer Khan is taking his defiant run-up. I am cautiously optimistic, because Australia pulverised us in the group stage.

I dip my Parle-G in the tea. Gilchrist takes guard. Khan delivers a wide. Then another. And another. And another…

My tea gets cold. For me, and many more, the match is sealed after the first over. This is a special heartbreak, a special loss. But it’s okay. I can handle it. Fast forward to another summer…

Wimbledon, England, 2008

I am 19 now, a more mature version of my 14-year-old counterpart, but not mature enough to handle another heartbreak. I do not follow cricket much. After the tragedy in 2003, we bowed out unceremoniously in the 2007 World Cup. That sport and I are more or less done. I follow another swashbuckler of a game: Tennis. I’d seen Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi on and off in their heyday. Again, hazy details. But I’d seen a young, ponytail-sporting, smooth Swiss operator demolish Sampras on grass.

roger-federer

Federer has precision, elegance, and his backhand is like WH Auden’s verses. But what match is technical brilliance to sheer talent and brute force?

Ryan Pierse/ Getty Images

I had taken to Roger Federer and the legacy he was slowly building. Federer has precision, elegance, and his backhand is like WH Auden’s verses. But what match is technical brilliance to sheer talent and brute force? I have been hearing of this Nadal kid. He is unbeatable on clay. “But can he do the same on grass?” I think, as I sip my tea.

I am glued to my small television screen. My mother side-eyes me. “Tennis kabse dekhne lage?” she asks. I don’t reply. Federer is trailing by two sets to love, but has gained a lead in the third. Rain plays a spoilsport. I clench my fists.

My tea gets cold.

More than an hour later, the game resumes. I pray for Fedex and he hears me. He takes the next two sets 7-6, 7-6. I have two mini heart attacks in the fourth set tie-breaker, which is the stuff of legends now. I am watching history unfold. And then, 9-7. Heartbreak. It feels personal this time.

Maracana Stadium, Brazil, 2014

I am 25, now a responsible, job-going adult. I give a couple of hoots for cricket every now and then, and 2011 is now forever etched in memory. The Men in Blue are invincible. Federer’s legacy isn’t going anywhere. He’d defeated Andy Roddick in another marathon final in 2009, achieved a career Grand Slam, and so much more. I’d come to peace with his on-and-off rivalry with Rafael Nadal, and the latter’s brilliance when it came to agility and movement on court. I can live with it.

I have shifted my allegiances again. This time, it was football. I am one of those football fans who only watches the FIFA World Cup. To hardcore fans, I ask silly questions like, “Bro, agla El Classico kab hoga?” But I am in awe of the game, and when it’s on, there’s nothing like it. There are few highs that matched. I cheered for Spain on their dream run in 2010, their tiki-taka, the coordinated mid-field dance of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and the occasional brilliance of Fernando Torres.

But there is Lionel Messi, the greatest the game has ever seen. He can pull something off, a miracle.

And so, the 2014 FIFA World Cup arrives. I know I’ll cheer for Spain again. They’re the defending champions, and they give me hope. But they bow out without ceremony and I latch onto Lionel Messi. Argentina is playing like their former selves. Messi is having a dream run of his own, mirroring that of his legendary countryman, Diego Maradona. I am bleeding a different kind of blue.

I am sipping tea. It’s the night shift, but my workplace cafeteria is crowded. Mario Götze scores a blinder in the second half of extra time. But there is Lionel Messi, the greatest the game has ever seen. He can pull something off, a miracle. Messi gets a free-kick. My heart thunders inside my chest. The clock is ticking. It’s now or never. Can he put it in?

My tea gets cold.

And I think of all the time my heart skipped a beat or two for those champions on the field. I think of Lance Klusener in 1999 and my stomach churns. I remember how a part of me evaporated when Undertaker lost his Wrestlemania winning streak to Brock Lesnar. My heart wept for PV Sindhu as she lost to Carolina Marin.

I’ve gone through many heartbreaks, both in sports and otherwise. The past five years have been a tempest that I’ve had to survive. I have shifted jobs thrice, and switched professions. In between all of that, the loss of a close family member made me question my entire being. I am no stranger to losses, but I damn well find a way to overcome them. Losses are, after all, about latching on, and letting go. But they define us. Which brings us to yesterday.

Old Trafford, England, 2019

India vs New Zealand face off in the World Cup semi-final. My passion for cricket is ignited once again. This team is the best since 2003, they say. The world’s top two batsmen are in our team. And, possibly for the first time, we have the world’s best bowler too. We have to pull this off. We owe this to ourselves, our legacy. We owe this to Kapil Dev, Ganguly, Sachin, Dravid, and Dhoni. Don’t we?

ind-vs-nz-virat-kohli-wicket

India vs New Zealand face off in the World Cup semi-final.

Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

I am nursing my heart after India’s loss, which again, feels personal. But I know it’ll take a couple of days and I’ll find something else to latch on to. Another moment, another glory, another team, or another person. Come July 14, at Lord’s, I’ll be cheering for New Zealand. But I am not sure if I am ready for another heartache, even if it won’t hurt as much.

Also, I don’t drink tea as much now. I have shifted my allegiances to coffee.

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