The writings were on the wall. I knew it was going to happen one day or another. Still, a part of me had hoped for a different ending. Still, a part of me wanted to believe everything was false. And then, finally, the dreaded moment arrived. The news bulletin of what was probably my only source of information made it official.
Part of me wanted to cry at the very moment. Part of me did cry a few hours later.
David Beckham had officially left Manchester United. Beckham, one of my biggest reasons for supporting Manchester United, had left my favorite club.
I don’t even remember when I first fell in love with watching football. My first vague memory of football is from the France 1998 World Cup. Barely 6 years old, that was the first time I had seen people watch football. Not just watch but also live and breathe. Such was the fervor of football in the circle I grew up in in Nepal.
By the time the next World Cup had started, Japan-Korea 2002, I had grown used to watching 90 minutes of football. But still, I hardly knew anything about club football then, except that they existed and footballers played for such clubs during other times. Lack of cable access at home meant I could watch only the World Cup matches. So, when my parents finally relented to our (me and my siblings) pleads to have cable channels at home, it turned out to be a turning point in my fascination with football. Cable access meant club football and club football meant something to look forward to every week.
Then came the team picking part, which I guess comes naturally in almost any sport. While sport on the surface seems (and is) a spectacle for entertainment, it is perhaps our nature to want to feel more part of it. We want to experience the same extreme emotions the players running in the field do, and that comes only from having our skin in the game.
Just like access to cable meant inclination towards club football, access to a particular channel meant more exposure to a particular team. Ten Sports, a popular sports channel in the Indian subcontinent, used to air Manchester United Television (MUTV) those days. Classic goals, biased highlights, and often catchy and feel-good songs with breathtaking plays and historic moments, you know how these Official Club TVs work. Needless to say, I was drifting more towards Manchester United.
And then there was Beckham who would fully transform me into a Red.
I knew about David Beckham just before the 2002 World Cup. Compared to other popular names like Brazilian Ronaldo and Zidane who had won World Cup for their countries, Beckham was more of an enigma. So, I had this element of curiosity attached with him, on why he was ‘that’ popular. Of course, the superstar elements were always there — good looks, iconic hairstyles, the usual elements that turn a normal person into a fanboy or a fangirl. Still, I wanted to know more about him, and just to watch him (mostly) I would watch Manchester United games and MUTV.
Then there were his freekicks. And crosses. ‘Bend it like Beckham’ was an actual thing, as it seemed no player in football could bend the ball as consistently as him. Soon, I was trying his freekick techniques in my own school games, shouting ‘Beckham’ before taking my freekicks and penalties. (Before eventually failing to kick the ball properly, obviously!).
I remember one particular game from the 2002/3 season where Manchester United came from behind to beat Sunderland. That was the first time I jumped with joy for Manchester United. Needless to say, it was mostly because of David Beckham who had scored one of the goals. I had become a proper Beckham fanboy by then, which meant saving money from my daily tiffin allowance to buy his latest pictures and posters.
Following club football was also like a gradual discovery process. Remember, the internet was a luxury back in the day, available mostly in workplaces and cyber cafes (at least in my part of the world). So, it was not like now where I could get instant updates from Twitter or search whatever my query in Google. My only source of instant news was a sports channel known as Euro Sports (apart from the daily newspaper sports section, which was not instant anyway).
The highlight of my first season was the blockbuster encounter between Manchester United vs Real Madrid (which Manchester United lost in aggregate) and the Premier League (which Manchester United won). By the end of the season, the tribal instinct in me had engulfed me. I had fallen in love with Manchester United and Manchester United had become part of my identity.
Then came the tragedy I mentioned at the top. The nightmare news about David Beckham.
It was an open secret that there was a rift between Sir Alex and David Beckham. Rumors of Beckham joining Real Madrid (and their famous Galacticos) were rife even before the end of the season. Then there was Barcelona in the mix. Some guy trying to become the president of Barcelona (Joan Laporta, who coincidentally has again just become their President) had promised he would sign David Beckham for Barcelona. To be honest, I didn’t even bother to understand this Laporta part back then, as the concept of a football club having a President (and that too through elections) seemed far beyond my grasp or even imagination of football. Plus, it only mattered to me if Beckham would leave, rather than where.
