Remembering What Draws You In

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Astead Herndon, who follows politics for The Times and Tottenham Hotspur because he just can’t help himself, is filling in for Rory Smith this week.

Let’s start with the bad: Tottenham Hotspur has not won a trophy in the 13 years I have watched nearly every one of its matches.

It did not win one while I was in high school in Illinois, where I settled on my Tottenham fandom after selecting the club at random in the FIFA video game. It did not win one while I was in college, when I was a regular at early-morning gatherings of the first Tottenham Hotspur Supporter’s Club in Wisconsin.

The early years of Mauricio Pochettino happened when I lived in Boston. Back then, I would sneak away from my desk at city hall to watch matches at a downtown pub. No trophy.

In Washington D.C., the next place I lived, I watched two Champions League runs. In New York I once swore off a bar that serves particularly excellent nachos for a full year simply because it was the place where I watched the 2019 Champions League final. No trophy.

Let’s not talk about the José Mourinho era at all.

Thirteen years of supporting Tottenham, by American millennial standards, makes me something of Spurs sage. (The day Tottenham sold Gareth Bale, I drank away my feelings at a bar in Wisconsin. A well-meaning friend texted, “Sorry about Gary.”) In the beginning, I had an elaborate system of absolutely illegal streams. Then the NBC Premier League deal brought my team to me every weekend. Now I can stream its games right on my phone.

My 13 years don’t make me special, of course, more deserving of sporting triumph that fans who have waited far longer than I have. I could have just as easily have picked West Ham or Newcastle or Manchester United or (shudder) Arsenal off that FIFA console. Every fan’s pain (and joy) is their own.

But those 13 years have seen the sport change itself, influenced by a global landscape that has undergone rapid political and cultural upheaval. There is no denying: the influx of money has changed soccer, probably forever. And while millions of soccer fans, including myself, decried the idea of the world’s wealthiest teams joining in a Super League, the sport’s most powerful bodies seem hellbent on imminent, structural change.

The specter of that kind of systemic disruption sometimes feels like a reversal of what first drew me — and probably you — to the game. I grew up watching American sports, where the fan is assumed to be powerless. Your team could move across the country in search of a better stadium, or better tax laws. Rivalries in college sports — but also in baseball, football and hockey — were routinely upended by conference realignments driven by the pursuit of rich television contracts.

In soccer, though, structures felt sacred. Tottenham, for example, is still mad at Arsenal for a move the latter made more than a century ago. But most of all, there was a language of fan ownership in soccer that I enjoyed. We are Spurs. There was a supporter’s trust. It rejected the way American sports — and specifically the N.F.L. — seemed to bother me the most. There, I thought, fans didn’t matter.

The Super League announcement reminded me of that feeling. It was not only what the team’s were proposing, but the flagrant nature of it all. A group of rich clubs secretly plotting to disrupt a global game, willing to sever century-old traditions and alter generational rivalries, and do it all without a bit of fan input. Soccer clubs, after all — big ones or small ones and especially bad ones — don’t get to pack up their gear and run away from their fans when things go bad.

Still, with the benefit of maturity, I now realize that I always saw soccer through rose-colored glasses. The wealth inequality that has grown in recent years was already present 13 years ago. There was, I’m sure, also some desire to be a hipster in a land of Midwestern, “American football” fans. Spurs are also firmly among the world’s richest teams, even if they are well behind some of their rivals.

But isn’t soccer fandom different? That’s what the Super League owners underestimated: The sense among fans that the club is equally their own, and that their support still must be earned. For a decade, fans of my other team, the Chicago Bulls, complained about post-Michael Jordan management decisions (thankfully it’s better now). Tottenham supporters tried to stage a protest over the January transfer window. Every club has its crises, its test of its fans commitment — some more existential than others.

As a fan, I think I’ve accepted that 13 years from now, soccer will look different. I will not be surprised if we see a zombie Super League, or a biennial World Cup that no one outside FIFA seems to want. There will be more reminders of our collective smallness as fans. More protests, too.

But margins matter. And while the Super League announcement felt familiar to my experience in American sports, the reaction to it was not.

So let’s end with the good.

For 13 years, across new schools and new cities, new jobs and the campaign trail, the cadence of Tottenham has been a comforting structure. Even the disappointments feel good, sometimes, a reminder that while I don’t support the world’s best team, I do support the world’s funniest.

I like to think there’s an open pessimism to soccer fandom. Only a few teams have a shot at the title every year, and there are no coming draft picks to save you. At Spurs, the pessimism is a feature, not a bug. It is a bonding point among the supporters.

In a way, that culture helps distill fandom down to its irrational essence. There is no guarantee Spurs will ever win a trophy I can cheer, no assurance that my team — your team, any team — will always be closer to the top than the bottom. The gap is growing between the club and its rivals; even Newcastle United has money now.

But for the next 13 years, and the 13 after that, I’m willing watch nearly every Tottenham match, just on the off chance that the facts as I’ve come to know them are wrong.


That’s all for this week, and Rory will be back soon. For now, get in touch at [email protected] with any hints, tips, complaints or ideas. Twitter works for finding him sometimes, too.

Have a great weekend.

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