I was eight years old when I first cried over a game of football. It was the 1998 World Cup Final and Zinedine Zidane had just leapt past a static defender and headed France into a 2-0 lead against Brazil. In the weeks leading up to that moment, I had fallen in awe of OG Ronaldo – a player who seemed to break football down to its most fundamental equation: put the ball in a place where an opposition player can't touch it, then shoot. It was really that simple.
There's something special about a fandom not tied to a parental or national obligation. At that World Cup, I chose Ronaldo 9, and with him, Brazil. Most importantly, for the first time in my supporting life, I chose to believe, wholeheartedly, that the only possible outcome of a game of football was that the thing I wanted to happen was the only thing that could happen.
Then: Zidane. Header. 2-0 France.
Four weeks of pub gardens and Harry Maguire, and slipping out of work early and slipping into work late, and BBC montages and where are you watching it, mate and standing on tables and the 1996 version, and VAR and Nigeria's home shirt, and earnest Instagram stories of spontaneous happiness and a form of patriotism that didn't make you feel sick in its subtle bigotry, but filled you with a strange pride in a countryman's ability to pull off a waistcoat under pressure. And now you want to be a football fan.
All this because Eric Dier scored the winning penalty in the shoot-out against Colombia and suddenly you were transported to your nearest high street, screaming along to an Atomic Kitten remix – happy that you were happy, but more happy because everyone else seemed so happy – you thought to yourself: 'I get it. I finally get it. I get football.'
And the thing is, you do get it, but only some of it. If you're serious about jumping on this ride, please remember to leave your dignity and control of your own happiness at the door – because, I promise, you won't be needing them where we're going.
I was ten years old when I spotted Nwankwo Kanu in an airport in Lagos. I was too young to be possessed by shame, too disoriented by my first sighting of an Arsenal player in the wild to not move forward at full speed. I ran straight for him, without telling anyone where I was going or planning what I would do when I caught him.
Of course, when I arrived at his feet, I just stood in silence, staring at the striker as he looked back, hoping I would make my request known so he could carry on with his day. I said nothing.
"Please, hug my son," my mum eventually asked Kanu, breaking the awkward silence with a pity for me I haven't heard from her since. He did.
You want to be a football fan because there is nothing more blinding than a World Cup, let alone one in the sun. Look directly into it and you'll see nothing but love and appreciation and the glory of"'what ifs".
But I'm sorry to break it to you: the full-time-fan racket is 80 percent suppressing hatred for your own team for all the ways they've wronged you in the past, 15 percent unconditional love for the 11 times they've done right, and 5 percent trying to figure out how to escape this eternal damnation.
Watch enough 0-0 draws against West Brom and you'll soon forget how to spell beauty. Spend 30 minutes trying to find a workable stream, only to tune in just in time to watch your side concede to Peter Crouch for the 20th season in a row, and then let me hear you call it the "Beautiful Game". Become a football fan and, at some point, despite your better instincts, you will feel beaten down enough to express uncontrollable rage towards a 19-year-old left back – thousands of miles from his home, unable to speak the local language – for not properly tracking his man. I am mild mannered – even pleasant, some have said – but I'm no longer above wishing an injury on a teenager if it means avoiding an FA Cup replay. And neither are you, given time.
There is so much joy to be had as a football fan (one day, my editor here at VICE dot com will go on holiday, and in his absence I will publish 10,000 words on the sound I made when Santi Cazorla scored in the 2014 FA Cup Final). But that overwhelming hopelessness you felt when the tall Croatian lad appeared out of nowhere to score in extra time and plunge you into a nightmare that you had no idea you were in the whole time is not the exception – it's the norm most weekends for most fans. That sudden, crushing silence in the pub after the goal that knocked England out – the silence, both internal and external; how you stared at the screen, but in your confusion you couldn't really see it – when you join the proper fan hustle, that silence will be your bedfellow until sweet death do you part. You will go to sleep telling yourself, rather convincingly, that you're too old to care anymore, but you will wake up still not knowing peace.
Is this what you want?
