Football in the times of Brexit

On Saturday, Jagbir joined thousands of Spurs fans who occupied a section of the 68,000-seater Estadio Metropolitano hoping to see their team win its first Champions League.

Jagbir Singh recalls an incident from 2015 that reassured him that the decision he had made more than 50 years ago was the right one. “I was queuing up to enter the stadium (White Hart Lane) for a match. Some idiot walked past and said, ‘oi bin Laden’,” the 58-year-old, who runs a video production business, says. “Suddenly, some 20 Tottenham fans surrounded him and told him to ‘f**k off’ and leave me alone. They stuck by me because I was one of their own.”

On Saturday, Jagbir joined thousands of Spurs fans who occupied a section of the 68,000-seater Estadio Metropolitano hoping to see their team win its first Champions League. And he wasn’t the only one of Indian heritage. Hundreds of second- and third-generation Indians had descended upon Madrid for the Champions League final.

The majority, however, were supporters of Liverpool, who clinched their sixth European title with a 2-0 win, riding on goals from Mo Salah and Divock Origi. “1970s was when Indian-origin people my age or younger started following football. And Liverpool were the team to back then. So a lot of people, even from London who live close to Spurs, ended up supporting Liverpool,” he says.

Liverpool’s popularity, not just among Indians but fans from the world over, has been evident in Madrid this week. On match day, the city centre virtually turned into a Reds square, with fans occupying the streets, singing and dancing and getting drunk in anticipation of a win, releasing red smoke into the clean Madrid air. Several Madrilenos, who take pride in the city’s football culture, admit they haven’t seen anything like this before.

There’re complaints that the price mineral water, in some parts of the city, was jacked up from 1 euro to 5 euros per bottle. Their solution? Binge on cerveza (beer); they walk around the city with glasses of ale in their hands at 9 in the morning right until kick-off, which is 12 hours later (a local report says Madrid’s bars had to store a month’s quota of cerveza to meet the requirements of the fans over the last three days).

At the stadium, a couple of fans have passed out minutes before the clock strikes 9. It takes an army of Reds to bring them back to life and drag them to their seats. Elsewhere around the Metropolitano, it’s a little mayhem-ish. Armed guards and security personnel on horseback secure the entry points after a minor scuffle breaks out between supporters; a young Spanish girl is weeping after someone snatched away her tickets while she was in the queue. Beyond these stray incidents, though, it is electrifying.

The Spurs fans, outnumbered by the Reds, chide their north London rivals Arsenal and hype up ‘King Kane.’ A Maradona lookalike named Diego, who has Batistuta inscribed on the Argentina jersey he’s wearing, is hogging all the limelight. His thunder is stolen by 83-year-old Martin Sagrera, who unfurls an anti-Brexit and anti-‘Cat.exit’ banner in front of the security guards. “Brexit and Cat.exit create internal division and ruin,” it reads.

Sagrera is from Barcelona but has been living in Madrid for several decades. Like Britain, there’s a demand for a referendum in Spain for a separate Catalonia, an issue that’s been hotly debated in the last few years. “But we should not break our countries. We are small nations… if we become smaller, how will we compete with USA, China and India?” he argues. “The United Kingdom should not break. Spain should stay as one and welcome people from other regions. They will help us grow.”

Sagrera isn’t a massive football fan but he could’ve made an even more compelling argument if he’d cited Liverpool somewhere. At a time when the UK is on the verge of leaving the Europe Union, Liverpool have become the continent’s champions largely because of its multi-ethnic side: two African and a Belgian striker; midfielders from Guinea, the Netherlands, Brazil and Switzerland; Scottish, Dutch and Cameroonian defenders; and a Brazilian goalkeeper.

Spurs, too, boast of an equally mixed ethnicity in their crowd, but Jagbir says it’s the inclusive and tolerant nature of the supporters that sets them apart. Ledley King, a Spurs legend, visited a gurudwara in Southall for Diwali in 2018 and in the first game of the recently-concluded season, the club kept a bhangra performance as half-time entertainment. “There’s no racism or prejudice. Club, caste and creed do not matter. There’s no division,” he says. “That’s why we support this club.”

The writer is in Madrid on the invitation of Gazprom.

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