What would you do with 25 hours of your life back, every single week? I wondered this after England lost in the men’s World Cup quarter-final in December last year. Through the fug of a festive hangover, memories of the previous evening flooded back: namely me, crying in the middle of a Christmas party, after Harry Kane skied an 84th-minute penalty against France.
Prior to this game, my football consumption had been spiralling out of control. Whether I was watching a match, reading about it, listening to podcasts, tinkering with my fantasy league team or endlessly WhatsApp chatting, some fag-packet maths revealed I spent roughly 25 hours a week preoccupied by football.
Football wasn’t always my primary focus – for example, when listening to podcasts while walking my dog. But it was still a lot. A full Earth rotation. On top of this, my almost 35 years as a Tottenham Hotspur and England fan – both perennial nearly teams – had left me with a sense that the beautiful game invariably made me sad.
I started to wonder whether I’d be happier if I erased football from my life and, as a bonus, got those 25 hours back. But to make such a detox worthwhile would require total, icy abstinence. So, no more games (at Spurs’ stadium or on television). No Match of the Day or Soccer Saturday. I’d have to cut off the flow of information from social media, and stop accessing the many football sources – news sites, podcasts, fantasy league – I slavishly wolfed down, morning to night.
This seemed daunting but was at least within my control. Trickier would be the hidden prompts: friends, family, WhatsApp groups, random people talking in the chip shop, TVs flickering in the corner of a pub. British people who give up drinking often remark that alcohol is entwined with all aspects of our culture; I can confirm that football is, too. Regardless, as 2022’s final bells rang out I decided to try it for six weeks – cold turkey – and see what happened.
First, I had to face a hard lesson about dopamine. This is the neurotransmitter that motivates us to engage in certain behaviours – like sex, eating chocolate, shopping, or learning something new. Your smartphone is a 24/7 dopamine dealer with its news, reels, retweets and endless validation-giving notifications.
My phone vice is football, a cosmically pointless ballgame played by 22 humans that entered my life around the age of five. I started supporting Spurs, like my older brother James and my dad, and soon I became obsessed. I played (badly) until I was 15, then settled into a lifetime of armchair supporting. I’ve had a season ticket – along with my brother and dad – for 20 years; it has been a thread that tied us together. (My mum and other brother Ben managed to escape the Spurs bug – I often think they lucked out.)
Diego Maradona once said that “football isn’t a game, nor a sport; it’s a religion” and, for me at least, he’s right. I’ve often felt that I didn’t quite fit in with traditional models of masculinity: a bit fey and awkward, vegetarian, inept with a drill. Football became a way I could enter any group of lads and hold my own. Incessant football consumption not only fed a love of the game but also my sense of being a man.
“In your case, every time you read a new football story or get something football-related on your phone, it gives you the dopamine hit. It’s a feelgood hormone,” says Sally Baker, a therapist, who serendipitously has an adult Spurs-supporting son. (“They cannot finish. It’s a thing. It drives me nuts,” she says, referring to Spurs’ tedious habit of losing in finals or semi-finals. The last time they won a major tournament, the FA Cup, I was six. Though we have won two League Cups in the meantime.)
“Football is a thing of deep emotional involvement but also an intellectual pursuit for you. So you check all your different streams and by the time you’ve rotated through all of them, there’ll be new content coming up. It’s ultimately disappointing and doesn’t satisfy you,” Baker says. This habit, she suggests, is no different from compulsively checking Facebook. “If you’re doomscrolling at night, it tends to be because you’re feeling lonely and disconnected. In the morning, it tends to be about procrastination – delaying starting your day.”
In my case, my brain would fizz when a new Tottenham article or podcast pinged on my phone. I tell Baker about how visceral this pleasure was. Jokingly, I use the word “orgasmic”. “The brain hormones released by great insight and connection to something you’re interested in are the same as those you get from porn,” Baker says.
Would six weeks of zero football help me break the habit? Baker tells me that “psychologists differ, but they say it takes between 21 days and three months to have a complete reset”.
When 1 January arrived, the biggest issue was how to avoid my usual sources of distraction. It started with muting journalists. All my hallowed fonts of knowledge – the Guardian, the Athletic website, Spurs reporter Ali Gold, transfer rumour guru Fabrizio Romano, trendy football magazine Mundial. I felt weirdly guilty.
Twitter’s dogged algorithm endeavoured to get Tottenham-related trending topics through my barricades but, after about a week in which I’d muted every known variation of #ConteOut (Antonio Conte, the Spurs manager, eventually left by “mutual agreement” on 26 March), I was, more or less, in a football-free zone.
I unsubscribed from the podcasts that usually took up hours and hours of my week. (I had three on heavy rotation, plus a cache of secondary options with incrementally worse production values.) I archived a few WhatsApp groups where football was the main source of discourse. I deleted Instagram.
