It's 3:20am in Pakistan and I'm filled with a sense of depression that is unmistakable and familiar.
Everything feels bleak in the darkness of our bedroom, and a mental exhaustion slowly starts to build. It's not just that it's Ramazan and I'm having to wake up at an abysmal hour for my pre-dawn meal, but the uneasiness of my mood stems from something more; the knowledge that the worst has happened. I should be used to it by now, but even after 29 years it's impossible to emotionally detach myself from the constant pain that comes with being a supporter of the English football club, Tottenham Hotspur.
The gaping holes of sadness that are visible across my silhouetted profile began to form almost two hours earlier at the 50-minute mark of the second leg of the Champions League semi-final match between Ajax Amsterdam and Tottenham. Spurs were losing 3-0 on aggregate, and with only 40 minutes of the game left, I wasn’t going to stick around and let the falsest of hopes crush me any further.
This was Tottenham after all, a club so accustomed to messing things up that a shorthand term — Spursy — has been named after them to describe inevitable failure. Good things didn't happen to us. Plus, we had used up at least 10 years worth of luck in the quarter-final, as we scraped past English champions, Manchester City, thanks to two controversial Video Assistant Referee decisions, the second one in the very last minute of the game
It wasn’t just the despair though that was keeping me from watching; the other miracle I needed on the night was for the rather dubious stream I was using to tune into the match to find some sort of impetus again. When the majority of your sports viewing is reliant on dodgy websites and a tenuous internet connection, you develop a feel for the reliability of these things, and I knew that the technology was going to fail me. The only other option was to anxiously stare at The Guardian’s minute-by-minute updates which were taking an age to come through and merely adding slow punctuations to the heartache. Catching some sleep was probably the best thing to do.
As my eyes begin to adjust themselves in the night-time dark, I reach out to my side-table to grab my phone, but it's missing. When I get to the lounge, the phone's on the TV console and the first thing I see is a WhatsApp message that simply reads 'wow'. There are a host of other notifications and I prepare to run myself through the usual checklist after a terrible defeat: face the mockery and misplaced sympathy of friends and acquaintances, regret ever having supported Spurs and question why so much of my core sense of self is entangled with a football club that has always brought me despair.
Before I can do anything else, my wife runs over to me and snatches the phone from my hand. She tells me that I'm not allowed to go online until a Liverpool supporting cousin of mine has called me up. He was able to deduce from my Twitter feed and WhatsApp status that I stopped watching the game before it finished and wants to be the first to break the news to me. This is taking the banter a little too far I think to myself, but my wife’s giddiness tells me that something else is going on. It couldn’t be, it just couldn’t. There was no way that the result was anything other than a loss for Spurs.
And yet maybe it was. Maybe the miracle we needed had happened. I grab the phone back and open The Guardian website as quickly as I can and there screaming on the top of the page is a headline bearing the most gloriously absurd news I have ever seen: Tottenham won the match 3-2 thanks to a Lucas Moura hat-trick and will for the first time in their history be playing in the Champions League final.
Stunned and overwhelmed, I cover my face with my hands as a silent cry of happiness reaches out from the pit of stomach and flows through the rest of my body. It's impossible to react to the moment with anything but stillness, and I just sit in silence trying to take it all in. All the dejection of a few minutes ago has turned to jubilation thanks to three spectacular swings of Moura’s left leg, and even though I wasn’t awake to see it, it's still one of the best moments of my life.
The thing with football, or any sport for that matter, is how deeply personal the experience is. It's a medium for love, grief, loss, happiness, joy — and for me, measuring the emotional distances that come from living abroad.
When I first moved to Pakistan, it was complicated. I was coming to live in the country that my parents had unwillingly left behind to start a new life for themselves in England. Pakistan was the place where the gentle brown of my skin came from, the land which gave spice and obscure smells to the food I ate and strange inflections to my name; it was the origins of my tangled multiculturalism.
However, this was not a homecoming. I had never properly lived here before and was driven back more for reasons of work than emotional belonging. I knew the language and culture, but was a stranger to their nuance and deeper significances.
