There are many reasons why we support a club. Sometimes it's about where we were born. Sometimes it's a particularly cool looking kit or a fond memory of entering a stadium or a family tradition that goes back to a great grandparent. The roots of supporter passion can run deep, and most importantly, whatever the reason, they are uniquely ours. We don't have to justify them. We don't even have to expect that they will be understood. Just like any meaningful relationship, the only parties that matter are the giver and the recipient. Everyone else is just a passenger.
My late father, for example, became a late Manchester United fan after we immigrated to England from Peru in the early 90's. For him, after everything he went through with Alianza Lima and the struggles of Peruvian soccer in the late 80's, success was all that mattered. Sir Alex Ferguson's Goliath would do, thank you very much.
I didn't mirror my father's choice. My story is a little different.
For those who have the unfortunate pleasure of following me on social media or listening to our podcast, you know too well my adoration and support for Aston Villa, the club from Birmingham, winner of the European Cup in 1982, established in 1874, founding member of the Football League 14 years later and of course the Premier League in 1992. The year that just so happens to precede the beginning of my story.
I am often asked why I root for Villa, a team with no specific connection to Peru aside from Nolberto Solano's brief role with the club.
The truth is that my journey with Villa is the story of my immigrant life. When I moved to a new country, culture shocked and scared, the club essentially rescued me, and threw out a lifesaver at a time when I, like so many kids from different backgrounds and races, was experiencing a new way of life in a place that seemed totally alien to me.
Football became my escape and Villa my refuge. This is my story of why I am a Villan.
The school playground is a precarious place. It's where you see the true identity of a kid, at least from another child's perspective. It's even harder when you're the new foreigner in town.
When I had just arrived in England, my English was good but not strong enough to understand the slang or local jargon you often hear, especially with young people. Making friends was a struggle at first but the toughest part was making true connections. Football became the perfect bridge. During recess, therefore, it was only natural to play football and that was one of the first connections I made with my classmates. It was still difficult, however, as I didn't yet have a Premier League team nor understand the values of English football. I knew of them of course, and fully familiarized myself , sometimes against my own will, with the overwhelming support for Manchester United, Liverpool and teams from London and the South.
None of them interested me. I felt that these teams were there to give me an idea what this new country represented but they failed to personally give me a sense of identity, especially one I needed to relate to.
Then I met Mark, my first best friend in England.
He was an obsessive Aston Villa fan and that specific day when picking teams for pickup in the school playground, he realized I had a decent left foot and selected me for his team. "You're with me, Luis. And we….are Villa." I had no idea what he meant but I followed along anyways.
After school, we went to his house. It was the first time I had been invited to someone's home and I couldn't help but marvel at his room. Dalian Atkinson covered one wall, the captain Kevin Richardson on another. The Irish legend Paul McGrath governed his door. Claret and blue was everywhere and this is when I knew I was home.
After that, Villa Park entered my life and as I witnessed the stadium for the first time, I knew that my choice had been the right one. Villa captivated my fandom and, without me realizing it, the club was helping me assimilate. I picked up on every player and where they were from, every strategy and why it was played. I studied matches, collected stickers and begged my parents for shirts, scarves and anything that connected me to Villa. Little by little, piece by piece, I was feeling more comfortable because I had something outside my family I cared about.
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Like my own experiences, Villa was also going up and down. Eighteen months after ending second in the league to Man United, it was now fighting to stay in it. That's when Brian Little came in, transformed the team and gave me my hero, Dwight Yorke. The attacker from Trinidad and Tobago began as a right winger with Villa but Little turned him into a potent striker, one of the most dangerous in the league. This to me, was the most prolific era for Villa because it represented what the club was all about. Grit, creativity and passion.
Yorke, Gary Charles, Ian Taylor, Mark Draper and Savo Milošević - all of them representing a personality with Villa. The 95-96 season was magical. A fourth-placed finish, a semifinal run in the FA Cup and a trophy, the then-called Coca Cola Cup, which was won against Leeds United.
But this time was also bitter sweet as my parents decided to move me to another school. Consequently, I said goodbye to Mark. At a time where cell phones and social media didn't exist, we lost touch over time. I was at a boarding school, he moved somewhere else and a new path had begun for me.
Thanks to Villa, however, I still feel our connection all these years later.
My mother passed away from cancer a year later. Things got tougher but funnily enough, I didn't realize it at the time. Tragedy is a delicate candle, one that can burn ever so slowly and you don't feel its full impact until years later. Throughout it all, my only consolation was Aston Villa. On the day of the funeral, after it was over, I asked my father to return to school because I just wanted to play soccer with my friends, but most importantly, I wanted to return to my room in boarding school because all my belongings were Aston Villa posters. It was the only thing that made me feel safe.
Tragedy can be a slow burn, but grief even more so. In some ways, it's like supporting a team. It's exceptionally personal. You heal depending on how it relates to you and nothing else matters. During these times, Villa was the only thing that helped me feel normal. My bond with Villa was formed as I started to fit in in a new place, but it was forged in the fires of my grief.
The years went by and by the time I was an adult, Martin O'Neill gave me light. Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young continued the trend of Villa-centric stars as attractive, counter-attacking football mirrored my optimistic outlook on life in my own career, especially after now living in the United States.
As the years went on, the love for the team, as every Villa fan will tell you, went through continuous stress and sadly, the end of the Randy Lerner years also came with the death of my father.
Relegation and times of economic insecurity followed and so on.
But the hope never goes away. That's why we never stop supporting a club, not because of victory but because of what it takes to get us there. Once again, Villa, in its own way, was there for me when he passed.
So as we fast forward and I see Aston Villa of today, growing under Dean Smith, Jack Grealish and everyone else who is involved with the club, it gives me a sense of personal satisfaction, but it's also a moment of reflection.
Aston Villa's journey has my own footsteps imprinted and vice versa. The club's tale of failure and success is also a testament to how this game of ours can impact our lives.
Football is more than what happens on the pitch and for this Peruvian kid who moved to England, Aston Villa will always mean so much more than just a football team.