And then one day, just like that, when I had come home from school and turned on the television, David Beckham was gone. He had signed a 5-year contract with Real Madrid. And therein, I suffered, my first heartbreak in football.
You know how it’s like after a heartbreak. The same song that made you happy and pumped up earlier starts making you sad. The same street that felt vivid and vibrant feels like a lonely road of desolation. All you can do is try your best to move on with life, with the hope of finding some beacon of happiness someday. And guess what — that beacon of hope and happiness did arrive in my life, that too just a few days later, in the same form that had earlier delivered the dagger.
“Ronaldinho will be a Manchester United player in 24 hours.” — read the news bulletin in Euro Sports News.
More than half of the people I knew in my life supported Brazil in the 2002 World Cup, and the Brazilian Ronaldo was everyone’s favorite. But everyone also had a second favorite (like Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, and Cafu). So, ‘this 5th grader’ also had to join the bandwagon and have his own unique favorite. When I asked my elder cousin to pick a player for me (just before the Brazil China match), he picked an upcoming young player with long hair and number 11 on the back. ‘Ronaldinho’, I instantly memorized the name. Except that was to become a household name soon.
With his magical dribbling that could animate even the sternest of stoics or his mesmerizing smile that could beguile even the most callous souls, Ronaldinho — my ‘cousin-picked’ unique favorite — was soon becoming everyone’s favorite. And then that freekick against England. I still remember going to school the following day, ten feet taller, almost as if I had scored that freekick.
So, when the news read about Ronaldinho joining Manchester United, that too in 24 hours, I was bound to be on cloud nine. You can imagine how attentive I was in my class the following day, as all I could imagine was Ronaldinho in that famous Red Jersey, with probably number 7 on the back. I remember rushing home after school that day and switching on to the Euro Sports News. Only for me to end up staring at the screen for two hours and still find nothing. There was no news, nothing whatsoever related to Manchester United or Ronaldinho. All I could do was nothing, except for maybe wait. (I do wish I had google at that particular moment!)
But fate was to have another twist. The next I saw Ronaldinho was in a Barcelona shirt, in what was his Camp Nou presentation. Barcelona, having missed out on signing David Beckham, had gone on to sign Ronaldinho as their marque singing. And therein, I suffered my second heartbreak in football, in a matter of weeks.
At Manchester United, it seemed like the famous number 7 shirt would go vacant. Except Manchester United eventually signed some 18-year-old Portuguese kid and handed him the famous number 7.
Before the whole David Beckham-Ronaldinho heartbreak, Manchester United had played a friendly against Sporting Lisbon from Portugal. I remember watching that highlight where the two minutes clip focused mostly on a kid with dazzling stepovers and a famous surname. So, when Manchester United signed that kid, I was no doubt excited about the kid. And yet, there was this sense of disappointment also, for the club not singing anyone established to replace the absolute superstar that was David Beckham (or even Ronaldinho from my 24-hour imagination).
I also felt somehow sorry for the new kid, as I thought he would forever be in the shadow of the two superstars: David Beckham for inheriting his famous number 7 shirt and his superstar Brazilian namesake because of his common last name.
Little did I know the kid would write his own story in football someday. Little did I know the kid would go on to become the biggest name in sports.
Looking back now, that one summer did change football in a lot of ways. The three players in the mix, in their own way, transformed the fate of the three biggest clubs in Europe. David Beckham, signed as a part of the famous Galacticos policy, helped Real Madrid finally become the club with the highest football revenue, usurping Manchester United in the Deloit Money League. Ronaldinho, signed on the back of a horrible season, went on to resurrect Barcelona from the 6th place finish in the Spanish League to the absolute top of Europe. And the 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo went on to transform Manchester United first, before transforming Real Madrid too on the way.
As for myself, the whirlpool of emotions I experienced in just one summer turned me into a football fanatic, and thereby also transformed my life.