Understanding an Addiction

The ref blew his whistle, bringing an end to the half. There was a flurry of activity, as fans made their way down the turnstiles for a quick beer, or for a quick piss before the next beer. The Emirates was abuzz with excitement — two goals in the bag, three points on the horizon, first place consolidated. It was going to be a good night.

This was just my 2nd ever game at the stadium; the noise, the adrenaline and the color had been an onslaught on the senses. The color in particular, stuck with me. How once the game kicked off, the fans melted into this sea of red and white, that ebbed and flowed with each touch of the ball. You’re not just a fan watching the game in your seat; you’re intimately embedded to the players on the pitch. Those 45 minutes made up my mind — after climbing down the stairs by our stand, I turned to look up to my father — “ Appa, can I get a jersey?”

Halftime lasts no more than 15 minutes, so to this day I don’t know how we managed to go the club store and back before the second half started. As we approached the counter to pay, my Dad’s friend who’d come with us suggested that I get a player name on the jersey. I looked up with puppy eyes at my father.

Each time Fabregas touched the ball in the 2nd half, I cheered just that extra bit louder.

Those 45 minutes of football in the Emirates I experienced in the club’s fabric gave birth to two things — It consummated my few months old love affair with Arsenal, and were the tender beginnings of what would turn out to be a vexing, yet consuming obsession with jerseys.

It was a no-fuss Arsenal jersey — red with white sleeves, and the sponsoring restricted only to the Fly Emirates in the middle. There was an understated class to it that appealed even to the 9 year old me. But to be fair, even if it had been hot pink and covered with polka dots, I’d have still worn it everywhere it. First loves are different.

I was a proud Arsenal fan, and in the fear that I could be mistook for something else, I wore it each time I stepped out of the house.

I was equally as intersted in seeing what jersey others were wearing, and more importantly which player name they got printed. Each time I saw someone in a kit, I’d be embarrassingly overt in my attempts to catch a glimpse of the back of the jersey. It’s a habit that rather worryingly persists even to date — the back of the jersey is the most important.

You see, the choice of player name can tell you a lot about the type of fan, and person one is. A couple of years ago, I went for an Arsenal game at Stamford Bridge where the man next to me had a Maitland-Niles jersey. A intriguing choice today, a brazenly absurd one back then. His fandom lay somewhere between zilch and zealot, my psychoanalysis of his jersey choice told me. Over the course of the ninety, I found it was the latter.

Jersey season officially kick starts sometime in March, when the kit for the next season gets ‘leaked’ by a fanzine. The early ones are usually fake, but the ones that pop up on your timeline by late April aren’t too far off. To a neutral, the home kit can seem the same each year, but fans know that isn’t the case. From the design of the collar to the pattern on the sleeves, every aspect of the jersey is scrutinized and debated. While most fans clamored over the home jersey, I was more of an away kit guy. There was something so distinguishing about an away top that appealed to me. Moreover, it brought some much needed color to an overwhelmingly red cupboard.

My cupboard (and cheeks) were always overwhelmingly red

When I was young, I’d anxiously stalk Arsenal fan pages on Facebook, trying to get a sense of what our jersey for the following season would be. Dri-fit was all I wore back then, so my fashion for the year hinged entirely on our jersey. The benefit of this confined stylistic choice is that I can always tell the year a picture was taken, when I sift through old photo albums.

The colors were out of my hand, but the player name on the back wasn’t. It was a mammoth decision, and one I’d start to ponder over the entire summer. There are a lot of factors that go into it; player attachment, performance, coolness and most importantly — will he be there next season? For a couple of years, I had this uncanny of picking players who’d go ridiculously out of form the season I’d get their jersey. It’s been a while since my Wilshere jersey has seen the light of day.

Picking a name has become increasingly harder in recent years. Last year, I stepped into the store having made up my mind on which name I’d be getting printed, but panicked at the till and got my own name printed. Along with goalkeeper jerseys and full sleeves, the one thing I’ve always avoided is getting my own name printed. ‘What a waste of a jersey’, I’d think each time I saw someone get their own name printed. But times were dire in 2019, and no player seemed safe from the exit door or the crap bag. At least I know I’ll still be with Arsenal next season, I told myself as I got my name printed. And thank god I did, because I’d originally intended on getting a Mkhitariyan jersey.