I told some friends, and stayed away from others. When I went to pubs – carefully vetted to ensure they weren’t showing any matches – I messaged football-fixated acquaintances in advance to ask them to avoid discussing it. My family played along gamely – and my girlfriend Robyn, an Arsenal supporter, kept admirably quiet considering her own team was flying at the top of the league.
I sailed through the first couple of weeks, feeling pretty smug. If a football segment came on the radio or TV, I’d start shouting “la la la’’ and frantically turn it off. I had to move seats on a bus because some kids were talking about Manchester United. I was totally committed.
Instead of attending the north London derby (when Spurs play Arsenal) on 15 January, I completed my tax return and went to the pub next door to attend a wake for a dog called Liza. It was a nice thing that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I started to think: am I actually happier without football? My life seemed simpler and less distracted. I started chewing through the second draft of a novel that had been taunting me from a Google Doc for 18 months.
You may be aware of the psychological concept of “flow”: a deeply satisfying state of consciousness where we are fully absorbed in a singular activity that brings us pleasure. It could be gardening, crochet, playing marimba, Lego – anything. Those who manage to get regularly lost in a flow state – and I’m paraphrasing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who named the concept – experience higher levels of contentment. Yet our world of quick-fix dopamine rewards and distractions make it harder to focus on those flow states that will bring us joy.
Starting my day without the usual array of football roundups, reports and features helped me get into a flow state with my book before I started work. Whenever I did, I felt good – calmer. My second draft got finished. It may never see even an Oxfam bookshelf, but it still made me really happy.
I did notice that I craved football most when I was knackered or low. I almost lapsed when I caught Covid in early February: podcasts, especially the Guardian’s Football Weekly, were something I really missed.
I emailed its enviably upbeat host, Max Rushden. He supports Spurs and England, too, as well as Cambridge United, and decamped recently from the UK to Australia. I asked him whether it’s different supporting a team like Cambridge United, who have less chance of obtaining any of the game’s big titles; where the mantra “It’s the hope that kills you” doesn’t apply. He is quick to correct me about Spurs’ chances of winning anything, then says: “Genuinely, for me, football isn’t about winning things. Of course it’s about hope. But if it was about success, I and millions of fans would have given up years ago. It’s about all the other things: the match-day routine, the bond with your family and your mates.”
It is this bond that I missed the most, and not discussing football with my dad just felt sad: there was a vacuum in our normal conversational repertoire. I had also essentially extricated myself from one group of football-obsessed mates I’ve known since I was a teenager – and missed one of their children’s birthday parties because I didn’t pick up the WhatsApp invite. The tenor of my weekend’s viewing also massively changed: less football, more Happy Valley or Friends.
I came to think of breaking up with football like breaking up with a person: at first the memories of them are raw and everywhere, so you avoid the streets you used to walk. But, after a time, those triggers fade and you stop noticing them as much. (Also, eventually they get replaced – I swapped my bedtime football reading for bedtime restaurant reviews.)
As time went on – and we moved towards my “coming out” day on 19 February, when I’d go back to my normal seat to watch Spurs v West Ham – I became gripped by a desire to see Harry Kane play, to know that he was all right after that penalty miss against France. I’d later find out that he had been totally fine, breaking Spurs’ all-time goal-scoring record in my absence.
On the day of the game, I woke up sizzling with anxiety. In bed, I asked Robyn if Arsenal were still top of the league. They were, and I was happy. (Life’s too short for boring rivalries.) She said she’d missed football being a part of our lives, and we reminisced about our second date: going to watch Arsenal v Liverpool, snogging like teenagers in the corner of a grotty Brighton boozer.
I met my brother outside the ground where he updated me on what I’d missed over the last six weeks. In the stadium, a moment I’d been obsessing over for weeks, it was hard to take it all in while posing for photographs for this piece in front of a stand of supporters – some of whom I’d known for over a decade – wondering just who the hell I thought I was. Nevertheless, Tottenham’s new(ish) stadium has a single 17,500-person South Stand: it’s like a diagonal sheet of humanity. I had forgotten how the sound rings celestially from pitch to roof when this disparate choir of loyal believers sings.
And the game itself? Spurs played badly, then a bit better, then scored. James and I hugged. It did feel special. Most of all it was nice just hanging out with my brother, and talking about Harry Kane with strangers in the crowd who care as much as I do. I couldn’t wait to call my dad.
Several weeks on, I check my phone much less – especially in the mornings, when I was most susceptible to the dopamine hit of football content – and the apps have remained deleted. Instead of football being a 24/7 semi-professional hobby, mainly carried out online, I’m focusing much more on the human connections. The truth is, my 25-hour unquenchable thirst had pulled me away from football’s greatest gift: like everything worth living for, it’s about people.
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