Friday, June 25, 2004

Being a football fan is an exercise in religious truth

"The reward is proportionate to the suffering." (Pirkei Avot, Chapter 5)

It's times like this I'm not sorry I'm abroad. If England had got through last night I might now be slightly envious. The collective hysteria cuts both ways. How much higher is the high when, at the instant of relative footballing glory, you're in a pub with tens and hundreds of hoping, shouting, drinking, jumping compatriots? Conversely, how much lower is that low? You can't have one without the other, not without being a bit inauthentic. If you want those moments of sheer visceral joy you've got to take those others, the moments of deflation and disappointment. You can't pretend to love it when you win and not care less when you lose.

The events of last night have made me think being a football fan, I mean really throwing your lot in with a team, can be a religious experience. It's almost a cliche to say your team's stadium is your place of worship, where you idolise the players and sing songs of praise. (The sports team is actually my favourite analogy for non-dualistic, omnipresent God: the team manifests itself in the current players, fans, management staff, board, stadium and so on, but none of those things are the team itself, which will continue to exist through new players etc.) But I'm not being metaphorical. Supporting a football team is an exercise in learning religious truths. It teaches you how to accept, which is to trust in God.

Let's be clear. I'm not talking about some deity of football who you think will eventually send your team glory. That's the "we still believe" of Skinner and Baddiel. I'm talking about the real and the unchangeable, which football eventually leads you to accept. What is, is.

I know I can't change the Portugal match's outcome. But it doesn't stop me involuntarily trying. My mind struggles against what happened. I walk around today replaying it all. The injury, the substitutions, the disallowed goal (sorry, I needn't go on)... in short, all the little incidents that combined to make it go wrong. To me it's 'wrong' because I've firmly attached myself to a specific outcome. So I resist the truth. And I feel pain and sorrow.

Hang on a minute, you might say. Where is the acceptance? How is attaching yourself to certain results the best way to learn about the real? 'Whatever will be will be' - but surely the non-football fan, the indifferent observer, is in a much better position to know it?

Yes, but he's not learning. He knows already. Or at least he thinks he knows. Maybe he pontificates about the stupidity of the supporters. "They're so irrational. How stupid to be happy or unhappy depending on a win or a loss, something they've got absolutely no way of affecting." Thing is, maybe he loses his wallet on the way home and spends the rest of the night worrying and regretting.

By the time it went into extra time last night I was nervous and shaking, my head pounding and my heart running double speed. I wanted so badly not to lose. For that reason, because I was scared pain would come - and I didn't want the pain - I tried to detatch myself. Portugal were attacking. I tried to see it as shapes on a screen, men in coloured shirts kicking a sphere, something I didn't really care about. I tried imagining we'd lost already.

Near impossible. And in any case, inauthentic. Still, I wanted to be calmer. So I tried something else. I looked for the part of me which was already calm. I found it was my awareness. Though the rest of me was a wreck, I could still watch, perfectly. Not my eyes, but the consciousness my eyes report to. When I found it, I calmed down. My body became less frantic. I started to smile and laugh a bit more.

I still cared. I still celebrated our extra-time equaliser. There was still an 'us', still a 'them'. Actually all that was just as strong. But there was also that part of me that was constant and unaffected. It's not that I was keeping something back, splitting myself off and steeling myself to avoid the pain. Rather I just noticed what was already there. And when we lost, I accepted.

At least I thought I did. After the match I went with my friends to a trance party by the waterfall. We danced, sat and chatted till the sun came up. On the way home the events of the football started to creep in and haunt me. Today, as I said before, they've been replaying in my mind. The point is I still attached myself to the result. The desire was and is still there, no matter what I pretend.

So again, why do I say football is a lesson in detatchment?

Because I can't learn unless I acknowledge the attachment that's there. You can't pretend you're further along the process than you already are. In fact, the combination of desire and disappointment is the process.

So is it leading to football renunciation? Is it x number of World Cup and European Championship penalty shootout exits and then I'm free, no longer a supporter? No. We keep coming back for more, don't we? Suckers all the way.

