Milan, Passion and What Football Means to Me

In Front Page, Special Ones, The Breakdown by Aaron WestLeave a Comment

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My name is Sam Lewis. I am English, (not American, contrary to popular belief) born in England to English parents with as far as Iím aware, almost entirely British roots dating back throughout my family history. I am 21, and Iím in love with AC Milan and Italian football.

My situation is a rare one. Not entirely unique, but a rare one nevertheless. For many who follow a football league outside of their own country, there are usually common sense truths as to why that particular person follows that league. If youíre from Singapore, for example, a country that has little to no elite football history Ė following a European league makes sense. This is also a situation that is found by many Americans, who upon discovering they love the game of ďsoccerĒ there is a coinciding understanding that not a lot of Americans share their affection.

However, I was born in a country that has its own elite league, calls football its national sport and has its own personal history within the sport as its first modern innovators. In theory, I should be an England and enter-your-own-Premier-League-team-here fan. The fact that Iím not is rather unique, and Iím quite proud of that.

For anyone that has been to England and had a drink at a pub, youíll know that football is the unspoken, official conversation starter between (usually) men at any one of the three locations where previously unacquainted guys are awkwardly shunted together. For reference, those are 1) at the bar waiting for a drink 2) in the toilets and 3) the smoking area.

At any one of those locations where the conversation turns to football, the ďso, who do you supportĒ query is inevitable. Itís usually the second or third question in a normal footballing conversation, but as a night wears on and the alcohol consumption rises, the question of allegiances rises with it, until it becomes a drunken opening gambit, a method in which to immediately determine the character of the person youíre ordering a beer, having a cigarette or urinating near or next to.

As I am usually in those three locations (particularly number three) during an evening drinking, Iím often found trying to explain to a group of semi-conscious Englishmen why I support an Italian football team. Itís often quite a difficult task, as my anecdotal tales tend to be lost among a few hearty cries of ďcheating ItaliansĒ or something like that. So, Iím going to try and do it here, hoping youíre reading this sober.

Being born in England, football is so woven into the national psyche that youíre either immersed into it or completely against it. The saturation of football coverage on the TV, especially in the Premier League era, means that it is as part of British living as queuing or complaining. Iíve never known a situation where football wasnít one of my keenest passions and contrary to typical trend, Iím perhaps more passionate about it now than I ever have been. I know more about it now. I appreciate it more.

I grew up an only child with a very large garden, and a lot of footballs. I spent, as so many other kids my age, parading around outside, playing a combination of games in imaginative scenarios I had created in my own head. I imagined I was certain players, certain teams. I invented players in my head with career paths that I completely fabricated on sunny afternoons, where the only restrictions were how much thinking I could do before I felt dizzy.

I spent a large portion of childhood playing alone, and thus my first real sporting experiences are ones that are singularly influenced. My dad was a lifelong Wolverhampton Wanderers fan but stopped going to games by the time I was old enough to accompany him, and his growing disillusionment with the game as the modern footballer began to alter its relationship with the paying public meant that he never really ignited my passion to support a particular team, least of all his. I had no siblings, so I was never really swayed toward or against one team by an older brother. My only real sporting contacts in my formative years were fellow football loving school-children.

In fact, the only thing I inherited from my old man is hatred. He despised Manchester United, and the perceived arrogance of their fans, so bathed in success during the Alex Ferguson era, a period that was aligned with my upbringing. Manchester United were (and probably still are) the symbol of the Premier League, the shiny new era of footballing entertainment that I absorbed weekly for over a decade. Apart from knowing that I disliked Manchester United and to a lesser extent, Liverpool Ė there wasnít a team that set my imagination running like the players I invented in my own head.

As fast paced and entertaining English football was, there was a simplistic, unattractive quality to it that turned me off. The pitches were dirty, messy, played in dark stadiums wracked with rain while players with names that sounded like mine were celebrities. As a boy who from an early age recognised his physical limitations (rubbish at football), that assimilation that many fans feel was something that didnít inspire me. I didnít feel like they were special. It was too normal. When I imagined great footballers they always had exotic names from lands far away, ultra-cool locations that only existed in the recesses of my mind. It wasnít until I discovered those places were actually real were sporting allegiances finally established.

The first team that had that intangible cool were Real Madrid Ė I was nine years old when Real Madrid won the Champions League in 2002. Luis Figo, Raul, Zinedine Zidane. These guys sounded like great players.

They played like it too Ė with a style and swagger Iíd never seen an English side play with. Short passes, little flicks, changes of pace and displays of technique that were until that point alien to me. I was actually sent to bed before Zinedine Zidane struck his game-winning volley. Itís a good job, it would have probably blown my head off. My discovery of league football outside England was a revelation, and for a short period I was a big fan of La Liga. I was unable to pick a side between the glamour of Madrid and the more mysterious Barcelona (a choice I still struggle with) but I enjoyed it nevertheless. Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Luis Enrique? Suddenly my imagination had a muse, a template.

Everything about it was so vivid, from the pulsing emotions of the players amongst the background of stunning stadia and flares; curva displays an off-field tribute to the artistic beauty on it.

This sparked an appreciation of European football in general that led to me quietly rooting against English sides in favour of the more attractive, appealing continental opponents. It was like I was rooting for good football, rewarding the team that played the best with my approval.

