This is Between You and Meme, a series where we talk to people whose most awkward, embarrassing or weird moments made them go viral, and try to understand the impact of internet fame.
When Muhammad Sarim Akhtar, a Pakistani cricket fan, flashed a look of disappointment during a World Cup match between Pakistan and Australia in 2019, he had no idea his instinctive reaction would catapult him to global fame.
Akhtar was reacting to Asif Ali, a cricketer he had pinned his hopes on to win the game, dropping a catch during the match, which ultimately led to Australia beating the Pakistan team by 40 runs. His expression - a look of equal parts anger, disappointment and disgust with both his hands on his waist - was immediately picked up by the stadium’s camera and live streamed globally.
“It was a pretty disappointing moment, but it’s not in my nature to shout abusive words or use expletives, so instead I made this expression,” Akhtar told VICE over video call. “It was only when the match presenter came to interview me after the match was over that I realised I had gone viral.”
And just like that, Akhtar, an auditor from Karachi, Pakistan who worked at London’s PricewaterhouseCoopers office became a globally viral meme known as the “angry Pakistani fan” or “disappointed cricket fan.”
“After my name was leaked, I got thousands of friend requests on Facebook and my phone was ringing through the night,” he said.
Following a flood of friend requests on his personal Facebook profile, Akhtar decided to start public Instagram and Twitter handles for his newfound fans. This helped him keep his personal accounts private, while allowing him to generate more hype.
Today, his face is instantly recognisable everywhere, from Italy to Iran to India.
“It went way beyond the cricket space, especially in countries like Uganda, Botswana, Malaysia and Indonesia,” he said. “It’s relatable because it fits into any situation that involves an unpopular decision.”
According to Akhtar, his face has become the humanised version of a facepalm, and adapts to everything from protest movements in Italy to recurring floods in Pakistan to people who eat food they’ve dropped on the floor. It went so viral, that Coca-Cola contracted him for a promotional campaign last year, where he got to meet his cricket idol, Wasim Akram.
“One person in Europe asked me if he could use my face on his credit card so that my disappointed expression would prevent him from using his card too often,” he said.
Others have even told Akhtar that their companies printed his face on keychains to express their disappointment with employees or on mugs, presumably to prevent them from drinking too much coffee.
“Some people said they use it for friends going through breakups,” Akhtar added.
While Akhtar has quite literally become the face of disappointment, it’s a title that doesn’t seem to bother him.
“Most people become viral memes from their most awkward or embarrassing situations,” he pointed out. “But this meme has helped people celebrate me and laugh with me, not at me.”
The fame of being such a recognisable face, however, does weigh down on Akhtar from time to time.
“Especially in Pakistani and Indian communities, people recognise me instantly,” he said. “Sometimes I wear a cap to cover my bald head, because that’s the easiest way to hide.”
Even for Akhtar’s family, his viral status is bittersweet.
“My disappointed face has become a running joke on my family WhatsApp group, but I know that my wife wishes I had never become a meme because she finds it distracting,” he said.
Akhtar’s kids, who are 13 and 9 years old and now getting into the meme game, have also complained that their friends’ parents keep recognising him when he drops them off at school.
“At the same time, it’s a great icebreaker,” he added, saying that it’s helped him become more popular in his office as well. The photo has even been used during presentations.
His meme also got him recognition from two of his favourite cricketers, Kevin Peterson and Michael Vaughn.
Becoming a viral meme brought Akhtar fame, but, he doesn’t cash in on this.
“I have a job so it’s nothing commercial for me. It’s just for fun.”
Currently, Akhtar is considering turning his meme into an NFT and has already received multiple offers. He also wants to create a human emoji series of his different expressions, including a happy face and a sad face, while in the same pose and clothes as his viral photo.
“Everyone is so done with everything these days,” he said. “That’s why, they can all relate to my mood.”