No, I'm free from football only to the extent that I'm free as regards everything else as well. In the meantime, there's no need to do anything apart from continue to wish fervently that England win.

And we continue to lose. And each time I feel pain. And each time I eventually accept. And the cycle repeats and repeats and it's all got to go somewhere. It's true of life in general, only with football the process is more concise: more intense, faster, clearer. And nothing more is at stake than a game.

I repeat:

Supporting a football team is an exercise in religious truth.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Self-fulfilling prophecies

Wonderful news! I have giardia.

Saw a nice doctor with an Australian accent who told me about the veritable sea-monkey I'm supporting in my stomach. I took four big antibiotic pills in a single, one-off dose after lunch. Apparently it kills the creatures within two days. Oh yes, this is warfare. That said my body is relatively happy with its new inhabitant. I'm not in belly-clutching pain. None of that belching or swollen torso stuff you hear from others.

It also seems I was supposed to get ill...

Friday I bought a new book, Osho on Sufism. Before making the twenty minute climb up to Dharamkot and Beit Chabad for Shabbat, I had time to read the first chapter. Osho talks about a guy who fasted until he was on the edge of bodily death, just so he could observe the part of him that was unaffected. The body needs fuel but consciousness is "the lamp that burns with neither wick nor oil". He ends the chapter by telling his audience: when you're ill pay less attention to how bad you feel and more attention to your consciousness. Just see if there's a part of you which stays the same even as your body's suffering. What happens? 24 hours later I have just that situation. I can test it out myself.

After Friday night dinner, Menachem, one of the Chabadniks, asked if I wanted to arrive early the next morning so I could go in the mikveh - the Jewish ritual bath. I'd never been in a mikveh before. I thought to myself, why not? So I told Menachem OK, I'd come in early. Then - no torch, because I didn't want to use one on Shabbat - I made my way back to Bhagsu in the dark, letting my eyes adjust.

Next day they gave me a towel and I went in the mikveh. Some stairs down to a narrow pool of untampered-with rainwater, funneled in from a catchment device on the roof. The water was dark and I couldn't see how deep it was. It might have been what I was reading, but I thought the best thing to do was to take the plunge and just observe. It was cold, but not that cold. I submerged myself, over my head, seven times, as is the custom. An hour later I had neck and muscle pain and a pressure in my head. But I wasn't unhappy. Funny, but the whole day seemed like an opportunity.

Later that day I spoke to Boaz, a rabbi visiting from Israel. Boaz had been telling lots of stories to all the people who'd come to Beit Chabad for Shabbat, but all of them were in Hebrew. I tried my hardest to understand, but the best I could do was pick up a few words and the general subject. He promised me that if I came back the following day, the evening before he flew back to Israel, he'd tell me a story in English. When Shabbat went out about 8pm, again I made the journey home in the dark.

I spent the next day resting.

I read a little, the second chapter of Osho. It's a story about a blind man, who finds himself at a friend's house at night. The friend gives him a lantern for the way home. The blind man asks why on earth he would need a lantern when he can't see. The friend says it's so other people see him coming and don't bump into him. The blind man is convinced. He takes the lantern. But five minutes into his journey someone bumps into him. The blind man gets angry: "What's wrong with you? Couldn't you see my light?" So the stranger informs him: "But your lantern's gone out." The blind man had made the journey countless times. Only when he thought he was carrying something to protect him did he get careless and get in someone's way.

I read all this and rested, but by the evening I was feeling worse. What started as flu symptoms was now a stomach problem (although I hadn't yet learned about my new resident). Still, I wanted to see Boaz before he left. I liked the idea of making a journey especially to receive a story promised to me. I grabbed my torch and walked up the hill.

Boaz told me his story, about a small Jewish community in Russia and how they escape the Tzar's decree against them. It's about the highest goal, giving your whole self to the glorification of God.

I'd got what I came for. I said goodbye to Boaz, took the present he gave me - a little wallet with a copy of Psalms, a Tanya (the quintessential Chabad commentary on the Bible) and a charming passport size photo of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, the only graduate of Berlin university to go on to become the Messiah (allegedly). I made my way down the hill again, going quite quickly, zig-zagging round the rocks. I thought about Boaz's story, to squeeze out all the meaning I could.

