I do not believe in love at first sight – not with a girl, not with a game, certainly not with a football club. Having grown up in India, my “first love” was inevitably cricket. My first brush with football was the 2002 World Cup, which I was watching as my grandfather did. There was something about the high-octane nature of the game that caught my interest as a boy of ten. The earliest game I can remember is the 2002 WC final between Brazil and Germany. Looking back, I realize one cannot become a fan of the game simply by watching a few games when know nothing about. It truly was as simple as waking up and realizing the need for a football fix on a regular basis. So, I began asking around. One of my friends suggested that the easiest way to familiarize myself with the game would be to choose a league and team to follow for the upcoming season.
Back in those days, access to the big leagues of Europe was hard to come by in India. It had to be one of the teams being shown on TV. I had heard of teams like Manchester United and Arsenal, but almost everyone I knew who watched the game was a United fan. Of the few players I had heard about, a couple of them were playing for Chelsea – Desailly, Frank Lampard, Hasselbaink. I wish I could pinpoint a game or a clip or a player that sparked my interest in Chelsea, but I can’t. I started watching any games that I could in the 2002-03 season, which was not much. I had just started playing the game and was still learning about it. I started digging into the history of the league and its clubs. It certainly helped that my grandfather was knowledgeable about the game. I was fascinated by the journey of a player through various clubs and leagues in the game – be it a Maradona, a Baggio, a Ronaldo or a Zola. I was drawn into the story of a club that was sold for a pound. There was something romantic about the story of the Italian resurgence under Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli and Claudio Ranieri. The club was beginning to punch above its weight with the globalization in the league and the squad. There was a new owner and a promise of investment. It was story enough for me to pledge allegiance to the club.
I began watching the 2003-04 season in earnest. It was then that I found that spark of belonging, that rush of adrenaline, that first hit. We were unbeaten in the first few games. I had my first realization that club football can be bigger than a few international games. I was discovering a whole new world of derbies, rivalries and how they affected the ones watching. Part of the allure to the Premier League is the atmosphere that shines through, even on television. Mourinho came along next, calling himself “The Special One”. To a boy who did not yet understand how important a manager is to a team, he was a phenomenon I had not fathomed. The team improved massively in defense. We sustained a great run of form all season, nearly matched the Invincibles and won the league after 50 years. Boy, was it sweeter than that first hit!
Though I did not fall in love with the club at first sight, I definitely grew to love the club. The vicarious joy and suffering I felt as a fan opened up a new side of myself, a new aspect of my life, something that will stay on. The cornerstones of my love for the club are many and varied – from Drogba’s record in finals to his record against Arsenal, for instance. From the 4-4 CL game against Liverpool in 2009 to overturning Napoli’s lead in 2012. From Ancelotti’s double to Conte’s turnaround. From the tenacity of Ballack and Drogba to the panache of Hazard slicing through defenses. From our affinity for FA Cup wins to the audacity of our Champions League triumph.
It is certainly not plain sailing as a Chelsea fan. There are times when you follow the club with a sense of duty rather than love. There are times when you cannot help but despair. My first heartbreak as a Chelsea fan was the 2008 Champions League final against Manchester United. We were at the cusp of history only to let it slip. We had a squad of players to envy – Terry, Lampard, Drogba, Cech, Ballack, Makelele, Ashley Cole. Such is life and so is football. The fiasco against Barcelona the next season was not easy either. The managerial merry-go-round preventing any sort of tactical stability does not do us any favors. Watching Mourinho fail spectacularly and finishing 10th during that season was easily one of the worst times to be a fan.
We rise and we fall, and we rise again. How we have gone from the highs of Conte’s first season to the struggles this season are not hard to comprehend. In recent years, recruitment has not been the smartest, with a lot of deadwood buys. Managers with contrasting styles being shuffled around. We have been on a slow yet palpable decline ever since our league win in 2015. We do not have leaders anymore. This season is a stark reminder of how perverse the suffering can be as a fan. With the rise of social media, especially twitter, there has been a lot of toxicity surrounding the club and the game in general. Players and fans alike are having to put up with the instant, two-byte opinions of reactionary fans. This sees people invariably being drawn into a routine of having to apologize for the team and its players, forgetting the love they have in common.
Having lived through the highs and lows of the team, one thing is clear. There certainly are cracks in any story we tell ourselves about a person or a game or a club. There are times of suffering and despair. Yet over time, some things happen when you least expect them to, reminding you of why it was all worth it. The love fills the cracks. As a whole generation of players have come and gone in the past 17 years, the love for the club is what stays on. Players come and go. The sport keeps on being beautiful. The club keeps its identity, be it a lull or a peak. If winter comes, can spring be far behind?
And today, we have our new generation of young talents, waiting to bloom, stuttering and traipsing through the travails of a bad season. Maybe one day, and soon may it come, Chelsea can fly its blue flag high again at the top of English and European football. It is no easy task, but I will always be here for it. I was a boy who had discovered a new world in football, liked the story of the club, decided to pledge allegiance, grew to love it and found a home. The rest, as they say, is the obstinate affliction of a football fan.