This past on Wednesday night was the real deal, but the lead-up to it had been gaining momentum over the past weeks. My seven-year-old daughter, Oishi, and I had been following — with an unsettling mixture of mounting excitement, belied hopes and more mounting excitement — the progression of FC Barcelona and Manchester United towards the Champions League final.
We’d seen at home the quarter finals being played simultaneously, shuttling between the two television sets in the living room and in one of the bedrooms, taking turns in keeping watch, yelping, shouting out scores and in general creating the sort of racket till 2 am that ensured that we remained in the doghouse for the next few days as far as my wife was concerned.
We watched the semi finals in a hotel room in Inverness and then in a bar in Glasgow. Arsenal, the team we support, lost to Manchester United in the game we watched in Glasgow.
So there was no question of supporting Manchester United on Wednesday night. We both rooted for Barcelona. I did because the team had Messi and Henry and plays the sort of football that makes someone who fancies himself as an aesthete have his belief in aesthetic values strengthened. Oishi’s choice was determined by the fact that Barcelona is one of her five most favourite cities in the world. (London, Sydney, Nice and Kolkata are the others.)
She made FC Barcelona flags, rooted out a whistle, found for herself a T-shirt and shorts matching as closely as possible the team’s red-and-blue (what’s more, she found a similar pair of shorts and a T-shirt for me) and spent – I am told – the day in a state of agitated anxiousness, fretfully scurrying from room to room, muttering or shouting as the mood took her, “Bar-ca, Bar-ca”.
Me, I had to make a living. By the time I returned from the office, she was passing the remaining hours that are like a slow wind-up to the event of the day by watching Nadal humiliate Gabashvili in the French Open.
After midnight, we settled down, me with my freshly made coffee and she with her ice cream. The texts had started coming in from friends in different parts of the world, people Oishi knew, and was keen to find out how and where they were watching.
Unlike me, she has grown up in a culture of fandom that is mediated by instant communication and text messages, by the thrill — or disappointment — being immediately shared with like-minded people thousands of miles away.
When Eto’o scored ten minutes into the game, we were up and running, waving our paper flags, doing jigs, and punching each other on the shoulder.
The period of not daring to hope followed, tinged with a conviction that United would – surely would – come back and bury Barcelona. It didn’t. And by the time Messi scored in the 70th minute, Barca were swerving, twirling, passing in artistic geometric patterns, running rings around United, and we’d allowed ourselves to properly begin to celebrate.
Many years ago, sitting in an east London pub on a freezing winter’s afternoon, I’d seen a father and his little daughter at the table next to mine, dressed in the colours of the Premier League club, West Ham, feeding on each other’s enthusiasm ahead of a home game in Upton Park.
I had not become a father yet. But I had always wanted a girl, and, watching them, I had wanted — irrationally, unfairly — my as-yet-unborn daughter and myself to feel keenly bound by this love for watching sport.
It doesn’t happen, this congruence between life and what you’d hoped from it. But when it does, well, the feeling is unsurpassed.
I have managed to pass on to my girl my passion for books. But when we are reading together, we never read the same book. With sport, it’s different. It’s the same game we are watching, being buoyed or sunk by the same things. It is as though we are living the same moment in the same way.
It is a rare, absolute communion. There is nothing quite like it.