Why LA Galaxy? I asked.
“I know nothing about football. I’ve got this shirt from a friend”.
Locked behind the bars of a cage made of bamboo sticks, 23 year old Taung Lon shivers under his filthy blanket. It is his first week at the Youth for Christ centre for heroin addict and tropical heat is not enough to make him warm in a moment of obviously painful crisis. He is going through detox cold turkey and a young man will stay locked in what is called the Special Prayer Room until the eight day with no medication, only to pray and sing and read Bible. I try to talk to Taung Lon but he just smiles and backs off to the corner of a cell he shares with few others, a typical reaction of someone marked by brutal society as guilty forever.
I come back to the centre few days after and Taung Lon looks much better now. Out of a cage, wearing a totally unexpected LA Galaxy jersey he sings “Jesus Loves Me” in full voice, an important and surreal morning ritual all the people from the centre attend. The bizarre collective offers a 40-day “course” of prayer, Bible study and devotional singing, with football and weightlifting for those strong enough to try to overcome devastating heroin addiction.
Ndingi Laja, a former convict and folk singer, better known by his stage name Ahja established the centre in remote mountains of Kachin state to help fight the problem that is totally out of control in this part of Myanmar. I ask him for the results, how many boys quit drugs in the centre – Ahja’s left eye starts blinking and his tough face turns even tougher. Okay, a wrong question – obviously the main point here is to bring addicts on “the right path”, something us, who believe in science more than in divine intervention find difficult to understand. However, anything is much better than young men staying higher up in mountains hand picking through waste of a mine to get a piece of jade or amber to sell for their daily dose of heroin.
Why Dutch? I asked.
“For all of my life I’ve been a Barça and Netherlands supporter. My father encountered the sublime at the World Cup in West Germany 1974…I was born in November of that year in New York, this shirt was my destiny. My parents are from an island, Antigua, that in those days was colonized by the English. But my father, headstrong like my mother, had little interest in the kick-and-chance game that was his presumed colonial inheritance. His joke was that I would never want to play midfield in England because I’d sprain my neck watching the ball flying 20 feet over my head from one end of the pitch to the other all game long. I was hardwired with a deep passion for the football practiced by Cruyff with the Netherlands and Barça. It’s in my veins. Style is a passport, it’s the mark we leave on the world: and so the Dutch and Barça style (Cruyff signed for Barça the year before I was born) were implanted in my head and my heart from birth.
I’m a huge huge huge huge Barça supporter and the club has had a permanent effect on my life: my wife and I are members of the club; her grandfather, my grandfather, has been a member for more than 85 years (his name is inscribed in the walls of Camp Nou along with his brother’s); for years I taped every game and kept them all, which is when my beautiful l, Barcelona-born wife realized that I actually wasn’t just saying that I loved Barça in order to impress her. All of this and yet I don’t own a Barça shirt. You see, Barça is so fashionable these days, so ubiquitous, that a wearing the shirt seems a rather pyrrhic statement to me. Of course, I’m glad the club is so successful and has so many fans but a great club is much more than its laundry, as it’s more than a club: so I carry my Barça colors in my heart…I just prefer it that way. Besides, I’m never wearing publicity across my chest. It hurts me to see how our passion for football is a conduit for our metamorphosis into walking billboards. To each their own, but I refuse.
The only football shirt I still own is my Netherlands shirt. It must be around 15 years old. It’s the shirt of a lifer: it sports my name (I won’t wear another man’s name on my back) and the lettering and numbering are gone after years of being pulled and thrown to the ground in games, squeezing into small places and being washed only to reset and go through it all again. The Euro semi-final the hosting Netherlands lost in penalties to ten-man Italy in 2000 may have been the last time I wore this shirt to watch a game. After that I wore it out on occasion but for the most part I played it, played in it as though I was exercising the pain of all those painful Dutch defeats with each control, pass and shot.”
I met Rowan in the virtual world first. We play in the same fantasy league. But a few days ago I was in New York City and Rowan stepped out of fantasy and we actually met in person. He is an award wining poet and his book The Ground made my trip back to Montreal to pass in no time. Here I dare to share one of his many wonderful poems, Terra Incognita:
I plugged my poem into a manhole cover
That flamed into the first guitar,
Jarred the asphalt and tar to ash,
And made from where there once was
Ground a sound instead to stand on.
Why Hajduk? I asked.
“I had no idea about Hajduk before my friend gave me this shirt. However, since then I became interested in the club, and that beautiful city in Croatia.”
To my great surprise, Yuya came that day to work wearing a snow white Hajduk shirt. He said good morning and quietly sat to have our usual tasteless bowl of miso soup and rice for breakfast. We are spending days wondering through the exclusion zone around crippled Daiichi nuclear power plant documenting half-lives of poor people of Fukushima and the last thing I would expect him to wear is a shirt of the club of my childhood, together with “Hajduk Živi Vječno” (Hajduk Lives Forvever) written across his chest.
It definitely made my day. It also made surreal scenery of Fukushima’s ghost towns even more surreal. Naturally, I could not stop taking pictures of Yuya as we walked around. This shirt should really be worn on Split’s promenade or at the stadium, something my Japanese friend dreams about since he was introduced to the club. But, parading it for zombies of Fukushima is definitely something very special and I express my uttermost gratitude to the gods of coincidence for making it happen.
What Yuya didn’t know is that my beloved and legendary great-aunt Esma, another hero of my family’s great WW2 partisan heritage, was so in love with Hajduk that she awarded me with its honorary membership card for my first birthday. That was ages ago. Strina Esma had departed her Dubrovnik for heavens since, I lost my card and Hajduk erased its red star from all club related insignia as it never existed. But what I feel about the club never really changed despite the new nationalist orientated commissars abandoning its partisan background. Hajduk, “the outlaw” in English but with somehow historically positive connotations will always remain my club and I will always cheer for “majstori s mora” (masters from the sea) as the club was called in over-romanticized sport dictionary of my late fatherland Yugoslavia. Now we even have a fun club in Fukushima – something those beggars from Dinamo, Partizan and Zvezda can only dream about.
Why EST? I asked.
“That’s my home team.”
It always gives me a great pleasure when I meet someone wearing a jersey of a team I really know nothing about. Karim came to Montreal two years ago. We had brief chat about the World Cup qualifiers while his three companions patiently waited and helped in directing him to pose for the camera. In coming weeks Tunisia is playing the final elimination round against Cameroon. The winner goes to Brazil and Karim, of course, believes Tunisia can do it. Just like I have no doubts the Bosnian team will do the same.