Shahbaz Taseer: The Man Who Needed Manchester United the Most

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistOctober 13, 2017

Shahbaz Taseer after his safe return from captivity in 2016.
Shahbaz Taseer after his safe return from captivity in 2016.Uncredited/Associated Press

Manchester United are important to a lot of people, but of all of the millions of fans who have a deep care for the club in their hearts, Shahbaz Taseer might just be the person who cares about them the most.

On 26 August 2011, Taseer, the son of the assassinated governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, was kidnapped. What followed was a four-year ordeal of the most unimaginable kind. He was held hostage, beaten and tortured, physically and mentally abused. He has told his story in a number of places, including in a moving op-ed for the New York Times

As well as the painful truths about his terrible experiences, there is another recurring theme in articles about Taseer; United. I spoke to him about his love for the Red Devils and the huge part they played in his survival.

"Like, every fan loves United," he said. "Obviously, you are a fan so you know what I'm talking about, but for me, where I was, to have access to them was just unbelievable. That is such an important part of my story that no one really knows about. Like no one really knows about how important United was to me during this time.

"It was like a gateway, a really, a much needed gateway. I was just talking to someone the other day and I was telling them...because I had to pray and these guys [his captors] knew I used to pray even though they didn't accept it, they used to say that regardless of whether he prays or not he's not Muslim in our eyes. So they used to give me a blade to clean my underarms, you know, to keep myself clean and prayer ready. And it was a choice, it was decision for me.

"I had this blade and I knew sometimes that even when I would be done with this they would torture me, humiliate me, beat me, you know. There was no way out of here and I had this blade in my hand and it was a choice. I knew, 'I can just end this,' but then I had United and I would just be, like, 'no way.'

"I can't explain it, but those Saturdays and Sundays, even though it was [only] on the radio, it was just...it kept me alive, I just had something to look forward to, regardless of anything that was happening to me."

One of the first games Taseer was able to hear.
One of the first games Taseer was able to hear.PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

Taseer was in captivity for a long time before he was able to reconnect with United. "Right towards the end of 2012 I got access, and obviously it was Sir Alex [Ferguson]'s last season. It was somewhere around December, and I just remember pretty soon after I think we had a [Manchester] City game, and that's when we stretched our lead on them. I was pretty confident and I think Roberto Mancini was on his last straw after that—the league was pretty much ours and we sort of ran away with it.

"Sir Alex's last season was so emotional, I remember I was crying when he was giving his speech, when I heard his speech. I actually knew he would retire after the Real Madrid game. I just knew it. Because he didn't give a post-match conference after it and I just knew. We were kind of robbed. Even Jose Mourinho said the better team lost. And I just felt this thing like, 'he's going. He's gonna retire.'

The Moyes-era begins, July 2013.
The Moyes-era begins, July 2013.Jon Super/Associated Press

"And then of course the David Moyes era started and oh my goodness. Imagine. It was worse than being tortured."

Taseer, remarkably, retains a powerful sense of humour, sharing a laugh at his line—a joke people outside of the world of football might struggle to understand.

He also chuckled as he related the unlikely benefits of being held captive at a time when United were often not that great.

"I didn't even hear about City winning the league until about six months into it and my heart stopped when I found out City won the league and Chelsea won the Champions League in the same season. I was actually...I was like thank God I'm here, literally this is the safest place to be right now for a United fan.

"It was kind of a blessing to not be around my friends and all the rivals during this bad period because obviously when I came back things had started to get better and at least we had an FA Cup and finished fifth. It was pretty awful but it was better than David Moyes."

It is fair to say that Taseer's friends' banter must be pretty fierce when captivity is a better option.

He returned to a more serious tone when talking about the harsh realities of his experience.

"You know some days I would be tortured and my guard would come in at about nine o'clock at night—and nine o'clock at night was pretty late for these guys—and we'd listen to a game and my body would be bruised and swollen but the emotions were the same; 'Come on, do something.' I can't explain it but it would take that physical pain away.

"You know regardless of the results, it was just...it was...you know. It's my team. I think a lot of diehard United fans don't care about how the results go. It's the history of the club, the culture of the club, I don't think the results over a season or two or three or even 10 would really change it.

"I have some friends who are Liverpool fans—diehard Liverpool fans who are a lot older and have supported Liverpool through the [19]80s and, you know, they are loyal as loyal can be.

