When one isn’t born to a sports team fandom, the question of what, exactly, you are supporting becomes somewhat vague. No matter how little attention I paid, I never felt strange declaring myself a fan of any of my local sports teams. However patchily I followed basketball or baseball, regional loyalty seemed like justification enough for calling myself, however casually, a fan.
But as I decided to dip my toes into the following the Premier League and wanted to choose a team, I found myself strangely conflicted about how to make it, and what that choice meant. If the heart of one’s support is not native loyalty your local team, then what is it? A set of players who will get sold or demand transfers or retire? A manager who will probably move on in a few years’ time? Success that may fade, or a playing style that may change? That ephemeral and mystical power, The Shirt?
This line of questioning was probably why I found it hard to feel like a “real” fan of my chosen Premier League team. I’m not English. I was living in London, but I was in the wrong neighborhood for the team I’d chosen; the pubs near my flat were more likely to play Manchester United or Liverpool matches than the London team I was supporting. I’d watched several World Cups attentively, but was still an apprentice football-watcher, and I knew nothing about the Premier League. I didn’t know what to expect going into any given match, hardly knew what to look for or hope for (besides winning, of course). I felt like an impostor fan. I kept my football watching quiet and didn’t declare my allegiance, nervous about being called a fraud.
My confidence was not improved by the fact that it had taken me quite some time to settle on a club. I knew I wanted a London team, since that was where I’d be living, and I wanted a team that was … actually in the Premier League, which quickly ruled out my dad’s English friend’s suggestion of Fulham. A guy I’d dated while studying abroad in college had once suggested I adopt his boyhood team, Arsenal. To go by geography, I probably should have been supporting Crystal Palace. But part of my embarrassment stemmed from the fact that I didn’t even have any of these vague but at least explicable reasons: I’d chosen a team almost at random.
I chose Tottenham Hotspur.
Alright, it wasn’t random, but none of the reasons I could articulate felt like the reason. It was like little puzzle pieces that couldn’t quite make a whole: I’m Jewish. I love their Shakespearean namesake. It felt like cheating to choose a team that won all the time. I thought it was funny that they sold bagels at their stadium. I can’t pinpoint the moment I officially decided to support Tottenham Hotspur. But I can tell you how I started to feel like a fan. And it wasn’t to do with living in London, and obviously (unfortunately) it wasn’t to do with decades of table-topping success. For me, my Spurs fandom will always be inextricably linked to a player: Harry Kane.
Last season, as Harry Kane waded through a scoring drought and suffered accusations that he was a one-season wonder, a friend I’d recently lured into supporting Spurs asked me why on earth I loved him so much. And I completely failed to describe how watching him emerge had felt.
Written or spoken, it sounds a parody of an inspirational sports movie: a young homegrown player coming off a series of failed loan spells, not expected to amount to much; the emergence in non-league games and the odd showing as a substitute; gaining a starting spot in the league and rising to bigger and bigger occasions; winning player awards and breaking club scoring records; being called up to the national team and scoring on his first appearance. Plus, he’s good. When he runs, he looks like he’s about to trip over and he never seems to shut his mouth, but the boy can score a goal.
Maybe Jamie Vardy has one-upped his story in the eyes of the world, but for me, nothing can compare. The story of Leicester was so improbable, the team so unheralded, it was easy for neutrals to jump on board; by having happened to choose Spurs just in time for the rise of Harry Kane, I felt like I had been let in on a special secret. However arbitrary my choice had been, it seemed like the universe was affirming it.
I still have the picture saved on my phone, a snap of the back page of some free daily tabloid that I found discarded on a table in a café. WHITE HEART KANE is the headline (get it?), set next to a picture of Kane pumping his fist in triumph, having scored the winning goal against Arsenal in their second season meeting in early February. It seems to me that there is an edge of disbelief in his expression; like he might well start to cry. I remember grinning giddily at that newspaper as I waited in line. I wanted to hold it up and show people. I’m part of this. This is my team.
(I settled for taking a picture.)
As the Premier League grows increasingly eager to court large and lucrative foreign markets, for some, foreign fans have become a symbol for all that is to be despised in so-called “modern football”: superficial, disconnected, and of course, unEnglish. Sniffed at by sports figures from all sides, yet endlessly courted by marketing departments, it’s no wonder that some find it hard to shake the sense that their fan bona fides will always be suspect – or translate that anxiety into declining to declare any allegiance at all. I can well imagine the upturned noses at the knowledge that I’ve found my team so recently, or jumped on the Kane bandwagon. But I’ve also learned not to care.
I’ve learned that I’m allowed to take my time to learn how to watch a match with a tactical rather than an emotional eye; that it’s okay that I once had to frantically Google Ledley King or Dave Mackay. I’ll never have grown up in North London. I’ll only have seen White Hart Lane once before it’s gone. But when I got swept up in Harry Kane’s story, it was right alongside everyone else. I had no less knowledge than an old Londoner about what was going to happen next, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t enjoy it any less, either.
I’m still not sure what we love when we love a team that’s far away. I’m not even really sure what we love when it’s a team in our own backyard. But there is love. And there’s joy, and frustration, and being so mortifyingly embarrassed by the ninety minutes you’ve just witnessed that you think you’ll maybe have to move to avoid encountering any friends who support Arsenal. And of course, for me – what helped me realize all of this – there’s Harry Kane.