In the life of most football fans who started following the game as kids, there comes this moment when a kid, almost the same age as you makes his debut for your favourite team, maybe score a couple and then the entire world starts talking about him.
This is the first existential crisis in the life of a football fan( Unless your Arsenal, then its every January). You feel like someone out there has worked all their life to live your dream, to play on that pitch, with 50,000 people behind you screaming you to shoot. With your heroes playing next to you and with a chance to script history. To make your name immortal. While 99.999% of the population in that age group wanks off to bed, that person is living your dream.
For me that person was Adnan Januzaj. I was 16 and he was 18.
I look at him and like so many football fans, I saw my dream manifest itself in the form of a lanky Belgium winger who is strong on both feet and can make any defender sweat ( at least initially). I noticed him first in “ Football Manager”, he had this peculiarly oriental name. Then when he scored two against Sunderland, where we came from behind to win. I was like, this is the “second coming”, he is the answer to all our problems, this dreaded season had something to give us hope. And that was a naive 16 year old asking an 18 year old to shoulder the responsibility of carrying the worlds biggest club on his shoulders. Matter of fact, I had been saving up for 8 months to buy a Man United kit, it would be my very first original kit. I went all the way to Banglore, found the store and then I was in a dilemma. I can go for club legend Giggs, this would be his last season and he is our greatest player, period. With more appearances than anyone else. Or Wayne Rooney. Our second greatest player with the most amount of goals for the club. But a voice inside my head always says, don’t look back, always look forward. And I printed “ JANUZAJ” 44 on the back of that shirt.
I even made a chant for him
“ He was born in Belgium ——————Januzaj
Tip-toed upto the top. ——————Januzaj
Anderchelt taught him
ManU bought him
He can play on either left or right
Hes the next Cristiano
Hes Adnan Januzaj
Hes the next Ronaldo
Hes Adnan Januzaj “
( I made the same mistake that United did when they rewarded him with a blockbuster contract, we expected too much of a kid. )
2 seasons later and he is not even near the first team. 2 unsuccessful loan attempts later, he was gone. Out of united to Spain.
I was also struggling during that period, and the first bouts with depression wasn’t made any easier with the way united were playing during that time. I was so emotionally invested that I ran away from home for a day when we lost to Everton. That was the worst loss of life. I lost my self respect that night. So Januzaj was the only thing positive about that season, only thing which made me still believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. And when things didn’t work out for him, around the same time I lost my way.
I felt betrayed, almost like I failed myself. Where that hope and potential didn’t come out to anything. But thats life isn’t it. Things don’t always work out the way its suppose to.
3 English fans ( 2 English men and an Indian dude who sounds English when drunk). 10 Belgium fans. A host of Russians.
All it needed was a spark.
“ Its coming………………….
30 minutes later.
We walk out the bus and hug the Belgium mates. We had abused their entire county and their fan base and more over made sure that not 30 seconds went by without an England chant being sung, it was something else. But at the end of the day its all banter, its what gives life to football. We are brothers who are connected by this love for the game, which is a bond unlike any other. For a person who failed in French ( twice), my French was good enough to say – “ bon chance moi amie, avec le Englaes, but aime Fellani et Lukaku” .
That is the fun part, saying French, but when the guy replies in an accent which sounds like someone throwing up on Kerala porotta, you just shake your head and say – “ fuck yah”.
My mates from Kerala video called me and I made sure they were given the real match day experience. I even made both set of supporters chant – “ India , India. India” ( My most significant contribution to the country till date.”)
I see the stadium. Arena Baltika. What makes this stadium special is that it is on an island and there is nothing but this stadium on the island. Its this grand structure which stands in all its glory not giving a fuck to anything else. It commands respect, and from the outside, it was getting intense. Every bus brings a group of fans screaming either in English, Dutch or French or German. ( Fuck, thats a lot of languages isn’t it.)
It was a carnival out there. Small stages where bands were performing, Russian dressed up from traditional village girls to Ivan the terrible to fans just dancing along. Say what you may about the Brits, but they know how to get a party going. There was a band playing the 7 nation army. Sweeeeeeeeet.