It was in this period that I first found AC Milan.

Although I applauded the effort of the victorious Liverpool players and reveled as a neutral in what was one of the greatest single games I had ever seen, I never forgot how amazed I was by Milanís first 45 minutes in the now infamous 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul. The Rossoneriís third goal, a glorious turn from Riccardo Kaka (who instantly became one of my top five favourite footballers in about a second and a half) before a defence splitting pass found Hernan Crespo had me on my feet. The finish, a delicate, almost arrogant stabbed effort that evaded Jerzy Dudek was the sporting equivalent of Milan sticking their flag on the continental mountain. It was beautiful football, a casual demonstration of the intoxicating style of Europeís best that England had never truly grasped.

I was instantly captured by Milan, who seemed to be the perfect balance of Italian solidity and technical prowess Ė Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Riccardo Kaka, Andriy ShevchenkoÖwhat was cooler than that? Plus, the red-and-black stripes were a beautiful kit, a combination of my two favourite colours. It was perfect. Despite this very instant affection, I was just an admirer of Carlo Ancelottiís side, not yet a fan.

That came later, in 2007.

Milan met Liverpool once again in a Champions League final, two years on from my memories of quietly grinding my teeth while my smug Liverpool supporting peers claimed themselves as Europeís greatest because of 10 minutes in the second half and a penalty shoot-out. (No, Iím not bitter at all).

Despite the fact that I hadnít yet called them my team, their potential retribution and revenge was almost mine as well. Liverpoolís win was a bucket of cold water on my fantastical perception of football. It was like Santa Claus had been run over by his sleigh right in front of me. Milan had a chance to reclaim some pride, win a massive trophy and bring some of the balance I had convinced myself was missing in football back.

The Italian side had continued to strike a chord with me on their way to that final, famously swatting aside Manchester United (a club for whom at this point my hatred had developed into a genuine hobby) in a wonderful display of dominance, including the irrepressible Kaka scoring a wonder-goal at Old Trafford before spearheading a 3-0 win in Italy.

Milan faced Liverpool then, with a starting striker who had watched the Milanese demise in 2005 as a spectator. Filippo Inzaghi was the real working manís striker. Not blessed with the technique that many forwards in todayís game take for granted, ďSuperPippoĒ had a keen awareness of where the goal was, a regimented diet and thatís about it. He celebrated every goal like heíd took it past 9 opponents before chipping the goalkeeper, despite how ugly that particular strike was. It was like he knew that it was a blessing for him to be there, scoring goals in front of thousands of adoring fans. He never took it for granted and there was a real bond between the passionate Italian and his fans and latterly, me.

It was a reminder of the true romance in football, that Pippo was the successful version of the little boy I was, finishing chances Iíd passed to myself and scampering around the garden on my own. He never lost that passion, even in the twilight of his career as the goals dried up. He loved football, Milan, his fans and scoring goals. It was almost all he lived for.

Milan led 1-0 from an Inzaghi strike in the re-match against Liverpool, one that bounced from his ribs, (Pippo acting like he had back-heeled it in from the halfway line) but it was the second one than stands out to me. It was the 81st minute and Ricky Kaka picked the ball up around 25 yards away from goal. He looked up as Inzaghi made a run to bypass two Liverpool defenders and the Brazilian slotted the pass perfectly to find the striker, who rounded Pepe Reina in the Liverpool goal and rolled the ball into the empty net.

Pippo sprinted off toward the corner flag, mouth agape with joy. He dropped to his knees, frantically gesticulating toward himself as his teammates eventually caught up with him to embrace him. My emotions mirrored his; it was the first moment I can remember witnessing a celebration that I felt a real part of. All the years of celebrating alone in my garden as a child were over. Suddenly, I had a team.

Since seeing that celebration, I became hooked. My emotions toward football finally had an outlet, a colour and a history. It was like I had found true north on a compass. It was the first time supporting a team made sense to me. I had an identity.

So here we are. I am a passionate fan of a football team that speaks a different language, plays in a different country and has no cultural connection to me at all, and Iím proud of that. In a way it feels more satisfying, because I feel my sporting preferences have not come about through circumstantial geography that I canít affect, but an emotional epiphany that I feel I chose and simultaneously chose me.

I cried when Milan won the league in 2011, before once again weeping for entirely different reasons months later when Andrea Pirlo departed for Juventus. Just to add, I donít usually cry about things.

Football is a universal sport, one where thanks to internet streaming sites and social media, any person from any corner of the planet can support any team. I am an example of that. Football colours my perspective, irritates me, depresses me and (occasionally) brings me moments of unparalleled joy and that is something that any fan can relate to. Just this time, the team that summons those feelings play in Lombardy, Italy rather than Wolverhampton, England. It wasnít a conscious decision; I just went with what felt right at the time.

Football then, is a reminder of what is also great about life Ė choice, passion, freedom and joy. Sometimes circumstance helps you make your choice, sometimes itís your family. For me, it was 11 foreign guys playing in red-and-black. Itís one of the best choices Iíve ever made.

Filippo Inzaghi scored his last goal for Milan just over two years ago. He was announced as AC Milan coach a couple of months ago. It looks like me and Pippo have some more emotional adventures ahead. I canít wait.

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About the Author

Aaron West