I was 19 years old when, babysitting my nephew for the first time, I celebrated Andrey Arshavin scoring a winner so hard, I slipped and knocked my nephew out of his pram.
He cried for hours.
If you can handle the emotional torture that comes with being a full-time Football Fan, ask yourself whether you have the spare time. Not to watch the games – those take less time than back-to-back episodes of your average Netflix doc – but for the other outlets into which you will be pouring all your excess emotions.
Do you have the time to get trapped in a deep YouTube hole, watching player compilation videos, imagining yourself as a scout while wondering why your manager can't see what you see? Are you free every Monday morning to pore over player ratings to work out which newspapers have an agenda against your team? If you haven't opened five tabs showing the next ten fixtures of the teams around you, before making a case for why your lads are about to go on a ten-match winning streak, then you haven't allowed your obsession to truly take hold. But it will.
Today, you – a non-fan – are emotionally stable and untethered to an abstract construct that literally never ends. Tomorrow, you – now a fan – are frantically tweeting @MessiHolic96 to ask if he has an update on the Peruvian defensive midfielder your club was recently linked to.
I was 21 years old when what started as a deep internal whisper materialised as a painful scream. "I hate you," I shouted into the pub air at nobody in particular as my team conceded the seventh goal in a single game. At that moment, I swore I would never put myself through this again. I would never allow myself to feel this way again.
We would concede an eighth goal nine minutes later.
So you've looked within and found spare reserves of both time and anger. Now, let's find you a team, which should be easy because there are so many. You've heard the same names floating around – United, City, Orient, Rovers. But text the football lovers in your life right now and ask them who you should support, and what you will get in return is chaos. There is no unity in this game. What was special about the World Cup was the common bond – the prayers and desperation offered in the same direction. Being a football fan is lonely, because your joy is yours, but your sadness belongs to everyone else benefiting from your defeat.
A part of you will want to believe that a good friend wouldn't recommend a club that will inevitably let you down. It's naivety like that which will have you tapping out before you've even had the pleasure of seeing your club sell their best player to a rival. (Seriously: imagine England giving Jordan Pickford to France, and not only having to watch him win the World Cup, but claim that he has always felt French deep down. I've experienced that five times. And I support a good team.)
Your mates want you to be as miserable as they are. Only six of last season's 20 Premier League teams scored more goals than they conceded. England scored six more goals than they let in during the World Cup, and it still ended in you feeling like shit. Now imagine what 75 percent of football fans in this country go through year after year, by choice.
But wait – how is that possible, you're wondering? Wouldn't it mean that the same average teams spend most of the year losing to other average teams? Yep.
Assuming you haven't completely lost all hope by this point, you'll want to pick from one of those top six teams to minimise your exposure to misery.
Well: Tottenham last won a major trophy almost 30 years ago; Arsenal are great, if you enjoy your defeats served with a side order of cruel and unusual banter; Premier League winning players have retired and had children who have won the Premier League in the time Liverpool last won a league title; Chelsea's sole owner and financier isn't currently allowed to work in the UK; Manchester United's manager once called scoring goals an "indulgence"; and let's not even get into the Abu Dhabi money that has bankrolled Manchester City's current success.
Are you listening? There is no glory to be found here. No respite from being suddenly shamed by a poorly weighted back pass in injury time because your club had to sack the full-time groundsman after you got relegated. Wherever you turn, humiliation waits. Not every four years, but every three days.
I was 28 years old when I received dozens of messages asking if I was OK and coping with the news that Arsène Wenger was going to step down as Arsenal manager. I wasn't OK. I had joked for years that Wenger was like my dad, to the point where my actual dad – a very present, loving man – was starting to refer to him as my father.
Arsène Wenger is a man I have only ever met once – if you consider a brief handshake and me muttering either "well done" or "thanks" a meeting. And yet, I felt genuine grief that this man – a man who has lived a life of immense privilege – was basically saying he was done with football fans. It's ridiculous, I know, but I'm cursed. It's what football does to you.
If you've not yet transposed your World Cup afterglow into full time league club support, there is hope for you yet.