Déjà Vu after Nine Years: How My Devotion to a Foreign Sports Franchise Affects Me Daily

July 15, 2008

On 21 May 2008, Manchester United Football Club of England won the European Champions League trophy by beating fellow premiership rival Chelsea in a breathtaking penalty shoot-out after regular time ended in a 1-1 draw. That victory secured for United her third Champions League cup, having won her second in 1999. When United’s Dutch goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar saved a penalty from Nicolas Anelka, a French striker playing for Chelsea, I could not have been at a better place to celebrate than in a crowded video club steaming with body heat and sweat around the ELWA Junction area, in Paynesville, Liberia. This is a place where everyone is religiously devoted to one sport: FOOTBALL!Admittedly, I thought United was going to lose when Cristiano Renaldo penalty was saved. And as John Terry, Chelsea’s captain, approached to kick his team fifth penalty, I stopped watching and called Andria, my wife, who was at home listening to live commentary on BBC. Andria and I agreed that it would be best if we watch the game apart. I often overreact in my United hysteria or despair. And then I wonder how I would face up to my friend Gray, a loquacious, United-hating-trash-talking Chelsea fanatic. Finally, I thought of the miracle of 1999, when United snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by scoring two quick goals in the space of two minutes against Bayern Munich, a German team. And then the miracle came—Terry missed!What happened on May 21 will remain with me for a long time, in the same fashion the victory of 1999 is etched in my memory. At that time, I lived in Congo Town, a suburb of Monrovia, where former president Charles Taylor had his official residence. Mobility in that area was restricted—especially at night. Despite this and against the wishes of my mother, I traveled more than 25 miles away from home to watch United play one of the greatest football matches I’ve ever seen.Aside from my professional and social obligations--work, school, church, and family--my entire life has revolved around watching, arguing, reading, and dreaming about Manchester United and how it would perform in the next game. In college, when exams loomed and coincided on a day United was playing (which happened frequently during the Champions League fixture), I’d often skipped the exam and later persuaded a friendly doctor for an excuse. As an employee in Washington D.C., I’d rather fake an illness than miss a United Champions League game on ESPN. Fortunately, here in Liberia, watching United has caused me no major inconvenience because all the big games come on in the evening (except for one Sunday when I had to leave church early to watch a United game).Throughout my experience of following United, I sometimes feel my devotion to United has either caused as many people to love or hate them. I’ve had the good fortune of living with a few devoted United fans--like Fodei, a Sierra Leonean, and a former roommate, who sent me this text on 29 March 2008: “No team can stand United if they play like.” On the contrary, between 2003-2006, I had to put with perpetual bullying from Bim and Demije—both Nigerians, and Edward, a Kenyan, another set of roommates, as United’s bid to win the Champions League often ended in disaster. Yet between these two extremes, I have also met a few who thought my passion for United was a fault. For example, ex-girlfriends who refused to accept were obliged to quit—for it was not so uncommon for me to cancel dates in anticipation of a United game.No sooner had the game over on that night then my phone starting going off. The first came from Edward in Indiana, a text: “I am depressed…Just think of Euro now the thought of Man U double is making me sick.” Demije called from Delaware to congratulate and then Betty, another good friend who just loves to hate United, sent a begrudging text from Lansing, Michigan, “U made sure drogba was out.”My devotion to United can be traced back to 1992. As a teenager bored out of my mind because the civil war ravaged many things in Monrovia, I turned to listening to BBC. One day there was a commentary, a European Cup Winner’s final between United and Barcelona, a team from Spain, which United won 1-nil. There were no satellite televisions then, yet the commentary on BBC sounded as if I were in the stand. From a distance, beginning in 1993, I listened and watched United win seven premiership titles. I watched Eric Cantona, David Beckham, and Roy Keane, as well was the wonderful partnership between Dwight York and Andy Cole come alive, which culminated in the treble triumph of 1999.Yes, as a boy, I grew up loving Invincible Eleven I.E. and hating Mighty Barrole, which is understandable because these two football teams belong to Liberia. I’ve always pondered how I am so devoted to a team, thousands of miles away in a place I’ve never lived or visited?It is what Michael Elliott called Fandom—the obsessional identification with a sports team—in an article describing his hopeless devotion to Liverpool, after that team defeated A.C. Milan in another breathtaking penalty shout-out.At ELWA Junction, as in most places in Liberia, everyone is passionate about a big European football team. We call each other symbol names associated with our beloved team. I’ll be walking home from work and some guy would yell—“United”—and I’ll reply—“AIG,” which stands for American Insurance Group, the company that sponsors United.In many ways, United winning this year’s Champions League is a déjà vu experience for me. The last time United won the Champions League, nine years ago, in 1999, I lived in Liberia. Between 2000 and 2007, I lived in the United States and watched, many times alone in my apartment, United stumbled in this competition. Each year, I had the belief that the triumph of 1999 would be repeated but only to see United eliminated. It pains me when people refer to United as one of Europe’s biggest underachievers.Yet I never stop believing, and when I moved back to Liberia in June of 2007, I knew I was going to watch the Champions League final in Monrovia, as if watching in Monrovia guarantee a United win. Yes that’s what fans do, believe and never give up. So, when I sat in my tight space on the night of May 21 to watch United play Chelsea in a video club in Monrovia, the city in which I last watched United win, I knew it was going to be a déjà vu experience for me. And that’s what I’ve long waited for nine years. I am a fan of Manchester United!


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