Winter in Toronto can be a rather bleak place for newcomers, as the unforgiving winter only compounds feelings of rootlessness and homesickness. Individuals will all have their own means of alleviating these emotions, be it calls with family or keeping up with media from ‘back home.’ 

As for me, this involves waking up at an ungodly hour every weekend to scream at 22 men kicking a ball on the other side of the Atlantic with one or many accompanying pints. 

Toronto likes to pride itself on being cosmopolitan — more than half of its inhabitants were born in another country, to say nothing of the second and third-generation diaspora communities and recent arrivals from other provinces. But that does give rise to a certain degree of alienation, with so many people left feeling neither here nor there.

When I first arrived in Toronto, my first point of call after sorting out rent was to find somewhere to watch my team, the Tottenham Hotspur. With FuboTV, the Canadian media rights holders for the Premier League, charging a ridiculous amount for a subscription that I would use at most once a week, that option was never financially viable. But more than for frugality, I was searching for a place that would provide me with a community of like-minded sufferers, where I could interact with those of the same focus and have that joint escape from the realities of life.

I found that place at Scotland Yard Pub near Union Station, the official home base of the Spurs Supporters Club. When I’m back home, watching the game offers me a chance to be distracted by “the most important of unimportant things”; to forget whatever academic and personal troubles may be on my mind at any given time; to channel my emotions into bemoaning the cheating of opponents or our inability to score goals, and cheering on my lot with as much rigour and willpower as humanly possible.

At the pub, there are periodic chants, constant interjections about the tactics and performances of the game, and many of the idiosyncrasies that would be present at the stadium itself. There is something bleakly humorous in hearing more than 100 people react in unison with the same winced, pained noises while watching a replay of our centre-half Radu Drăgușin being hit from point-blank range square in the man spuds in our recent game against Aston Villa.

All of these experiences are topped off by the pandemonium after goals, particularly those late in the day to win the match, as has happened fairly often this season. The place goes wild — the noise reaches another level, and there are spilled drinks, knocked-over chairs, and the lot. 

Uninitiated North Americans might decry football’s lack of scoring as a means to belittle the product, but I would argue the opposite. When I attended a Raptors game earlier this season, it was difficult to properly cheer on and celebrate the Raptors’ scoring, so frequent they were. It is, in fact, the relative scarcity of goals in football that elicits such powerful emotions.

I know that, as a UK immigrant, my experience has been far easier than the experience of some from other countries, particularly where English is not the first language. Still, this whole experience — watching with fellow fans, singing the same songs, cheering the players on as if I were back home — goes a long way to alleviating feelings of homesickness. 

However, I know that watching from the pub can never replicate the true matchday experience. The time difference and Canadian sensitivities mean less time and opportunity for those typical pre-match routines: the no-hope bets at some exploitative bookmaker, the E-coli ridden burgers, the beers on the train and in the pubs before entry, and even the post-match Bovril on a cold day. And as for the match itself — on a good day, with 60,000-odd fans singing and celebrating in unison, it is an experience that cannot be rivalled.

Yet even this longing brings up contradictory emotions. For the longest time, the beautiful game has been growing increasingly sullied by commercialization and greed in the upper echelons. The consistently rising ticket prices, while certainly no worse than tickets for the Leafs, are pricing out the working-class communities that built the game. With that comes a more gentrified, middle-class experience that, with each passing year, resembles less and less the atmospheres and experiences I grew up with and became enamoured with.

Some fans don’t seem to see the root of the problem. Spurs manager Ange Postecoglou recently replied to a question from a journalist who asked whether it was foreign fans causing an increase in ticket prices, saying: “That’s really harsh. I’m probably ‘plastic’ and ‘tourist,’ because I was coming from the other side of the world, really passionate about football, and if I could get access to see a Premier League game, that was the world to me.” Foreign fans and ‘bandwagoners’ are often lampooned with the blame, but my days at Scotland Yard pub revealed a group of dedicated, passionate, long-suffering fans that would not be out of place on Tottenham High Road. 

Foreign fans are not the root of the problem, but rather the problem is increasing greed at the upper echelons by owners, broadcasters, and administrators seeking to exploit the game’s immense popularity and people’s strong desire to participate in it.

As with all things nostalgic, there is a tendency to accentuate the positives and airbrush out the negatives. I am often left wondering whether my longing for the matchday experience and usage of this overseas supporters club as a proxy is chasing a feeling that no longer exists. 

Matches still have the power to make or break my weekend, the atmospheres are sometimes unrivalled, and the play can be scintillating. But I increasingly find elite English football resembling a more North American product. There is nothing inherently wrong with such an experience, and I have grown increasingly fond of Toronto’s teams in the NBA and NHL. But that is not the game I grew up with.

Toronto prides itself on its cosmopolitanism. This does have many positive aspects, and individuals can sometimes rely on technology and communities to bridge cultural gaps and help them with homesickness. I have done that by attempting to replicate my weekly football experience, and for the most part, it works. 

But at a time when I find myself becoming increasingly detached from my club and from the game itself — if not from the majority of players and the club’s manager — it raises questions of belonging. In becoming so commercial and global, the game risks losing the local attachments that made it so unique in the first place. 

I take some blame for that. As one of those aforementioned middle-class fans, I have been willing to tolerate excessive price rises and participate in the supply-and-demand model, which means there will always be a captive and paying audience, no matter the cost. I sing my heart out, but I watch on from overseas.

The elite game has changed, even in my short lifetime, and I have to accept that it is not changing back. It is an ongoing situation that I have to endure. Not even the luxury of distance can isolate me from that.