What happened? I slipped. I wasn't really hurt. Maybe a little shocked at first, but when I realised I was OK I sat there in the path, an amused smile on my face, bordering on laughter. Of course, perfect. There I am, fallen into the grass and there it is in my left hand: a lit torch.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

I'm approaching the end of my time in Dharamshala. After the end of next week, when I'll have finished running this newly-begun office management seminar for the future Longsho workers, I should be heading for Manali en route to Ladakh, where the monsoons never arrive and the landscape is rocky desert year-round.

Right now life is still quite simple. I run the seminar for about half the day, catch a yoga lesson in the afternoon - if we've finished by then - and watch at least one of the Euro football matches in the evening. The cafe next door to my guesthouse has set up a TV especially for the football and has extended its opening hours. My friend Toby and I are some of the only Europeans there. It fills up mainly with Israelis who get very enthusiastic about the fate of the other European footballing nations, mainly because their own national team is never good enough to get to the major competitions. One Israeli friend of mine here, Roi, is a self-proclaimed honourary England fan, says 'we' when discussing the team's fortunes (or lack thereof) and commiserated with the rest of us on Sunday night. The details of which I needn't go on about. Just the basics then. We watched it in a video hall in McLeod Ganj, making the half hour walk from Bhagsu to get there for the quarter past midnight kick-off. What made it worse, at the end of the night, was the number of Tibetans there supporting France. Their prerogative, but it was still something to get pissed off at.

The Tibetan football tournament and my role as selector are now happy memories, although I'm still in contact with a newspaper in England, hopeful they'll run an article I've written about it all.

Seems all my posts are about football these days...

Seminar has started OK, though I know it's been a bit dry. Am going to have to try and lively up the presentation, because it's down to me to set the tone for everybody else. So far we've covered where the youth movement is right now, its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and the future of its steering committee.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

It is now

This has been my daily routine for the last seven days:

Get up at 6.30, having gone to bed at about 11 the night before. Meditate for an hour. Have breakfast. Hang around Bhagsu with some of the friends I've made. Then watch 3 hours of passionate, sometimes comic Tibetan football, played at high pace on a caked-over Sahara of a pitch.

How I've enjoyed this week. Every day seemed to be more eventful, the football more entertaining, the sense of the big occasion that little bit bigger.

In Bir versus Dharamshala we got the crowd trouble Kalsang-la, the Tibetan manager, so feared. A Dharamshala player went to take a throw in by the Bir supporters, all 50 of them. A couple of them launched some empty plastic bottles the player's way. He picked one up and threw it back in the general direction of the stand, at which point one particularly drunk looking Tibetan got down and tried to get to the player and, I assume, attack him. One or two Bir players had to restrain the guy and send him back to the stand. Two lone Indian police men stood on the side of the pitch the whole game and at the final whistle the fan was taken to a room by the official seats, my new perch for the tournament (goodbye gantry). I think he was just given a talking to by the sports association officials. The Tibetans like to keep this sort of thing internal. They don't want their own spending the night in Indian jails.

What else? Oh yes, a real streaker the other day. Half time in the first game of the day and he jumped down and sauntered to precisely the centre circle, where he dropped his pants and mooned all four sides of the ground. The crowd pretty much egged him on. And that includes the Buddhist monks.

By Friday, after the semi-finals, I'd seen enough to choose the new players to add to the existing Tibet squad. I sat down with Kalsang-la and Thupten-la, the first team coach, and we finalised our decision together. The 12 were announced yesterday, immediately after the end of the final and the presentation of the trophy.

3,000 people there yesterday, over double the previous crowds. Kathmandu won on penalties, after a 2-2 draw with the team representing the Tibetan unit of the Indian army. A great game, played in perfect sunshine. The army came in having scored five goals in each of their last three games. They were faster, more powerful and more creative, but Kathmandu played a defensive game and put their captain, a professional in the Nepalese league, up front for counter-attacks. Kathmandu went ahead twice and each time the army found just enough to equalise. The first army goal was the goal of the tournament, a flick up and smashed volley from one of their established national players. But he and two of his team mates went to pieces in the penalty shootout: three penalties, three misses, and Kathmandu put all of theirs away. If this is what they're like under pressure, it doesn't bode well for the Indian army.