At times I was too Pakistani and, at others, the Pakistani side of my identity was taken away and downgraded by the scorn of local custom. Even with all the echoes of familiarity and nostalgia, Pakistan was foreign to me and my presence within it was indefinable and insecure.
In the early years, my sense of separation from home was made more acute by the fact that the boundless connective tissue of the internet hadn’t quite established itself in the small corner of the country I was living in. It was present in the form of shady internet cafés that were best avoided and a fraught dial-up network which you needed to access with pre-paid scratch cards that failed more often than they worked.
Instead, it was football that came to my rescue and helped mitigate my aloneness through the multitude of live games shown on cable TV. Our local provider carried ESPN and Star Sports from India as well as the South African network Super Sports. On any given weekend you could watch at least four or five live matches, including Saturday 3pm kick-offs, which were banned from being shown back in England.
But there was a broader picture even beyond the dramatic theatre that played out on the pitch. The matches I watched weren’t just about the sporting spectacle. They allowed me to forge a little space of solitude where I could be myself and flex the boundaries of my distinctiveness amidst the multitude of amalgamations that swirled around my new life. Football provided me with a spiritual language that helped me navigate a route back to a true sense of who I was and showed me that living in isolation could also be a collective experience.
Watching the sport from afar also did something else: it made me fall in love with Tottenham again. For several years before I moved to Pakistan, football had taken a backseat to university, summer jobs, new friends and a growing discovery of the world around me. I always kept in touch with the scores but that deeper connection to the fortunes of the club was no longer there.
It didn’t help that in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Spurs were absolutely woeful and I found it difficult to muster the energy to devote myself to them as I once did. A series of teams comprised of players like Milenko Acimovic, Mbulelo Mabizela and Gary Doherty weren’t exactly ones to set the pulse racing.
Things were different now though. Not only had football regained a central importance in my life, but for the first time in my living memory, Tottenham were a fairly decent team even if the Spursiness hadn’t completely gone away. I watched in anguish as we threw away fourth place on the last day of the 2005-2006 season because half the team were missing after being struck by food poisoning from a suspect lasagna, yet took solace in the fact that we had reached the last game of the season with something still to play for. The following year, Tottenham raced into a 3-1 lead over Chelsea in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup only to fail to hold onto the lead. But despite the continued failures, things were improving and following Spurs had become a much more exciting experience.
In 2008, Tottenham reached the League Cup final. It was the one competition none of the channels available to me had the rights to show. I kept up-to-date with the match on the BBC World News ticker tape. The sports updates were slow to come and when they did, they didn't always carry news of the game.
I learned of Chelsea taking the lead through Didier Drogba during a special news segment on Cuba following the retirement of Fidel Castro as the country’s president. When Tottenham equalised, Pakistan was making news of itself after its sensors caused the world’s internet to lose access to YouTube for several hours. There was also something about the Ugandan government negotiating a ceasefire and lots of previews of the Oscar’s ceremony which was to take place later in the evening.
But World War III could've been breaking out at that moment and it would've mattered less to me than the result of the cup final. By the time the match entered extra-time, my wife and I were taking turns to keep updated with the news. It was on her watch that Tottenham equalised and we were both glued to the TV when the ticker tape finally showed that Spurs had won. I greeted the news by offering a small prostration of joy on our rug, while she looked on bewildered by the person she had chosen to marry.
Shortly after the cup final victory, Tottenham reverted to type and went back to being awful, but a swift turnaround meant that, just two years later, they had their best chance to qualify again for their first-ever Champions League campaign since the lasagna-gate debacle. Spurs needed a victory against their closest rivals Manchester City to guarantee fourth place in the league and earn the final coveted place in Europe’s premier club competition.
It was a midweek evening kick-off which meant that the match didn't start for me until 11:45pm. The first half was frantic and fast-paced but it didn’t produce any goals, while the second saw Manchester City mainly dominate proceedings as Spurs defended resolutely. With eight minutes to go the breakthrough came with a Peter Crouch header which gave Tottenham the lead against the run of play.
