They came to be elated and uplifted…raised up out of their lives by the rare spectacle of victory. ….
Win for me. Win for my kids. Win for my marriage so I can carry your winning back to the car with me and sit in the glow of it with my family as we drive back toward our otherwise winless lives.
– Dennis Lehane,from Mystic River
Yesterday Arsenal lost 5-1 to Liverpool at Anfield. It was a dismal performance and very difficult to swallow.
Since the match was at 6:45am here in Minneapolis, I was forced to dwell on it all day long – and it cast a real pall on my day. I was in a funk from the first minute when Skrtel scored all the way through to much later in the evening when I finally had enough wine and non-football-related conversations to rid myself of the stink of the loss.
For the most part, I am able to shake tough losses, but yesterday was different for some reason, I am not sure why. It was the worst I had felt after an Arsenal loss since their 4-2 loss – again to Liverpool – in the 2008 Champions League quarterfinal.
I tried to watch the highlights of that 2008 match last night. I saw Diaby’s goal, and Hyypia’s leveler, and then Gerrard’s rocket. And then there was Walcott’s run. Charging through the midfield. Shaking off one, two, three defenders. Only 20 years old and playing with the kind of un-jaded freedom and joy that only the young possess. Pulling it back to Adebayor. Goal. 2-2 on aggregate. And Arsenal through to the semi-finals on away goals. But then tragedy. And I closed the browser window. I couldn’t watch Toure give away the penalty. I couldn’t watch Gerrard’s conversion. It was too much to bear. I have not watched the penalty since I saw it live. And I probably will never watch it again.
It is still so, so painful. All these years later.
We all know that feeling, of course, as sports fans. That gross pit in our stomachs after watching our side utterly collapse right before our eyes. Those lonely and cold and depressing walks from the stadium to the train station or the parking lot. Half drunk and grumpy and surrounded by strangers. And how that feeling sits on our shoulders for hours and days – and sometimes even years.
But why do we allow these silly little games to affect us so? And why are some tougher to swallow than others?
I guess I don’t have the scientific answers to those questions, as I am not a psychoanalyst, but I think Lehane was half right above – as sport is the only place on earth where, vicariously at least, we are able to experience true victory. Our lives are, for the most part, winless. Unemployment. Car crashes. Deaths. There are victories, sure, but they are often tainted, often colored by tragedy.
“Life isn’t,” wrote Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch, “a 2-0 home victory after a fish and chip lunch.”
And so I see why we celebrate our teams victories, as it allows us to taste pure winning.
But why then do the victories crush us so? If we only know defeat in our lives why are we so utterly saddened by the defeat of our teams?
I think it is because we have – as sports fans – come to rely on that vicarious winning, and when our teams do not deliver, we mourn not the loss of the game on the playing field or on the television, but the loss of the chance to feel truly good about something.
We are not sad because Arsenal lost. As there will always be another match. And Arsenal lose a lot. We are instead sad because the opportunity to feel the untainted and limitless joy of victory was taken away from us. And we are forced back into the drudgery of Monday, of February, of work, without having tasted of that joy.
“Win for me. Win for my kids.”
It’s silly, of course, because non-sports-fans go their entire lives without experiencing any of the above. They know joy and sadness and victory, too – just in other pursuits.
But I will say this, at the risk of being controversial: sports fans experience higher highs – and lower lows – than non sports fans.
I think this is similar to parenting. People that have children – while not necessarily happier than people who do not have kids – do experience higher highs – and lower lows – than childless people.
Again, Nick Horby:
…So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.
But why do certain matches affect us more than others? It surely has more to do with how big the game was, with how much was at stake. And it again surely has more to do with how your team loses – 5-1 is easier than 2-1, for instance.
I guess I don’t have the answer to that question either. I don’t know why yesterday’s loss bummed me out more than, say, the 1-0 loss to Manchester United or the disastrous 3-1 home loss to Villa. I don’t know why I needed to taste joy yesterday morning more so than any other Saturday kickoff.
I guess maybe it has just been a dark winter. Full of drudgery. And I needed a little light. And I didn’t get it. And it bummed me out. And I mourned the loss of the chance for that light. And I will continue to mourn it for a long time, just as I continue to mourn the missed chance for joy that that Champions League quarterfinal had promised.
Listen. Sports are stupid. And we are idiots. But I truly believe in all of the above. We all – sports fans and non-sports fans alike – are searching for meaning in our lives. We live for 70 years (if we are lucky) on a planet that is 4.5 billion years old and is spinning on the loneliest edge of an incomprehensibly vast, dark and cold universe. We do all that we can to eke out an existence for ourselves, our children, our friends. Hoping to leave something behind that says that it all mattered.
Life is hard. And there are vast chunks of it that lack any sort of meaning, but sport helps us find a pattern in the void, in life’s wallpaper.
And I don’t there is anything the slightest bit wrong about that.