Now me and the boys officially begin our debauchery. Remember that marble pyramid that the random Russian woman gifted us. Yah, so we turned it into a lucky charm. Every person we meet, we ask them to rub it. Told it will bring good luck to the lads. We went around asking for a rub( I meant to do that :p) and we got a lot. We got our faces painted and made this Russian bird kiss the pyramid. Not the most hygienic thing to do, but we sure as well enjoyed it.
I met Pakistanis for the first time. Two mates, and they were chill as fuck, we shared a smoke and talked about football. And this wont be the first time with Pakistanis that I will share a conversation ( or a smoke).
We stood in line and started chanting, ( Fuck, I don’t think I have chanted this much in a football match before, or for anything.) Once in, it was time to part ways. Court and Tom were on a pavilion below me and we said our goodbyes as the chances of us meeting are very slim as they are on a coach back across the channel right after the game.
I have to say, it has been an absolute privilege sharing the experiences of the day with the lads and I hope I will see you guys for the Euro. ( inshallah)
Then as tradition dictates, one overpriced Bud later, I find my seat and I am slightly disappointed to find no England fan anywhere near by. Its zee Russians everywhere. Since I was wearing the England kit, they were asking me to sing the chants to them. ( Its not coming home if you sing it like that Sergei). Then the team lineups came out and my worst fears were realised. See, it was the last match day and both England and Belgium have qualified, both with 6 points. And the team who would finish first in the group will have a more difficult run in to the final than the team who is finishing second. This creates a unique situation where both teams can afford to rest their best players and let the Chinna payyans ( fringe players) play. Which is exactly what happened. I payed money to watch this game ( half a months salary and I was left disappointed). So Lukaku, Hazard, KDB, Harry Kane and a host of other players who are on top of their powers were on the bench and in their place I had the honour of seeing Phil Jones, Fellani and Adnan Januzaj. ( If you are not a football fan, they were united players who’re kinda shit for united and somehow they made it to the national team.)
But Rashford was one of the two strikers partnering Vardy and that kid is going places, it was really an honour to see him play.
The game started on a high with a Tielemans dipping shot being saved by Jordan Pickford. You could hear the British chants pick up steam as Dier and Delph try to consolidate control over midfield. But this Belgian generation is the best the country has ever seen and while still resting all their stars. That team looks like it can go all the way to the final, a France with less immigrants :p.
And in the 51 st minute I saw the second best goal I have ever seen live. ( First being Sushant Mathews for KBFC against Chennaiyan).
He receives the ball on the left inside the box. Fakes a shot and rolls it into his left foot and unleashes a curler that sends Pickford into the air like a fox but it was too well placed for any goalkeeper to do much. Danny Rose is rooted to the spot not knowing what just happened.
I am in a dilemma. I support England and so I am sad, but the kid I hoped would take over the world just scored a wonder goal.
I didn’t celebrate, but I smiled for him, cause he deserved it. Adnan Januzaj deserved it Just that proud mom smile where everything just comes together.
England were playing second fiddle to a superior midfield, but they did get a few chances. Rashford came one on one with the keeper and the memories of that goal against City in his debut season came. But he couldn’t quite pull this off as Courtios put just enough of his hands on the ball to divert it into a corner.
And as the game was reaching its conclusion, Januzaj walked off to the standing ovation in the 86th minute. This was the zenith of his career and he knew it. No extravagant jubilation, nothing out of the usual. He clapped his hands and walked away. He will remember that chilly night in Kaliningrad for the rest of his life. Full time and Belgium top the group with 9 points.
I make my way down the stadium. And it was lit. The stadium lights up at night and it was blue and like Sankt Peterburg, this stadium also looked like spacecraft landed down here. I went out and called my Kochi mates and they said they will meet me out in the exit. So in Russia, when you have nothing to do. You smoke. ( That is why I am struggling with nicotine addiction now :p)
So while I was having the smoke, I meet a lot of Indians. The cape of a flag on my back makes it easy to identify that I am loud and proud to be Indian( I like to identify myself as a supporter of team India more than any nationalistic pride.) Then while I was having the smoke an another mate is also smoking. So since I was bored I made conversation. ( This single action would have a butterfly effect which would change the way I see people for the rest of my life)
( So always fucking say hi to as many people as you can.)
