Why Real? I asked.
“I like Ronaldo.”
More and more young people I meet wear a jersey because of a player and not the team. It must be good for economy – if not for football – since today’s stars change teams easily and fans follow them. Zain came to Montreal only two months ago from Karachi, Pakistan. A smart young man, he is a graduate student working on his masters in industrial engineering. I can’t wait for the winter, he told me. Well, good luck Zain. Winter is coming, and it’s going to be as white, and as cold, as that jersey you wear.
Why Italia? I asked.
“I love the country and their soccer team.”
Ameer is the first person I met wearing Italian national team jersey. He comes from Saudi Arabia but is in love with all things Italian. He is in love with its history, people, soccer, culture and architecture. I thought he’s been to Italy many times but it turned out he’s never been. It is his dream to visit the Apennine Peninsula and he thinks it might happen next year. Ameer – who change the spelling of his name not to be confused with the popular fast food chain – currently studies science at McGill University and wants to become an M.D. Based on his enthusiasm for everything we talked about (soccer, photography, science and Italy) I’m sure he will.
Why Liverpool? I asked.
“What is Liverpool?”
I suspected that would be the answer even before I asked the question we usually ask for this blog. Nurul Amin simply doesn’t know Liverpool nor does he know much about other teams and players. However, he knows football and loves it.
Nurul Amin is a Rohingya refugee and that is as bad as being a Bosnian but hundred times worse. Escaping recent violence, he left his village in Rakhine state on a rickety boat for a super dangerous trip across the Andaman see toward Malaysia, a heaven-like place almost every Muslim in the northern Myanmar dreams about. Nurul Amin was strong and lucky enough to survive the trip (people die on these boats) but his vessel didn’t make it all way to Malaysia. It was stopped in Thailand and now Nurul Amin spends time at a shelter for women and children waiting to see what else the brutal life will unload on him.
There is not much he can do at the shelter except playing football with other kids. Good people donated some clothes and some toys, among them few balls and some jerseys. Nurul Amin got a Liverpool one. While he posed for a picture (proving that a professional pose and associated hair style is something you are born with) smaller kids wearing donated football shirts stood around. As if someone opened a matryoshka doll and different sizes of misery jumped out, all looking straight in my eyes.
The cutest among them, by far, was one little “Ibrahimovic” in AC Milan shirt that grabbed my leg and released it only to be photographed.
Why PSG? I asked.
“Why? That’s my team since 20 years ago. I love PSG.”
Today, my heart was broken. I met a guy in a Senegal national team jersey. All excited, I explained what I do and showed him the pictures on my phone. He said he would be glad to pose for me. But when I took my DSLR camera from the bag he pointed at it and said “With that, no, I don’t want you to take a picture of me.” Somehow, he felt threatened by the camera and walked away.
But then I met Seudu and my heart healed. A long time Paris Saint-Germain fan, with Thiago Silva‘s name on his back, was enjoying a performance during a street fair when I approached him. He lives and works in Montreal but he came from Senegal, just like that other guy who had turned his back to me just a few hours earlier. Thanks Seudu, it was a pleasure to meet you.
Why Milan? I asked.
“Because I’ve got this shirt at the lucky draw organized by our church before we played football.”
At about the same time as Baptist missionaries started harvesting souls in the northern Kachin state, a journalist George Scott introduced the game of football to what was sometimes known as “the Scottish colony”, the great country of Burma. Besides being a reporter for the London Evening Standard and later colonial administrator, Sir Scott of Scotland loved the game – in late XIX century he organized first football matches in the country. Young Burmese men loved football, said Scott, because it was “just like fighting.” Andrew Marshall, another great journalist and my travelling partner these days masterfully writes about Scott’s life and legacy in his book “The Trouser People”.
Fast forward to XXI century, Burma’s Kachin is unfortunately still in state of permanent troubles. Devastated by a long ethnic conflict and widespread heroin use, the land squeezed between India and China and crazy rich in natural resources remains difficult to access patchwork of territories owned by the government forces and different rebel groups.
Today, for a young lad like Brang Sengli there are not many better options than working in rice fields, wearing a football jersey donated by the Church. Smiling him and his best friend Aung Mai who loves Arsenal (like!) because of Robin Van Persie (not like!) happily posed for pictures after working in the field while some farmer girls giggled under straw hats behind their backs.
Why Man United? I asked.
“Because I’m half Japanese and the best Japanese player Shinji Kagawa plays for Man United.”
When I spotted Jonathan walking down the street I debated if I should approach him since he is not wearing a jersey. But there was something about him so I couldn’t let him pass by. Jonathan was born in Montreal after his father came from Japan and settled here. His answer mirrors that of many Bosnians who support Manchester City only because Edin Džeko plays there. And I wonder what happens when Džeko, or Kagawa, finally change the club. I’m not sure I care to know.
Why Thai Port? I asked.
“Well, the stadium is only five minutes from where I live. That’s how all started.”
The rest is a long and ongoing story. On her twitter profile (worth following for some thoughtful and funny observation about football and Thai society) otherwise very cool Lillian describes herself as “Artist/Photographer. Dirty Liberal Feminist. Apathetic Gooner. KlongtoeyArmy Conscript”. There @TheLilyfish mentions two football clubs that play a big part in her life – Arsenal and Thai Port (Klong Toey army are their supporters). While following Arsenal is reduced to late night/early morning matches on TV (she use to live in the UK and was regular at stadiums), the passion for Thai Port takes her, together with a weird mix of tough boys from the notorious Klong Toey slum and local expats, on a colorful journey through the amazing Thailand and its even more amazing football league.
Unfortunately, the Port was relegated last year (“it must be some sort of a plot against us”) and they now play in the second division against clubs strong as an ambitious junior German amateur team, but their supporters are united as ever. From their home games in the slum (great stadium, thought) to away games played on rice fields across the country – the Klong Toey army is there. Week in and out Lillian is with them. “It is not like some other club with lots of sponsors but no soul. This is different”.
I photographed Lillian in her studio where she is usually behind the camera taking portraits of people for her fascinating photo project “I’m Bangkok”. She didn’t need to pose much nor I needed to edit my pictures – Lillian wears this jersey so naturally that every shot looked perfect.