"And then I achieved inner peace."
Roman Pavlyuchenko had one of his worst games in a Tottenham Hotspur shirt on Nov. 3, 2011. In a UEFA Europa League match against Rubin Kazan, the Russian striker hardly touched the ball. He looked consistently frustrated, unable to get himself involved. While it was hardly his fault that his teammates couldn't win the ball away from Rubin, his attitude didn't help matters. Unhappy with not only his football, but his life and his spirituality, Pavlyuchenko compounded the problem by refusing to work for the team.
He took one shot in that match. As supporters of Tottenham have come to expect, he blasted it over the crossbar, higher than the television cameras could follow it. Once again, Pavlyuchenko was aiming for Row Z.
As a Tottenham supporter myself, I have always wondered about his shooting. Though he often misses the goal, his shots are too precise to chalk up his 'poor' shooting to a lack of skill. Somehow, some way, they are always headed in the same direction. As high as possible, towards the top row of the stadium.
Since this blog's inception, readership has grown significantly. The increased visibility and traffic volume has led to interactions with a number of interesting people that I would have never gotten the chance to speak to otherwise. One of those people is a man - who will remain anonymous - that tipped me off to the reason why Pavlyuchenko's shots inexplicably went to the same spot, over and over again.
Here's an excerpt from an email I received back in October.
"There's a rumor floating around an ITK message board that Pav's a member of some weird religious cult," read an email from an anonymous source. "They say that one of the big things these kooks do is make a pilgrimage. It's like the Hajj. They're supposed to 'become one with Row Z' or something like that."
Wait ... what? I couldn't believe what I was reading. I asked him to elaborate.
"Yeah mate, no joke. There's this religious place in this crazy cult called 'Row Z' and that's why he's always shooting to the fucking sky. What a knob."
Surely this couldn't be true. Who's ever heard of such a ridiculous thing? I've heard of plenty of cults and alternative religions, but this was utter nonsense. A religion where a follower must 'become one with Row Z'? What the hell does that mean?
I forgot about this email shortly after I received it. Obviously, this was someone's idea of a joke. These ITK message boards make up ridiculous transfer stories all the time, so no one would put it past them to make up a joke religion just to make fun of Roman Pavlyuchenko. Every Spurs fan comes up with reasons to make fun of Roman Pavlyuchenko. He's been a terrible footballer recently.
Then, the strangest thing happened. On an ordinary Saturday, I went to go buy some tea. Next to the shop in my city that sells the best variety of the loose leaf tea is an excellent Italian restaurant with a great patio that's still open into November. On that warm, sunny Carolina day, there was a man sitting at a table on that patio, drinking a glass of red wine and eating chicken cacciatore. He looked strangely like Roman Pavlyuchenko.
He was Roman Pavlyuchenko.
Roman Pavlyuchenko, in the flesh. At an Italian restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, of all places. During the two-week spell where he was not named to the Tottenham Hotspur 18-man squad at any period, he sneaked off the United States to a place where he thought he would never be recognized. He happened to pick the Italian restaurant next to a tea shop frequented by a Tottenham Hotspur blogger. Believe me, he was as dumbfounded that someone recognized him as I was that he was in my neighborhood.
I had to introduce myself. I couldn't help it. He wasn't the least bit annoyed that someone had recognized him and started a conversation. Incredibly, he was very calm. He seemed like he didn't have a care in the world. We talked a bit about football for around five minutes before I remembered the email.
"They're supposed to 'become one with Row Z' or something like that."
Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the urge to bring it up.
This is not something that sensible people do. Surely, in this age of the internet, everyone has experienced a scenario in which they've learned something uniquely unflattering about a person before the first time they speak in person. When one finally meets this person, they do not instantly bring up that uniquely unflattering thing that they heard about. I, however, am a child with no self-restraint whatsoever. I knew that the rumor was completely nonsensical. I knew that, on the off chance it was true, it was inappropriate to bring up five minutes into a casual conversation. I dived in anyway.
"So, I heard you're a follower of a small religion where you're supposed to 'become one with Row Z.' Is there any truth to that?"
The second the last word came out of my mouth, I felt like an idiot. Who says that to people? What in the world is my problem? Surely, he was about to look at me like I was an alien and ask me to piss off.
Instead, he calmly smiled and said "Yes, it's true."
If only someone had a picture of my face at the exact moment he uttered those three words. Noticing that I did not have a response, he continued.
"My religion is called Zedoastrianism. One attains spiritual enlightenment by becoming one with Row Z. Would you like to hear about my journey to чувство небо?"
