Government Center is a long way from White Hart Lane soccer pitch in north London. Yet on a Wednesday afternoon at the Kinsale pub and restaurant, too late for lunch, not yet the cocktail hour, about 10 men sit at the bar or at tables staring up at televisions broadcasting a Premier League match between Swansea City and their team — Tottenham Hotspur.
The men almost all wore a jersey, sweater, scarf or some other element of Tottenham kit. When it comes to moving merchandise to fans, the NFL has nothing on European soccer teams.
They were members of Boston Spurs, Tottenham’s official Boston fan club. On that one morning, an observer picks up a few Boston accents from those fans, but no English ones. At halftime, only one Spurs fan went out for a smoke, another tell.
“Oh, less than 10 percent of our members are expatriates,’’ said Ryan Hayman, President of the club. Hayman isn’t. At 34, he’s a current Bostonian, an administrator at MIT and a lifelong resident of Eastern Massachusetts. Like most Americans over 20 and almost all his fellow club members, he didn’t grow up rooting for any soccer team.
“I first became interested in the sport in high school,’’ Hayman said, “I had friends who were on the soccer team and that got to me start watching. In the late ‘90s, I was a casual fan of the Premier League, but only the top teams like Manchester United. Then in 2006 I went to Dublin to visit friends and got caught up in Spurs.’’
It’s easy to see why Hayman or anyone else might become a devout soccer fan. The game has an undeniable aesthetic appeal of constant motion. It has an even more appealing simplicity.
Once the offsides rule is mastered, following the game is a snap. There are almost no statistics to clutter up the experience. And above all, no breaks in play for TV timeouts.
“I almost can’t watch American football anymore,’’ said Hayman. “All those commercials.’’
It’s more difficult to see how Hayman and the other Boston Spurs chose to give their hearts to Tottenham. It’s a team that hasn’t been atop the English soccer heap since the swinging London days of 1960s Austin Powers. In the viciously stratified economics of European soccer, where the biggest, most successful clubs get shares of the sport’s revenue streams that insure they’ll stay that way, Tottenham is neither a perennial power nor perennial underdog always on the brink of relegation to England’s lower leagues (Relegation, in which the teams at the bottom of the standings are demoted to the minors, is the harshest means through which the sport’s class structure is preserved). Spurs are a member of soccer’s striving middle class.
The replica jersey Hayman wore to the game was a lesson in soccernomics. It bore the name Bale, for Gareth Bale, who became a young superstar midfielder for Spurs from 2007-2013, twice named Premier League Player of the Year. Bale left the Spurs that year. He wanted membership in the sport’s upper class, so Tottenham sold him to Real Madrid, the ultimate overdog, for over $100 million.
Soccer fans are different. It’s doubtful there will be too many No. 24 “Revis’’ jerseys worn to Gillette Stadium next winter.
Hayman and Boston Spurs accept their team’s place in the soccer universe without malice, although of course like fans of any underdog they dream of better days.
“They’re finally on track to build the new stadium,’’ Hayman said of Spurs, who will replace venerable and none too appealing White Hart Lane by 2019. “With 60,000 seats instead of 30,000, they’ll be better able to get and keep players who’ll let us contend for the Champions League (a tournament for the teams with the best records in their respective European countries and a cash cow of blue-ribbon dimensions).’’
Asked what drew him to Spurs in the first place, Hayman was vague. “I went to visit friends in Dublin in 2006,’’ he said. “I was attracted to the way they played the game, the pace and style.’’
Maybe so. But mere aesthetics doesn’t explain why when Hayman returned to the States he began seeking out other Spurs fans, took an active role, then a leadership role in organizing Boston Spurs, and why he convinced the Kinsale to allow the club to establish the pub as its hangout bar, the most essential piece of equipment for any soccer team’s exile fan clubs.
Most of all they don’t explain why Boston Spurs has grown exponentially in the past few years.
“We have over 500 members now,’’ Hayman said. “For the Chelsea game (a Tottenham loss in the finals of the League Cup, one of English soccer’s two main tournaments), we filled up the bar, this alcove of the restaurant and the new space they’ve added where they have music. The Kinsale had to call staff on their days off to come in and help.’’
The League Cup final began at 10 a.m. EST on a Sunday.
Boston Spurs is now a fan club certified by Tottenham Hotspur itself (It’s Europe, there’s going vto be bureaucracy involved.). As such, some 30 members will take a road trip to their home later this month.
“We’ll get a guided tour of the Lane as well,’’ Hayman said.
It should be noted that Spurs are hardly the only Premier League team with a Boston fan club. The upper class clubs such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea all have them, as do other middle class strivers such as Everton. In a tentative way, a bit handicapped by the ancient English hatreds they’ve all inherited from their new teams, these clubs are beginning to seek each other out and cooperate.
“There’s talk of staging a charity soccer tournament between the clubs,’’ Hayman said. That’ll either foster closer ties or total war, I suspect.The spread of European soccer in the U.S., from weekly broadcasts of Premier League games by NBC and its cable sports network down to the small part that is Boston Spurs is more proof that the American appetite for sports is insatiable, even early on a Sunday morning.
The story of Boston Spurs itself is a subtler phenomenon, one closer to the mystery of what creates that appetite in the first place. Sports are fun. Sports are more fun when you have a team to root for. Rooting is more fun when done with other fans. Everyone understands all that.
But how do we pick which teams to root for, which team to give us occasional joy and more frequent heartbreak? We don’t ask this question because it never comes up. Fandom is inherited. I grew up near Philadelphia. Haven’t lived there in 45 years, but the Phillies are still my baseball team and always will be.
Hayman and all the other members of Boston Spurs did have a choice. They gave their hearts not to a consistent winner, but to a semi-underdog with hopes of better days. That came from within themselves. It was the purest form of being a fan as a means of self-expression.
Then again, that might be too high-falutin’ an explanation by many miles. Spurs beat Swansea 3-2 in a real barnburner. Those Boston Spurs in attendance went home happy.
Maybe Boston Spurs is a story with a simpler moral. Maybe it doesn’t matter which home team a fan has — as long as he or she has one.