There is no question that fans who grow up loyally supporting woeful teams are made of sterner stuff than those who wear Yankees caps and Manchester United shirts. Given this moral axiom, the author is determined to forge his young son’s character in the crucible of sporting misery.
What price virtue? In 2009 Alina Percea apparently picked up over $10,000 for selling her virginity to a 45-year-old Italian man during a night of passion in Venice.
What price all of a man’s worldly possessions, or the German language, or ownership of New Zealand? In the eBay age almost everything can be put up for sale, even if the good people of eBay decide it’s best for that sale not to go ahead.
But some things are sacred. No matter how much you gave me I would not sell my wife or son (although after some disrupted nights I’d be tempted to cash in on the latter). I know I’ll always be English, even if that means the rubbish bits as well as the good. And, for better or (more usually) worse, I know I’ll always support Middlesbrough Football Club.
So how did one man come up with the idea of selling his son’s football loyalties on eBay?
Ian Charters is a fan of Watford, a smallish team with an underwhelming history and a rubbish stadium on the fringes of London. Unhappily for Ian, he is being forced to bring his son up in the city of Manchester, thanks to his job. Ian knows that once seven-month-old Eddie starts chasing a ball around the local playground, poor old Watford simply won’t get a look – not when compared to the glamour of Man United and the juggernaut wealth of Man City. His neat but rather defeatist solution was to let a supporter of one of the Manchester clubs choose his son’s team, in return for a pledge to buy Ian a red or sky blue outfit, matching curtains, and occasional ticket to a game.
On the plus side, Ian’s plan was to give any profits to a charity that looks after premature and sick babies. But on the minus side, Ian was also prepared to mortgage the future character of young Eddie Charters.
Children are easily seduced by obvious success. The boys who live opposite me in Singapore have shameless footballing wardrobes that allow them to appear in the colours of whatever team happens to be winning trophies. One day it’s Chelsea; the next it’s Barcelona. When Holland beat Spain in the first match of the World Cup, they wore orange. When Real Madrid triumphed in the Champions League for the tenth time, one of them promptly turned up in the all-white Real kit. The Manchester United kit came out when it looked like Louis Van Gaal could rekindle the successes of the Alex Ferguson era. When that didn’t happen, and Real taught Liverpool a footballing lesson in the group stage of the Champions League, lo and behold the all-white Real Madrid kits came out again. No doubt this chameleon effect allows the boys a kind of ersatz popularity in the playground, especially here in rootless Singapore. But what does it say about their character?
Character is the priceless substance that lies at the heart of genuine, earned success. Take, for instance, the famous “marshmallow test,” which suggests that five year olds who can delay gratification by resisting for fifteen minutes a marshmallow placed in front of them tend to go on to lead more fulfilling and dynamic lives than kids who can’t. The successful kids have character. Those who munch marshmallows as they pull on a Manchester United or Bayern Munich top don’t.
A glance at the pantheon of history’s great figures only reinforces the suspicion that the ability to face down real challenges in childhood leads to achievement later on. And fathers and mothers need to know that this can start with the playground humiliation of following a rubbish sports team.
A child who appears in a playground full of Barcelonas and Brazils wearing the rare colours of 1860 München or Sporting de Gijón, Partick Thistle or Sparta Rotterdam, is a child who is set up for life. They are able to swim against the tide, showing independent thinking and a taste for something different. They know the value of loyalty and duty, even when things are going against them. They have imagination. They also know what it is to suffer, to be disappointed, and to not be rewarded with an endless succession of glamour and glory. They know that successes are hard earned, and they know what true hope is. They know what it is like to hold back from eating the marshmallow on the table.
Just this weekend one of my best friends made the ultimate investment in his eldest son’s future. He took him, for the first time ever, to watch a match at Birmingham City. He put a photo up on Facebook and proudly let the world know that his son was being baptised into his family’s sacred tradition. Birmingham promptly lost 8-0, at home, to a team from the geriatric seaside resort town of Bournemouth. My friend’s son is now almost guaranteed to grow up to become a major political figure, or the man who will lead humanity’s fight back when the robots try to take over in 2026.
Ian Charters’ son will not be so lucky. His father may be defeatist, but he knows that inculcating a sense of loyalty towards Watford will be an uphill battle. They will never be on television, and young Eddie – growing up in Manchester – would not see them often enough to experience that rare thrill of recognising each player from the other side of the pitch, simply by their stance or their walk. But by surrendering any effort to make his son nail Watford’s black, yellow, and red colours to his mast, Ian is also ensuring that young Eddie will never quite become a Churchill or a Napoleon, a Thomas Edison or a Bill Gates. That saddens me.
My own 20-month-old son is lucky, in that he has two teams he can choose between – Middlesbrough or Sampdoria, from his mother’s side. He needs to learn that some things are not for sale, and that loyalty is something worth cherishing, even when it hurts. I can only hope that, as he grows up, he does not take the path of least resistance, and chooses fortitude over glory, suffering over easy success. Fathers are meant to wish happiness for their children – but when it comes to football teams, I’m hoping young Luca has a miserable childhood in a Middlesbrough or Sampdoria shirt. It is, of course, for his own good.
Nicholas Walton was the European editor for the BBC World Service and correspondent in Sarajevo and Warsaw. Currently based in Singapore, he consults for various NGOs, hosts the podcast New Books in European Studies, and is looking forward to publication of his first book, a history of Genoa. Nicholas tweets at @.