My wife, for Christmas, bought me NASN: the North American Sports Network. I felt a little like a recovering alcoholic being given a bottle of Laphroaig.
It set me to thinking of all the early mornings I've spent in a darkened room, glued to a television set, trying to keep quiet and awake for the big game being played back home. Expats live intensified lives in countless casual ways. This is one of them: the sports of their youth begin at odd, jet-lagging hours, when there is no one else around to watch them. And what had been a pleasure shared among friends takes on the air of a solitary vice, something secretly indulged in - out of loyalty, as much as anything else, to old tastes and habits that you may have outgrown.
Just what it is that a fan takes pleasure in when his team wins isn't easy to say. Especially because most sports fans feel they have to suffer for their joy. It's the suffering that gives us a right to claim the odd victory when it comes. Staying up till five in the morning, jittery with sleeplessness, forcing down food and hot drink, is just another way we earn that right.
And winning, in fact, never seems sweeter than at the end of these midnight sessions. You've just been given proof, if nothing else, that the pleasures of your youth still grip you. The birds and the breaking light keep you awake; and the sense, which is the real joy of fandom, of being aligned with grace, with good luck, stays with you for days.
Kilburn, 5.30am. Thousands of miles away, under the midnight skies of southern California, a football game is ending. The Texas Longhorns, my home-town team, are playing the USC Trojans for the National Championship. For once, I'm not watching alone. My childhood friend Tom has married a Hungarian woman; they still live in Austin but spend New Years in Budapest. Tom was desperately looking for a sports bar where he could watch the game; I told him to join me in London. A quarter-century has passed since we first sat around watching football together. The only thing that hasn't changed is the fact that the Texans have never won the title.
They've been outplayed for much of this game, too - especially since half-time, when I baked nachos to help keep us awake. Maybe they bring bad luck. The last time I made nachos at 2am, Kerry looked set to beat Bush. As Tom and I scrape the last chip from the pan, Texas begins to fight back. With 20-odd seconds left, the Longhorns are just ten yards and a touchdown short of victory. It's fourth down, which is football-speak for a last chance. The difference between this year's team and the Longhorns of our youth is a man named Vince Young. The Texas quarterback is six foot five and weighs more than 16 stone; he's also the fastest player on the field.
Young is football's answer to the old question of whether individuals or systems make history. USC has a better football team. But Young plays the game like a kid in the park horsing around with his younger brothers: it seems never to have occurred to him that he could lose. When he wants to win, he will.
Tom, who has a one-year-old boy, has slept three hours in three days. Still, we're both painfully, vividly awake as Young takes the snap, shotgun, and looks to his left. The pocket crumbles around him. Nobody's open. A defender breaks round the end of the line and closes in from behind. But Young sees him or feels him, and moving at that extraordinary half-speed that used to distinguish Michael Jordan in his prime, he eases away. It's his air of leisure that shows how much faster he is than everyone else. There are, of course, other defenders in front of him. There are other corners to be turned, but he seems, by the time he turns them, by the time he crosses the endzone, almost to be warming down.
Shouting, we wake up my wife. As I creep under the duvet, around 6am, she murmurs, "Good or bad?" She couldn't tell if they were shouts of joy or misery; she isn't a football fan. Tom and I sleep till the afternoon, then stagger around for the rest of the day with the pleasantly vacuous feeling of students recovering from a bender. Yes, we still have it in us; nothing's been outgrown yet. In the evening, we sit down to watch the game again.