The most trivial of sources taught me a valuable lesson

silhouette of a boy playing ball during sunset
Photo by manu mangalassery on

I sat in front of my television, early in the morning of May 25th, 2024, watching a football match being played halfway across the world in Gosford, Australia, a city I have never visited. It was the Grand Final, to determine the winner of the Australian A-League men’s professional football league, between the Central Coast Mariners and the Melbourne Victory. I had been looking forward to this match, but in its late moments, things were looking grim for the home side, my Mariners. They were losing 1-0 to the visiting Victory, and hope was dwindling.

The Container of My Youth

I should explain this odd, seemingly random fandom of mine. I grew up like most kids in the US. I was born in the 60s and raised in NJ, in the shadow of New York City. As such, I inherited the sports cultural dogma of my region. I was a fan of the New York Yankees, in baseball, and the New York Jets in (American) football. To a lesser extent, the Knicks and Rangers of basketball and hockey. I followed in the manner of my parents before me and blindly followed along.

These weren’t all bad memories. I look back kindly on the nights as a child when I lay in bed late at night and listened to the call of a Yankees game on the AM radio. Forty or so years later, when my father was in decline suffering from dementia in a nursing home in NJ, I listened to the call of baseball games on satellite radio while I drove 12 hours through the night to visit him on a weekend. I thought of those nights as a child then. I remember the Yankees winning the World Series a few times in the late 70s, and I remember how attached I was to the outcome. It meant a lot back then.

I taught my young son to support the New York Jets. In retrospect, it was a cruel bit of parenting. The Jets are one of the most woefully inept franchises in professional sports. In a league designed to encourage parity among its teams, it last played for and won a championship in 1969. Watching my son’s sadness was hard as the Jets blew a 10-0 halftime lead and lost the 1999 AFC Championship game.

My mother, who passed away 20 years ago, was an unhinged sports fan. If her football team lost a difficult game on a Sunday, she would be inconsolable for days. It was nearly impossible to have a conversation with her during those times. As a child, and a teenager, my siblings and I found it sort of funny. However, now it seems strange and a little sad that someone could let something as trivial as a football game have such an outsized and profound effect on their well-being. I am unsure what was underneath that phenomenon, no one will ever know now. All I knew was that I did not want to follow in those footsteps.

This strange intruder allowed chaos into my life. Why? I did not invite it. This connection, and this loyalty no longer made sense. I began to perceive it as it was, a strange one-sided relationship with an entity that did not know I existed. I couldn’t rationalize investing my limited time and emotional energy in it anymore. It was never a choice I made in the first place.

Separating Myself From The Herd

I wake up early. My favorite time of day is the dark quiet time of morning, before anyone else is awake. On weekdays, I went straight to my work email. But on weekends, I sat in the family room and scrolled through the channels on cable TV. I quickly realized that the only thing interesting to watch on an early Saturday or Sunday morning was English Premier League football. Like many American kids, I grew up playing soccer, then largely forgetting about it as an adult. But then, in my forties, I was alone on the sofa watching football matches from London and Liverpool, and strange and unfamiliar places like Burnley and Brighton.

At first, it was primarily timing that appealed to me. Weekends were still busy back then with chores, errands, and places to take the kids to. However, I could watch a few hours of English football early in the morning without it getting in the way. There was no interest or ability to allocate four hours out of the middle of a weekend day to sit in front of a television. Besides the schedule, English football was interesting, new, foreign, and different. Instead of being rewarded with the best draft picks, the worst teams were thrown out of the league every year. There was no draft anyway. The marketplace for football players was global, the best players go to the highest bidders in any league or country, whether they were under contract or not. It is Capitalism run amok. And no playoffs. The team that finishes first at the end of the regular season wins. Imagine that.

I started sharing my newfound interest in English football with friends and family. Generally, there was little interest. Most conversations turned to the fact that I hadn’t seen some game that everyone was talking about. I was gradually separating myself from the herd.

The final day of the 2011-2012 Premier League season saw Manchester City tied on points with Manchester United, with City ahead based on goal differential. United defeated Sunderland in a match that finished a few minutes earlier than City’s, who also needed to win to claim their first league title in 44 years. However, at that moment, they were quite improbably losing 2-1 to a Queens Park Rangers side battling to avoid relegation and reduced to 10 men after a hilarious Joey Barton red card. Needing two goals and with only a few minutes of injury time remaining, City scored from a corner and then again on the last kick of the game to claim the title. It was and still is the most incredible and exciting thing I have ever witnessed in sports.

