An ode to the beautiful game

I never really understood sports culture.

Spending an entire afternoon watching a football inch its way across the field while eating the worst that American cuisine has to offer has always baffled me, and if football is slow and dull, then baseball is never-ending.  The relentless back-and-forth scoring of basketball, with its reliance on just one or two superstar players bores me.  Yet millions of Americans seem to extract an almost incandescent, spiritual joy from watching these sports.

It just seemed stupid to me.  Then I found soccer.

My relationship with soccer actually began 10 years ago when I met the man I would one day marry.  He was an avid soccer fan and, more to the point, a player.  To demonstrate my “awesome girlfriend” potential, I began attending his weekend games.  Standing on the sidelines, often alone, and all-too-frequently huddled in a winter parka against a bitter Philadelphia wind, I began (slooowly) to appreciate the game.

It is quick.  No time-outs, no replays, no reversals of the ref’s calls.  Just free-flowing sport.  It is strategic and depends on the coordination of the entire team — yes, a strong striker or goal-keeper can make a pivotal difference, but a team that lacks strategy and cohesion can’t win on the strengths of a few superstars alone.

So, from those chilly fall and winter games, I came to appreciate soccer intellectually.  I still did not understand why some called it the beautiful game, though.  That, for me, has only come recently.

A few years ago, my husband began playing fantasy Premier League soccer.  It consumed his nights and weekends.  He’d be on the phone with his buddy at 11pm on a Friday debating FOR HOURS about who they’d trade that week and who they’d buy.  I figured if soccer was all my husband was going to talk about, I’d better get in on this too.  So I started a fantasy team too.  It didn’t last long.  Gaining points based on the performance of players across many English teams took the fun out of watching the games, so I quit the fantasy league.

I did not, however, quit watching Premier League soccer.  I starting supporting Tottenham Hotspurs and spend most weekends, from early fall till late spring, glued to my laptop watching the games.  My husband grouses that I watch more soccer than he does these days.

For those of you who love a sport, you will understand why.

There is the thrill of seeing your team coalesce on the field, of the ball flowing rapidly from player to player and the team moving forward like a flock of birds in flight, the roar of the unruly crowd urging them on.

There’s the beauty of watching a series of flawless one-touch passes slip forward through the opposing defense and the moment the ball launches towards the goal, angling high and in the corner–unstoppable.

There’s the chest-tightening, gut-clenching anxiety as the opposing team picks apart your team’s defense, as they strike at the goal, and the primal satisfaction as your team’s keeper leaps for it – stretching himself longer than you knew the human body could go, his fingers just brushing the ball as he pushes it safely away.

There’s the other side too.  The times when you watch your team put in the most crap performance you could ever imagine.  When you see them do it week after week.  When you despair that they’ll never find themselves again.  There’s an odd joy in that too.  Joy in picking apart the bad coaching decisions, the managerial idiocy, the players’ loss of faith in themselves, and your own satisfied martyrdom in the knowledge that you will support them, come hell or high water, come good years or bad.  And, that one day they will rise again.

My team has started the season out poorly this year, to say the least.  They have a new manager who appears intent on not only destroying their chances at a league win but also sending them plummeting towards relegation.  They haven’t won a single game yet and are playing with a dismaying lack of confidence.  But that’s the great thing about the Premier League:  it’s NINE FREAKING MONTHS LONG.

There’s time.

Now, there’s a game about to start.  I gotta go 🙂

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