I was too weak-willed to watch the final stages of the match on my own, nor did I want to experience this potential once-in-a-lifetime joy alone — so in the middle of the night I woke up my wife and two young kids and made them watch with me. They came to my side without complaint, my seven-month-old daughter sitting in my lap and bouncing around to my movements as I kicked every ball with the players on the field. When the final whistle blew, I hugged all three of them, and even though they didn’t quite understand the significance or care as much about what had just taken place, I never felt us to be more together.
There is a long history of such moments; of watching games late at night knowing that I’ll suffer for it the next morning, of finding ways to navigate through power outages to keep up-to-date with the scores and of fixing plans and schedules so that nothing conflicts with the timing of a match — like they did on my wedding day when I found myself pinballing between greeting guests and my other duties as a groom and the TV which was showing Tottenham achieve their first league victory over Chelsea in more than two decades.
Recently the challenges have only gotten harder. Several years ago, Pakistan banned all television and radio content from India as the notoriously fragile relations between the neighbours soured further. Following a brief respite, the ban was reinstated by the Supreme Court and has been in place ever since.
Whatever other geo-political ramifications the unravelling of these diplomatic ties have had, one of the secondary consequences is that there was no longer a way to watch live Premier League games directly on TV, meaning more often than not half my time is now spent searching for a dependable stream, or following matches through the excruciating volatility of Twitter or WhatsApp messages
In truth, even when I was in England, my journey as a Tottenham supporter was experienced from a remove, though the distance was not one that was formed by geography. It was Gary Linekar who planted the seeds for this unlikely love affair. His performances at the 1990 World, particularly the two penalties he scored against Cameroon in the quarter-finals, made him my favourite player of a sport that, through him, was about to become irretrievably entangled with my life. Without a paternal influence to guide my allegiances or any kind of broader knowledge of the game, I attached myself to Tottenham, the club he played for at the time.
Being an Asian Tottenham supporter bore a strangeness that separated me from others of my ethnic background. As the children of immigrants, most of the people in my early social circles were doing everything to prove that they fitted in and to latch onto a sense of positivity and success wherever they could find it.
Not only did this mean that almost everyone I knew my age was a football fan, but they followed teams like Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United to give themselves a sense of cool and ease their aspirational anxieties. Clubs like Tottenham were not the ones we were supposed to like, and when you did, it made you culturally out of place. But for me, none of that mattered. Supporting Spurs was simply an opportunity to follow a team unencumbered by social pressures or the conflicts of identity.
Op-ed: Faith in the World Cup
Most of us, however, did share something in common: we didn't fit into the traditional template of what it meant to be a fan. For the greater part, few people in our families liked the sport or recognised this side of our identity. There was never any question of going to matches, or spending small fortunes on a replica shirt or any kind of footballing memorabilia. Even the idea of getting a subscription to Sky Sports laid within the realms of the unthinkable.
When Tottenham won the FA Cup in 1991 at the end of my first season as a supporter, it was one of the few live Spurs games I had ever had access to. I watched the match alone on the downstairs TV and celebrated the victory by microwaving a couple of frozen supermarket burgers for myself. The rest of the time, I would content myself with watching highlights on Match of the Day if the TV happened to be free or connecting myself to football by spending hours pouring through old almanacs and yearbooks so that I had a sense of belonging with the sport and team I loved and felt less alone with in my otherness.
As much as I would love to be in Madrid on Saturday night cheering Spurs on in our first Champions League final, this would require one miracle too far. For now, the plan is to order pizza, get together with some friends and watch the game on a TV a couple of thousand miles from where the action will be taking place.
It’s a little heartbreaking to be so far away, but whatever happens, whether Tottenham win or lose, the story of the night will be my own, and I will be the only one able to tell it. And that’s fine by me. After all, love should always be this personal.
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Usman Ahmad is a British freelance writer and photographer based in Pakistan. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Vice and Saveur as well as various other publications. Find him on Twitter @usmanahmad_iam and on Instagram @usmanahmad.iam.
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