27 November 2013

Half the world away

2010. The morning after the play-off semi against York (yeah, that one). 5,000 miles from Kenilworth Road on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, I fired up my trusty NFA laptop, careful not to disturb the vital sellotape that kept the screen upright.

“Is that your team?” asked the flip-flopped Namibian who had ambled in to our little office on the far edge of the Football Association car park, and now hovered at my shoulder. “Afraid so... not our finest hour, last night” I cringed, as I scrolled through the pictures on the BBC News website.

Our favourite pantomime villain Richard Brodie, then at York, had been hit by a coin at the final whistle, and column inches of the Internet bulged with damning pictures of our supporters on the pitch and cowering York players in the stands. Added to the fact we’d lost and were stuck in this league for another year, it wasn’t the happiest I’d been to announce my football allegiance to a stranger.

Happily, Brodie’s return to Town with Southport this week sparked a fonder, but related memory.

However embarrassing the scenes back home at Kenilworth Road, the media coverage on my precarious laptop screen that dusty morning provided a handy segue to the classic “Who do you support?” ice-breaker for my new mate and I.

The question is a universally useful tool, but especially so in Africa where football seems to bridge all divides. I spent a year working with the Namibian FA and my time there led me to re-think the way I evaluate the answer to that most integral of life’s questions. My conclusion was that the crime of being so unimaginative as to support Chelsea or Man United is somehow lessened by the massive distance between man and team in Africa, and replaced by awe for their seemingly inexplicable enthusiasm.

Whenever the conversation got round to the fact that I supported Luton, I would say so half-squinting in expectation that a blank expression would be returned. We’re a non-league team without a major trophy for over 20 years after all, and we were sat on garden furniture in a township half the world away.

But despite our descent to the cupboard under the Football League’s stairs, stairs carpeted as they are with our bitterness, it would regularly blow my mind that the men and women of this beautiful, distant place would have heard of Luton Town. But know us they did.

My favourite response was the occasional “Ah, the Stein boys, neh?” (Stein pronounced Stain, the Afrikaans way), the South African heritage of Mark and Bruno apparently the catalyst for a few Luton-based headlines there during the 80s.

After my initial, pathetic compulsion to correct their pronunciation passed, it would be all I could do not to hug and kiss the culprit with the affection normally afforded to a long lost friend. I might even do a little verse of “Who put the ball in the Arsenal net?” causing confusion and an awkward retreat.

It can do that to you can’t it, your football club. Whether it be the sound of a player’s name from the lips of a stranger in a far-flung corner of the world, or spotting a scarf or a familiar accent on a train; whatever the trigger and wherever you are, without the need for aeroplanes or passports, suddenly you’re back home.

I’ll leave you with a comforting thought: when even your local TV news appears to have forgotten your football club exists, be reassured, brothers and sisters... we’re massive in Windhoek.

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