"I'm just saying this because I can't remember who the footballer was, Joey Barton I think, just came out and said that you should support your local team or you're not a real fan. And I think that's ridiculous, I wish Joey Barton knew anything about what a real fan is. Because I'm a Man United fan. If Man United were playing my local team I'd be giving [my local team] hell. There is no local team. United is my local team, you know what I mean?"

Now in Barton's defence—an odd phrase to write—he did say he understood people from "outside the UK" supporting a Premier League team, but Taseer's point is clearly about the depth of feeling he and other fans he knows have for their clubs.

His United obsession pre-dates his time in captivity. His younger brother was the one responsible for his initial devotion to the Red Devils.

"He used to love them and he actually got me into football. I think one of the first games I watched was United versus Crystal Palace when Eric Cantona flying-kicked the Crystal Palace fan, and after that it was pretty much a done deal. I don't think I'd ever seen a sport like that before and I just became a fan, that's it. I just started following them, and as the years went by it grew.

"At first I used to appreciate other teams but I remember when Real Madrid beat us, I think it was 2003, [David] Beckham's last season, Ronaldo—and I loved Ronaldo, he was such a fantastic player—as soon as he scored that hat-trick, I just despised him forever after that.

"And even [Zinedine] Zidane who is one of the most—I watch him on YouTube now and I just think, 'I was alive while he played and I hated him, only because he didn't play for United.'

"It's been a long road. I think I've supported them since '96, but the last four or five years it has just become something else. You know what I mean?

"I had [access to the radio] all the way up to I think November 2015. Just before the group that I was [being held by] which had pledged allegiance to ISIS got into this fight with the Taliban, I was actually listening to [West Bromwich Albion]-Man United. I think we had just scored a goal and the war had started. Like a war started, and they were like, 'no we have to go, put your God-damned radio off we have to run.'

Eventually, in March 2016, he was freed. Which, among other things, meant he got to watch United's Europa League win this year.

"When they won the Europa League, you know, I was in tears. I sat back and I just thought, 'look where life brings you. All these crossroads that you come at, all these paths and these decisions that you have to make and here we are, watching them play live.'

"I didn't know what [Anthony] Martial looked like, I didn't know what he played like. I didn't know who [Marcus] Rashford was, he started playing in February and I didn't have access since November and I think the first game I saw of his was Liverpool in the Europa League and we lost but he was unbelievable, he was just a young kid. I couldn't put a face to the name because I had only heard them on the radio.

Taseer missed seeing Van Persie at United but heard most of it.
Taseer missed seeing Van Persie at United but heard most of it.Tom Jenkins/Getty Images

"I never saw [Robin] Van Persie play for United. I heard him play for United but I never saw him play for United. I didn't see the 8-2, I heard about it so many months later."

I asked Taseer how the experience changed his relationship with football:

"I mean I watch every game now, no question about it. I can't explain it, my relationship with football. I play as much as I can; I love [playing], I always have.

"But you know it's different when you're sort of, when you don't have anything and the only thing you have is access to United. And you love all these players and this club and they don't know about you and you're somewhere in the middle of literally this God-abandoned place, praying for them, you know, 'please win,' even before the game when you pray.

"You're like 'You know tomorrow's the game, I know this is the worst time to ask for You to help United win but please do,' you know what I mean? There's 1,000 things to pray for but [United] make their way there. I can't explain it, you know?

"It became, you know, they became a reason to live, literally, they were the only thing I had for five days a week—like five horrible days a week—to look forward to. I just knew at the end of the week...sometimes they wouldn't put the United game on BBC sport, you'd get the scoreline at the end or you'd hear about it in the review or something. But it didn't matter.

"It was a spiritual thing for me. It kept me alive, I can't ever explain it, but it was one of the most important things for me."

Taseer has yet to make the trip to Old Trafford since his return home. He has plans to do so after he finishes the book he is currently writing about his ordeal. He has been passionate, funny and open throughout our conversation and never more so than when daydreaming about making that journey.

Old Trafford on matchday.
Old Trafford on matchday.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

"I have to go to Old Trafford. It's going to be so emotional for me, and the funny thing is no one knows about [my story], but I just want to go there. I just know when I go there and I breathe that moment in." He stops, clearly picturing himself there, imagining the moment. "It's unbelievable...we struggle together and it's unbelievable."

When he says "we," he means all of us. United fans, football fans, people. We struggle together, and football offers us some hope among the struggle. Shahbaz Taseer might just be the person to whom it has offered the most hope among some of the hardest imaginable struggles.

       

All quotations obtained firsthand.

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