My wife doesn’t particularly care for soccer. She tolerates it, and generally leaves me to it when I watch a game at home. One Sunday morning though, she saw me getting more and more upset as my team was on the receiving end of – what I perceived to be – a series of increasingly poor refereeing decisions. My team lost 3-2 after having two men sent off and letting in a late winner. I seethed, and then my wife said, “It’s only a game.”
But it isn’t, is it? In the 1997 film adaptation of Nicky Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Paul is feeling low following a home draw with Derby County and his girlfriend tells him it’s only a game. He explodes, “DON’T SAY THAT! Please! That is the worst, most stupid thing anyone could say! Cause it quite clearly isn’t ‘only a game.’ I mean if it was do you honestly think I’d care this much?!” It is only a game. I know that. Now that I’m married and have a little boy, I know that more fully, but when Cesc Fabregas was booked for diving against Southampton I still lost it. This is just 22 men running around kicking a ball; it’s just a game. Why was I upset? What was the point?
The other week Michael “Dave-O” Davies and Roger “Rog” Bennett, the Men in Blazers, were discussing what the point of sport was. Davies argued that, surely, the point was to win. Bennett disagreed, and told an anecdote of when he visited Goodison Park as a boy to watch Everton; Everton scored and the man behind him jumped up and shouted, “Take that, Gloria!” Young Rog turned around asked him who Gloria was. The man sheepishly replied that she was his ex-wife, and she loved the opposing team. That, he argued, was the point of sport. He elaborated later and called soccer “a safe, emotionally rich world filled with a bizarre array of characters… It prevents you from being plagued by your own failings, the world’s failings, your own flaws, and the flaws of those around you.” In the moment of that Everton goal, the man behind Roger was able to cry out from the depths of his pain, self-doubt, failure, and anger. This wasn’t just a game or just a goal; it was a message from the universe reminding him to continue on, “whate’er befall.” I was upset seeing Fabregas wrongly booked for diving because in that moment I was free to rage at the injustice, stupidity, incompetence, and frustrations I encounter in the world without fear of ruining relationships or getting fired from my job.
Listening to that discussion, I thought of Konstantin Levin from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Throughout the novel, he frustratedly searches for meaning in his life; in one of the most beautiful chapters of a beautiful book, Levin loses himself as he works with the peasants in the field mowing hay, no longer on a quest for meaning or ruminating on failed relationships. Watching Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, I feel the same exhilaration and peace Levin felt in the “the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own… These were the most blissful moments.” Asking what playing and watching soccer means to me is like asking Billy Elliot what it feels like when he dances.
It’s not just a game. It’s electricity… Yeah, electricity.