PALACE & PREJUDICE
It is a truth universally acknowledged that you do not pick your football club. Your football club picks you.
Jesus Christ himself may have weighed in on the matter. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” he decreed, according to Matthew 22:14.
Theologians still debate what Jesus was referring to in this passage, but inevitably the Jeopardy category would have been “religion” (a synonym for most sports). Is it really a stretch to say that he was describing the Byzantine process by which a football club herds its rightful sheep? It is a spiritual encounter on par with any miracle, and a lifelong commitment that requires both pilgrimage and sacrifice.
On August 4, 2018, there was a Classico of sorts in Moscow: FC Spartak versus FC Lokomotiv. I knew distinctly that it was a Classico for three reasons:
- The Russian military on horseback looked particularly irked to be there;
- My stomach was hurting, which is a universal symptom of any derby in any league;
- Children were giving the finger to one another, and nobody cared.
I was fully prepared to hand myself over that afternoon. The life of Moscow’s most eligible football bachelorette was glam for a time, but I’m ready for commitment. British author Nick Hornby, the prophet of this church of ours, said it best:
“Few of us have chosen our clubs, they have simply been presented to us; and so as they slip from Second Division to the Third, or sell their best players, or buy players who you know can't play, or bash the ball the 700th time towards a nine foot centre-forward, we simply curse, go home, worry for a fortnight and then come back to suffer all over again.”
For better, or mostly for worse—Crystal Palace chose me.
It was a quintessentially disappointing English spring. My best friend Bikram convinced me to watch a random (relegated) side play in the dregs of South London. We arrived to Selhurst Park one hour before kickoff, and proceeded with a hoard of chanting fans to the nearest pub.
Now when I say pub, I mean shanty town with a tap. I mean those trailers that they “temporarily” set up at your elementary school for classrooms, but never actually renovated. I mean someone’s shed in their garden of neglect.
I was the only woman in the "pub" that day. There was a man whose beer gut formed a perfect lilypad around his body; the symmetry would have eaten Monet alive. The cider was room temperature even though we were shivering. It made no sense, but religion is not to be examined with the physical senses.
The pilgrimage to the stadium was fraught with lyrical gems. We pay your benefits, we pay your benefits (chanted to the tune of ‘La donna è mobile’) was among my favorites. We sat in the supporters’ section — a milieu of shirtless skinheads and a constant chant of HAND BALL before such an offense was committed. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course, a handball did happen, but it belonged to Palace. The song swiftly changed to a B-side track.
The meat pies at halftime were unseasoned, yet bliss. The Carling bottle was standard, yet a chalice. The swell of it all—the delicious sting of mediocrity, tempered with a spark of unfounded hope, compounded by the self-righteousness gained in rooting for a shit side—made my knees weak. Crystal Palace enlisted us at “Holloway’s Red Blue Army,” and we were practically strapping ourselves into a Lockheed Martin F-22.
This baptism has proven to be, as they say, my cross to bear. The Crusades seem to be waged in my soul every season as we consistently flirt with that lower ring of football inferno: The Championship. However here I am, bloody but unbowed, answering to a call that surely came from something other than hypnotic commercialism or geographical proximity. Or common sense, for that matter.
Back to Moscow. As I sat in the stands of what turned out to be a 0-0 draw, I realized something profound. I despise Spartak. And I don’t love Lokomotiv either. I might have been called, but I was not chosen. This hurt for a moment, but then my grandmother’s sage advice on the dating world came to mind: every pot has a lid. Cue “Dancing with Myself.”
Luckily there are two other teams in this sprawling behemoth—CSKA and Dynamo—one of which may stoke my utter devotion. There’s also Zenit St. Petersburg, but they just built the most extravagant stadium in the world. It would be like rooting for Arsenal after the construction the Emirates. It feels simultaneously cheap and expensive.
And so my heart goes untamed, my Russian football soul unbaptized. Being single has its benefits: no fixture list to hang myself on, no future-tripping about walking down the aisle to a Russian Premier League trophy. But let’s face it….a single club in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a fan.