Manchester United won the Champions League for the 3rd time last week. Half a dozen of my friends have changed their gtalk status messages to "We are the Champions" or something similar. When the last season of English Premier League was in progress, I couldn't drop in on my friends' house without getting embroiled in heated debates about which team was the best. One particular house had 2 ManU fans and 2 Chelsea fans. I'd add fuel to the fire by claiming to be an Arsenal fan (I'm not, actually - but I love a good argument once in a while). Once, while staying in a hotel in Hyderabad, another ManU fan started hollering in his room at 2 am when his team lost. This woke up the entire hotel staff and brought them scrambling to his room.
It was surprising how people could feel such loyalty towards a football team in Manchester or Barcelona (of all the places in the world)- cities which they've never seen in their lives and whose people they have no connection with. With the advent of the IPL, I have found that I have started sharing many of the sentiments that possessed these guys while the EPL season was on (but with an intensity many orders of magnitude lesser). At the beginning of the IPL, I decided to put my weight behind the Chennai Super Kings while my other three flatmates decided to support three different teams - Kolkata Knight Riders, Mumbai Indians and Kings XI Punjab.
So why support any team at all? I think that supporting a team is a bit like betting - you choose to 'invest' a lot of emotions while supporting your team in the hope that you will get good returns. The exhilaration that you feel when your team wins cannot be compared to the mere pleasure of watching a good game that dispassionate observer of the game would get. The flipside is that you'll feel equally (if not more) downcast if your team were to lose. The more emotion you put in, the more you get back. Supporting a team gives you a 'kick' out of the game that neutral observers will not get. This includes being able to tell your friend "my team kicked your team's ass" and sink him deeper into misery.
A lot of people don't have any real choice when it comes to supporting teams - people who have lived in Kolkata all their life and/or love the city and the game will not think twice before enrolling in the KKR Fan Club. This is the same reason why I support India in international matches. But others like me - the floaters, who don't have obvious IPL teams to support - support teams out of choice based on different reasons.
The 'betting factor' explains the choice of teams for a lot of the floaters. There is a natural tendency to go for the strongest horse in the race. Teams like ManU, Chelsea and Real Madrid are the strongest teams in their league and are more likely to privide good return on (emotional) investment. Among my two dozen EPL-follower friends I can't find even one who supports a Fulham or a Newcastle Utd. Like a friend who was born and brought up in London remarked, "I could support Fulham, but then I'd be living in perpetual misery". When I think about my choice of IPL team objectively, I have to admit that the biggest reason for supporting Chennai was that I thought it would be the strongest team (who doesn't like to end up on the winning side?). If I was really smart and had the ability to predict that Rajasthan Royals would emerge as the team to beat, I'd have supported them. To me, it doesn't make much difference - the RR team is as alien to me as the CSK.
Another factor in the choice of teams is cultural affinity. In the absence of teams from their cities and towns, many people would have chosen to side with teams from cities which they felt most affinity for. This certainly was one of my considerations in choosing to support CSK - I could argue that I've been living in Chennai for nearly 2 years and being a south Indian, Chennai is 'my' metro. So till they have a 'Trivandrum Kalip Payyans' team in the IPL, I'll be supporting CSK – provided, of course, that CSK field the strongest team in the competition.
For the EPL fans in India, though, I don't think there is much cultural affinity involved. Another factor comes into play here – their favourite players. Many of these players support ManU because a couple of their favourite players like Rooney and C. Ronaldo play for them. I know I liked Arsenal mainly because of the presence of Thierry Henry in their lineup and stopped following the team after he left for Barcelona. Similarly, many of the people I know support Mumbai Indians just because of the presence of Sachin Tendulkar and a lot of people from Jharkhand would be supporting CSK just because of the presence of Dhoni in the Chennai team.
The IPL is a hit. I was sceptical about whether IPL would be able to create city-based loyalties. The creation of the IPL teams was so artificial and inorganic that I was doubtful whether this would happen, especially with so few of the local players making it to the playing XI. But now I'm convinced that no matter how artificial the teams are, people just want to support some team or the other to be able to enjoy the game better. Since there is no team from Trivandrum, I support the Super Kings; since there isn't much football worth mentioning happening in India, all the football fans will root for Manchester United and Real Madrid and villages throughout north Kerala will erupt in a war-like frenzy when Germany plays Portugal in Euro-'08.
 A close friend and Manchester United devotee tells me that I'm supposed to write 'Man Utd' and say 'Man United' (not 'ManU' and 'Man You' respectively as many non-believers tend to) while abbreviating the club's name. But what the heck - remember I'm a Gunners fan ;)
 Fulham is one of the many football clubs based in London that he could support, the other prominent Premiership teams being Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham Utd. Ironically, many of his friends from London are supporters of Manchester United!