The Kathmandu number 5, that 17 year old Rio-like defender I mentioned in my earlier blog entry, had another accomplished, mature game, justifying his place in the new national squad. He's the first player I thought to select and he's probably my favourite of the twelve. I've become pretty attached to them over the course of the tournament. Got to know their different styles and weaknesses and strengths.

It has been such a positive experience to be so involved. Kalsang-la tells me the team will probably go to France next year to play in a tournament of non-FIFA countries. Fancy a trip to Paris, anyone?

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

How many?

My friend Yael was in Thailand when her Thai friend asked how many Israelis there are in Israel.

"6 million," she replied.

He was frustrated. "No, not how many are there in Thailand. How many in Israel?"

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Some cows are on the pitch...

There's that same match day excitement, the same regular stream of people walking to the game. Only this definitely isn't the Tottenham High Road. And the most commonly sported colours aren't blue and white but claret and saffron, because many of the fans are Tibetan Buddhist monks, dressed in their usual robes. The route is along a road through a forest, until a path branches off and climbs up the hill towards the Tibetan Children's Village.

I arrive and meet the Tibetan manager, who points me towards my seat, a plastic chair in a metal-grilled box, high above the half-way line. I sit there waiting for the other selector to arrive. He never shows.

I take in the scene. There are about 1500 people here for the opening ceremony and first two games, Pokhara v Mysore and Bir v Kathmandu. They're sat around the rocky stands, which don't resemble old football terraces as much as they do rice terraces. One of the stands is plusher than the others. They've set up a lavish awning on top and laid out a few seats for visiting officials and dignitaries. This is where the Tibetan Prime Minister will take his seat, having addressed the crowd before the matches.

Among the very few advertising hoardings, featuring such sponsors as the McLeod Ganj Taxi Drivers' Union, are some official slogans and words of encouragement. "May the best wins." "Winning and losing are part of the game." "Cheer Up! All the Best" And my personal favourite, "Participation is more important."

While I'm looking around, a large black cow walks onto the pitch on its own accord. A small cheer goes up. Is this the equivalent of a streaker? The cow saunters across the sand-covered surface as if in time to the victorious Tibetan music playing over the loudspeakers. No police or stewards run on to remove her. She just continues serenely on her way until she reaches the other side of the pitch and the staircase out. She exits the arena as freely as she arrived.

A school marching band come on to get the ceremony underway. They beat their drums as all the tournament's teams walk on. There's a good sense of occasion. The loudest cheer is for the Bir team, who've brought a couple hundred supporters the 60 km or so. One enthusiastic fan runs across to hand his team captain a Bir flag (to add to the one he's already holding). He gets a cheer as well.

Of course, I can't understand anything the Tibetan Prime Minister says. I've let a Bir fan come up and take the seat next to me - until the other selector arrives. I ask him to translate but he doesn't understand the speech either. He says the words are too lofty.

At the end of all this, the Tibetan national anthem, the shaking of hands and the team photos, the football finally begins. Pretty early on, I can tell I've got my work cut out. The quality is not good. Every so often I see a player do something remarkable. I scribble down his number, a note to keep watching him. Then, almost without fail, he produces something undeniably awful soon afterwards. It’s OK though – I’m used to this at White Hart Lane.

Pokhara, the reigning champions, are clearly the better side, much more composed. They go into a deserved 1-0 lead through a massive 35-yard shot from the right wing. Mysore, who are playing in England kits, take on a suitably English attitude – making up in strength and determination what they lack in skill. It pays off when their number 25, who’s been otherwise terrible, slams the ball against the bar from far out. The Mysore captain follows up to equalise.

Half-time and I make the trip across the pitch to see the Tibetan manager and discuss the missing selector. He tells me he’s the other selector. It’s good to have someone on each side of the pitch. But right now the second half’s starting, so – despite this wisdom – I can take a seat with him among the dignitaries.

