Purity goes out the window once you put a corporate logo on the shirt, or maybe once there’s any money in playing at all, but in a world where the transfer fee and salary zeroes accumulate like a sea of eyes and Real Madrid bring Marco Asensio off the bench, Tottenham seem, if only as a counterpoint, like a dose of profound sanity.
Taste has blurry demarcations, and the shape of yours depends on where you’re standing, but you would have to quite a bitter so-and-so or a Gooner to begrudge Spurs the success they’ve had over the past few seasons. Under Mauricio Pochettino, they’ve lived in that blessed sliver of the sport’s upper-middle class where they’re just rich enough to compete with Chelsea and Manchesters (United and City) on the pitch without being able to touch them in the talent acquisition marketplace. Though domestic and European titles aren’t easy for anyone to attain, no matter who they’re paying and how much, there are difficulty settings to this thing and, imagined or not, more and less virtuous ways of getting to where everyone’s trying to go. Tottenham are as virtuous as borderline billion-dollar enterprises get.
Which also means there’s a precariousness to their project, a sense beneath whatever typical August optimism abounds, that they’re a couple poorly timed injuries or flukey losses away from ruin. (Or seventh place, anyway.) There’s growing concern among the—erm, Wembley?—faithful, as the season approaches, that Daniel Levy once again hasn’t gone in for any of the depth they’ll need to make noise in the Champions League while also tussling with England’s better-funded powers. They might play their first competitive match of the season with Eric Dier or Moussa Sissoko starting as an emergency right back. Danny Rose is likely to miss the next month or so. Erik Lamela is out until October or November. There’s not much on the bench to fill in for Christian Eriksen or Dele Alli or Toby Alderweireld over the course of what could be a sixty-fixture year.
Some of this can be attributed to Levy’s deliberateness—the guy tends to insist upon just the right player at just the right price as opposed to a good one at something like market value—but it’s also the fact that Tottenham lack the wealth to spackle every crack in their squad. If you talk to a Cule in June and ask them what they think their club will be up to over the transfer window, you might be surprised when an arm-length scroll of needs tumbles out of their mouth. Well, we gotta get a right back, a backup center back, another striker, a couple creative midfielders… The point being no one’s ever completely happy with their favorite club’s roster, but some folks’ rooting interests spoil them enough to make them believe a perfect one is possible.
Spurs fans don’t suffer that delusion, but they’re also not Stoke or Espanyol supporters. They have ambition—or rather, the team has ambition, and the fans have anxiety, but it’s precisely the kind of anxiety we come to sports for, so it’s a good thing on balance. I would argue this is the most satisfying fandom—as always, your mileage may vary—perhaps because in our lives, most of us would like to think of ourselves as Tottenham-like: facing long but not insurmountable odds and capable, maybe on a day when everything goes right, of triumph. In reality, most of us are more like Stoke or Espanyol (or Millwall), but sports are a playspace and it doesn’t hurt anyone to overestimate ourselves here.
There’s this genre of writing on the internet that you may not have consciously labelled in your mind but with which you’re definitely familiar, because encountering it is crushingly depressive. I call it Inspiration-core. It’s the story of Jessica, a single mother of two who works at three fast food behemoths to make ends meet for her two kids. It’s Martell, who teaches earth science to high schoolers, spends weekends Ubering and Lyfting people around, and picks up every odd roofing and painting job he can over the summer to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment. These are meant, by the brands and Disneyfied reality peddlers who disseminate them, to function as parables that glorify the human spirit, which they sort of are, but they’re too material to be anything other than primarily horrifying illustrations of the precariousness of some people’s lives under late capitalism. As a movie or a novel, they might be uplifting, but as descriptions of actual hardship, they merely make the audience feel gross and sad.
Here’s yet another way we know sports are great: they’re the direct inverse of Inspiration-core. Rather than fiction made suddenly ickily significant, they are nonfiction rendered exactly as meaningless or meaningful as we need them to be in a given moment. Games indisputably happen, but it’s up to you how much they matter. This variable level of consequentiality is what makes staring down probability itself fun in a way it isn’t in sports in a way it decidedly isn’t in real life. If we’re Spurs fans, we get to imagine what it would be like to rise above our station, and if the team come up short, nothing important has changed. Maybe we’re bummed out for an afternoon. That’s less than a lot of distractions cost. It’s a worthy investment.