We talk football and I was surprised to learn that he played 3rd division football in St Petes. He flew down here to watch the game. And since my next destination was St Petes, I thought we could trade numbers. He ran outa smokes and I offer him mine( or was it the other way around?, I don’t remember). And we get on a bus and make our way to the railways station. I told my Kochi bois I will come to the hotel. And I am off with this really tall Russian dude I just met. We go to Macdonalds and have a McTasty and that things is the dope. After that we say good bye and go our separate ways. His name was Anton.
Back home, my mom says don’t walk the streets after 10. I have been raised to believe that all things sinister and dangerous happen at night ( statistically, thats true), so when I am out on the streets of a foreign city past 12, naturally I get these self conscious vibes that something bad about to happen. I lose my cool and I get on the first bus I see. I feel like I am being watched, that feeling where your conscious says fuck off asap. I listened to it. Flip side being, I am on the wrong bus. And I get out on a place further from the city in a more shady area. Good going Yadu.
But as I have been saying all this time, Russians are babes and one babe comes from the same bus and helps me out to get the bus. I love you Russia. I don’t know how many times I need to say this and the best parts are yet to come. So I am on my way back to the city centre and using my male privileges, I am riding solo on a bus outside Kaliningrad at 12 30 in the night. I reach the centre and it is paaaaarty time. This was the last game in Kaliningrad and everyone was out to make sure that it would be one they would remember for years to come. This time it wasn’t two armies preparing for battle. It was bloody D- Day. An amalgamation of both set of supporters plus everyone else were out on the streets dancing singing and just living life. This was life, but as I said before, that unease had taken over me and I wanted to get back to the hotel asap. So I was waiting at the bus stop google had told me about. And right now, since it was match day, there were a lot of traffic regulations. I had no clue when my bus will come.
Perfect opportunity to ask a stranger for directions. And that stranger was Yekaterina. You speak English? Asked the brown guy with an England flag on his cheek and the India flag hanging on his back. She said – “ My….Anglais…bad”
She was little bit on the shorter side and making conversation was little hard as my gaze discreetly glances at her cleavage and she catches me doing that and pulls her tank top up.
( For what she lacks in height…… you get me right :p). But she was a sweet bird and took out her app which gave better directions and better on ground info about Russian cities. Russia has an alternative for all apps we use. Yandex for google, Yandex taxi for Uber and then this 2gis for google maps. And she said I can come with her on her bus and she would show me the way.
I dont know where this night I going, but I like the direction its going in.
Now I am on the bus following this bird to find a seat to sit next to her. And she sits in a corner. ( mixed signals). And to further add to the cock- blocking procedure, some drunk Russian dudes start talking to me, good guys, wanted to know a lot about India. But why now Machans?
So, the bus takes us closer and closer to the destination and a seat clears up on the seat next to her on the corner here. She takes out her phone, puts on translate and asks. Do you need help getting to your hotel? ( aka if she needs me to come with me to the hotel).
Before we go any further, I am confident she is above the age of 18 as she studies psychology in the biggest Uni in St Petes and that she likes tequila over vodka and that she was in the stadium today working as a cashier in the Bud shop in the stadium. And she is also from Samara. This is all I know about her.
I being the Pavam Kochi Karan that I am, said ( Spasiba Nyet) “No thank you”. I know where the hotel was and I can walk towards it. 30 seconds later, it hit me.
You idiot, you should have taken that interaction forward and see where it went.
She was cute, but she was not the only Yekaterina I will see in my 34 days in Russia.
I get back to the room, have a few drinks with the guys and watch the highlights of the Japan game. Japan became the first team to qualify based on fair play points after Senegal got eliminated since they had the same amount of points but one extra yellow card. Savage.
The best day so far in Russia has reached its conclusion, ( could have been better :p)