For a while, it’s all very pleasant. I’ve got a better view here: no metal grille, so I don’t feel like a terrace supporter in the dark days of European football hooliganism. Plus there are people serving us tea and deep fried Tibetan biscuits. But then, ten minutes into the second half, chaos breaks out.

The winds have been getting stronger for a while now and the air’s heavy with moisture. There’s clearly a storm on its way. When the rain comes, we’re fine under our awning. Most of the fans are OK too, having brought their own umbrellas. But then it really picks up. One of the 30ft-long metal poles, wedged against the stand to hold up the awning, comes loose and falls towards the fans 40 feet below. Someone shouts out and, miraculously, it hits noone. The officials get to work taking the other poles down and collapsing the awning, which at one point threatens to fly away in the ever-increasing wind. I look across the stand to see what the Tibetan Prime Minister’s doing, but I think he’s left already.

The football stops for a couple minutes – the referee’s become aware of the near disaster – but, commotion over, they quickly get back under way. Meanwhile, I’m now exposed to the downpour. My box (let’s call it my ‘gantry’) is all the way on the other side. I pack in with the other supporters under the only covered bit of the main stand, under the previously covered VIP area. We can hardly see the football, but we’re all very cosy and amused here. I'm faintly aware of two dogs that have run on the pitch and have started sniffing each other right in the middle of play. The referee blows for full time. Must have been the quickest 45 minutes of football I've ever seen - or, rather, not seen. 1-1.

In between the two matches, the rain lets up. Now’s the time to get back to my gantry. But when I get there, I find it’s been taken over by about 30 Bir supporters. I bet this never happens to Sven. So I tell them: “I’m sorry, this is a selector’s box. You can all stay here just as long as I can get to that chair at the front.” I must say, I do feel pretty guilty chucking a Tibetan woman off the seat.

The second game is much better. Bir go 1-0 up, sending their fans into a rapturous round of “We will rock you.” But Kathmandu’s class shows in the second half and they finish 4-1 winners. And there’s some new talent too, a tall Kathmandu centre back who’s strong in the challenge and brings the ball out with a confident, loping stride. Someone to watch in his next game. The Bir fans, so vocal and upbeat before, filter out before the final whistle, dejected and ready for the couple hours’ trip back. I, on the other hand, cannot wait until tomorrow.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Almost there

I know you're all getting very excited about the football. Not long to wait. Will there be a new name on the trophy this year?

Yes, as the ads across town all read: "So Long Awaited! The very prestigious Football Tournament, In memory of our late Gyalyum Chemo 'The Compassionate Mother of HH the Dalai Lama', is now being organised by the Tibetan National Sports Association." As of tomorrow, Saturday 5 June, teams from Chauntra, Delhi, Dharamshala, Dehra Dun, Kathmandu and Mysore will battle it out, 2 games a day for 8 days. And I will have to sit through every single one of them, spotting the talent to make Tibet a footballing force.

Father Abraham

Just got back from a two day visit to Longsho summer camp. 45 Tibetan teenagers and 10 leaders in an idyllic school venue, bordered by tea fields at the bottom of the Himalayas. Bit like Jewish camp, only the weather's more consistent and even the harder looking boys are better behaved. They don't have the confidence we do yet. Most of them came over from Tibet when they were 7 or 8. Now they're learning about being Longsho leaders themselves. Some of that Youth Movement mythology, that's so vital, is starting to get more entrenched. That's a good thing. Funny to see the stuff that's made it over via the exchange. 'Father Abraham' in Tibetan. Ladders. Duck-duck-goose. Nostalgia comes in the strangest of places.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Communication

I didn't mean to suggest that keeping things bottled up was somehow a wise option. Communication is vital. It's the social currency, how we understand each other, make connections and give vent to thoughts and emotions that could otherwise overwhelm.

But I'm aware I can also use conversation and relationship to gain approval and check the opinions and identity I've constructed for myself. As if it's not real until I've told someone.

I found a few days of silence useful - it allowed me to see where I was away from the dependencies, clamour and competition of the outside world. But make no mistake. Retreat is the exception, not the norm.