Somehow, the gears turning in my head quickly changed my state of mind from shocked to intrigued. And without hesitation, I simply said "Yes."
"After the match against Rubin, I was devastated. I could not have performed worse and the fans hated me. I got one shot, and I tried to hit Row Z. Not only did I miss the goal, making the fans angry, I could not hit my target either. I was so upset that I asked Harry if I could take time off and he agreed that I needed it to find my head."
"A couple of days after that game, I was in London at a restaurant much like this one, having a drink at an empty bar in the middle of the day. I was so depressed that I, a professional footballer, was drinking at an empty restaurant in the middle of the day. One other man came into the restaurant and he knew who I was. He sat next to me at the bar and said 'Mr. Pavlyuchenko, I am a season ticket holder and I think you are rubbish. I pay your wages along with thousands of other fans and we deserve to see more effort from you.' And I told him 'You are right, I am rubbish.'"
"He realized that I was down and that I was not like footballers who are arrogant, but he still told me his story to make it clear that I was privileged and that fans deserve better. He said to me 'I sit in the top row at White Hart Lane because it is the least expensive ticket. I can't even afford that ticket, but I wear old clothes and walk to work so that I can watch Tottenham Hotspur every week. I love the club more than life itself. My wife left me because she thinks football is too important to me. I sacrifice so much because of how much I love the club, so it hurts when I have to watch players like you who look like they can't be arsed to run after the ball."
It is important to note that Tottenham Hotspur, like many clubs in the upper echelon of the Premier League, does not have very many blue collar folks in the stands during Premier League matches. White Hart Lane has a limited capacity, but the team is successful and playing in a large market. Ticket prices are high, and the season ticket holder who spoke with Pavlyuchenko is a holdover from the past. Once upon a time - the time when Zedoastrianism was founded - there were places for the working class folks on the terraces and up in Row Z. Now, terracing is no more while Richard Scudamore, Rupert Murdoch and the like have made Premier League football a big money business.
The expense of holding a season ticket is so large that, as the supporter noted to Pavlyuchenko, his wife left him over it. But that is how important that ticket is to him, that he was willing to let his wife walk away. The highs and lows of being in the stadium for Tottenham's ups and downs, the sense of belonging to the club and the relationships he formed with those who join him in the stadium were more important than his relationship with his wife. During the course of his conversation with the fan, Pavlyuchenko realized this and was changed forever.
"I couldn't believe what I was hearing," Roman told me. "This man spends all of his money to go to the games and his wife left him because he does this. Buying that ticket in the top row, because he is poor and it is the only ticket he can afford, but he would not dream of not having a ticket. It was during that conversation I realized what Zedoastrianism is about."
"When I was firing all of those shots into the top row, trying to achieve чувство небо and become one with Row Z, I did not know what I was doing. I did not understand what it meant to achieve чувство небо and that Row Z was simply a metaphor for something greater. Row Z is not a place, but a representation of the people who sat in Row Z when Zedoastrianism was founded. Zedoastrianism is about being happy with what you have and loving something else more than you love yourself."
"I went through my life ignorant and started to question my religion. Why are we trying to reach Row Z? It is just a seat high in the air at the top of a stadium, I thought to myself. This does not make sense. What happens when one reaches Row Z? I began to think that I was brainwashed by religion and that there was no purpose, but when I spoke to this man at the restaurant in London, I realized that to reach Row Z is not a physical accomplishment. Row Z is simply the physical representation for knowing how to love something more than you love yourself."
"I shook the man's hand, got up, and walked to a park. While walking through that park, I realized all of this, what Row Z is all about. And then I achieved inner peace. I achieved чувство небо."
My meeting with Roman in Raleigh came just three days after he reached чувство небо and one day before he returned to Spurs Lodge for training. Upon his return, he showed an incredible balance of enthusiasm and calmness, finally looking like the striker Spurs thought they were getting when they purchased him from Spartak Moscow for £14 million.
When Aaron Lennon picked up an injury early in the match against Sunderland, Pav was quickly thrust into action. Nervous about having to make an unexpected appearance, he struggled until halftime. During the break, he remembered his conversation with the man in the top row, which calmed his nerves instantly.
The rest is history. Pavlyuchenko scored the winner for Tottenham, calmly placing a shot into the back of the net at the far post. Just a month ago, that same shot would have been blasted over the crossbar. Upon scoring, Pavlyuchenko pointed up in the air, seemingly pointing to the sky. Instead, he was pointing at the man in the top row who helped him achieve чувство небо,
A revitalized and spiritually enlightened man, Pavlyuchenko is finally ready to become the footballer we've always expected him to be.