That game sealed it for me. I was a football fan, albeit a casual one. I lost the last little bit of attachment to part of my past, my culture. I cannot remember the last Super Bowl I watched, and I have no idea who played in or won the most recent one. This has not distanced me from people, though it has taken away something to talk about. Of course, it is something trivial and silly. Ideally, it would have made space for more important conversations.

I don’t feel like I have done anything strange or unusual. I was brought up in one container, but now that I am older, I am breaking out of that container to discover and enjoy something new.

When You Change You Make People Around You Uncomfortable

When I explained this transformation to people not particularly close to me, for example, work colleagues the reaction was odd. I sat at dinner one night and explained that I used to be a baseball and football fan and now I am not anymore. I wasn’t expecting a reaction. This might have been a symptom of conversing with stupid men, but no one could understand how I could do such a thing. People looked at me like I had arrived from another planet.

I decided to push on this strange aversion that people had to my desire for the freedom to choose. I wanted to see how far it could go.

So I changed directions, I told them I’d go back and watch American football like they did, but I needed to shop around, and find a new team to support. The one I grew up with, the New York Jets, was no good. I wanted a new team. This resulted in an even stronger reaction. The only reason I could garner from any of them was that I was supposed to be “loyal” and not “allowed” to do such a thing. I took this as a challenge.

I found this reaction strangely fascinating. This certainly was not a question of my “loyalty” being questioned. If I had told them I was leaving my wife of many years to go shack up with a 30-year-old, that news would have been met with high fives, “attaboys” and eager questions regarding the young woman’s appearance. I could have changed anything about myself, my job, religion, or political affiliation, but none of it would have garnered the reaction I observed. I left that job a few years after these conversations occurred.

When I dared to grow and change, it made people uncomfortable. I cannot explain why that is. Perhaps it is my willingness to discard something they hold dear to themselves. However, I do know it is something they are carrying around, not me.

Where My Odd Journey Has Taken Me

All of which brings me to my sleep problem, and the spectacle of Australian A-League football.

Over the last few years, my “waking up early” has morphed into “Segmented Sleep“. I wake up in the middle of the night, and for a few hours, I am wide awake, until I eventually fall back asleep. In hopes of finding something innocuous and boring to put me to sleep, in the middle of a dark winter night, I stumbled on a live broadcast of a football (i.e. soccer, not to be confused with Australian Rules Football, a very different game) match from Australia.

It served its purpose. It wasn’t particularly engaging, there were no commercials, and it helped me fall asleep. However, I grew to look forward to my nightly Aussie soccer match. The English Premier League, much like the other large European football competitions, is largely an exercise in runaway capitalism. It is a game ruled by money and excess and I grew increasingly weary of it.

On the other hand, the Australian version was smaller. There were no multimillionaire players or billionaire oligarch owners. Matches were held in front of smaller crowds. Though reduced in scale, the games were as competitive as any I had seen. Gradually the Aussie version became my priority.

The scope of the Australian league is small enough that there is no promotion or relegation. The team that finishes in last place is somewhat sarcastically awarded “The Wooden Spoon”. During the years I was watching, that honor regularly went to the Central Coast Mariners.

In a league of small budgets, the Mariners may be the smallest of all. Gosford, a city dwarfed by nearby Sydney in terms of size and resources, is where they play. Though small and struggling, the team always played hard. They were endearing, I admired their resolve in the face of adversity.

The last few years have been better for the Mariners, they upset Melbourne City in last year’s final to claim their first league title in 10 years. And on Saturday at 5:45 AM US Eastern time, they played in another championship final.

Behind 1-0, as the 90 minutes expired and the match went to injury time, they scored a desperate late goal to tie and send the match to extra time. They proceeded to score twice in extra time to secure the victory and the title. I had goosebumps watching the trophy celebration, for the second year running.

It did not matter to me that I was alone in enjoying this moment. There were no text messages, no banter. It was a moment I found and enjoyed on my own. I don’t need anyone to understand my strange addiction to Australian middle-of-the-night soccer. It exists for me alone. I am glad I charted my course and found it.

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