The jersey addiction really grew when I started to move beyond just Arsenal tops. While wearing the kit of a rival Premier League club was out of question, wearing ones from other leagues didn’t feel as treacherous. There were a fair share of hits and misses in these worldliness efforts. I had this beautiful black Barca third kit from the 2013 season, one of the jewels in my collection, which I can’t seem to find anywhere now. Heartbreaking. The same season, Real Madrid came out with a jarringly red third kit that just felt and looked all sorts of wrong. I don’t know how I ended up with it, and more worryingly, why I still wear it.

The Barca jersey in question — a thing of beauty

Getting a player jersey was my my way of paying homage to him, but things became tricky when my jersey predilections clashed with my fandom. I was a massive Steven Gerrard fan, and would often model my game on his. But, getting a Liverpool jersey was out of question, so I settled on an oversized England jersey of his that I bought from a store close to my house.

This store, was in fact notoriously popular amongst all my friends in my building. It sold ‘authentic fakes’ — jerseys that looked real, but would fade and peel rather spectacularly after a couple of washing machine cycles. That’s how I quite literally ended up with a Stevie G jersey a couple of weeks after buying it. There was one kid in my building who was responsible for half the business the store did. Each evening, he’d come wearing a different jersey — Chelsea, United, Barca, Inter — home and away. His disregard for club loyalty felt frustratingly blasphemous, but the fact that his football interest was restricted to FIFA made the situation ridiculously funny. Things came to a head when one day, he came wearing a Demba Ba Chelsea top, claiming he was a massive fan. When we asked him what Ba’s first name was, Dem came the reply.

Fashion has always been about making a statement. As I grew older, my jerseys became more than just a show of the club colors. There was a period when each time we lost a game, I’d make it a point to wear my jersey the next day. Either under my school uniform, or for my evening game of footie. It was a sign of resilience. I expected grudging nods of respect for my unwavering loyalty, but all it did was make the laughter shrieks louder

Last year, when Adidas took over as Arsenal sponsors, and released an exquisite set of jerseys. It had been a while since Arsenal had looked good on the pitch, and I had my eyes set on the bruised banana away kit. I knew I couldn’t get just any name printed on this thing of beauty. The benefactor of my addiction, my father was behind me to go retro and get a Berkgamp one, as he didn’t trust anyone else to stay beyond the current season. But, I was so convinced that we’d win some silverware in this jersey, and picked what I considered a safe option — Aubameyang. Hence, my fears over his departure are two fold — not only will we lost our best player if he leaves, I’ll also have to shelve one of my all time favorite Arsenal jerseys after only a year.

My jersey fanaticism spilled over to other sports too, most noticeably in basketball. After getting over the initial shock of the lurid colors, the half-sleeves and number zero, I was hooked. My friend, Alberto, a fellow Celtics fan and jersey fiend would always devote one section of our weekly NBA chat to the designs and colors that caught our eye. A Celtics jersey was on both our wish lists, but like me he too was indecisive about which player to get on the back. From Smart to Tatum to Bird, we broke down each player’s jerseybility but commitment issues meant neither of us ever made the plunge. For the first and only Celtics game we went for together, we went to the stadium store before tip-off, at halftime and after the game too. We still left empty-handed. As college drew to an end, I realized that I can’t leave Boston, the city that sparked my NBA infatuation, without getting a Celtics jersey. Alberto had already left Boston by then, but I sent him a snap of the Tatum 0 when it arrived — ‘ I finally took the plunge’.

To be honest, I can’t really put my finger on what it is about jerseys that I’m so drawn to. I don’t wear them half as much as I used to, yet the charm and allure hasn’t waned. I’m sure it has something to do with identity and the childhood heartbreak of not making it as an athlete, but mostly I wear them because I think they’re fucking cool. From that nine year old kid who sat on the edge of his seat at the Emirates in his Fabregas top, to the adult who meticulously picks his jersey for the sofa on match days, somethings haven’t really changed.

The world runs on stories. So do I.

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