On The Love of the Game

It didn’t help that we stayed out until 8am that morning and only got two hours of sleep, but how many times were we going to be in Berlin to watch Germany play for a World Cup title? We made a bedraggled little quartet, a bit damp from the afternoon downpour, wedged into a nook of the bar as much by exhaustion as by determination. We ordered beers and waited for the game to begin.

I love the World Cup, though I don’t follow any football leagues during the rest of the four-year cycle. I owe this partially to my English father and childhood summers in Europe, but I think also to my fascination with sports fandom. I grew up in the heart of North Carolina, a region in which you are often defined by your college basketball allegiance (mine is Duke, the only acceptable option). Basketball agnosticism is not an option when you live in the eight mile stretch between Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium and UNC’s Dean Dome, even if you don’t actually like basketball. I remember being astounded when I went to college and met people who had never been a sports fan of any sort and did not seem to find their lives emotionally deficient.

This is the curious thing about sports fandom: though we fans have no impact on the performances of our chosen teams, and indeed no possible way to impact them, we still feel a deep emotional investment in their success or failure. Fans use inclusive pronouns (“we won,” “our defense was lacklustre”), become unusually superstitious, schedule social lives around games. When Duke loses, I feel as though I have personally suffered a defeat. The sensation begins just below the sternum and involves both the cliché sinking feeling, but also a chill that spreads upwards through my neck and scalp. There’s no reason I should feel this way, though rationally recognizing this only intensifies the effect.

This is why I was happy to sit woozily clutching my beer, resisting the sleep deprivation headache, in a noisy Kreuzberg bar last Sunday night. My team, England, bailed on the World Cup seemingly before it even began; my second team, the USA, made a valiant run but had been sent home in the quarterfinals. Even my I-guess-I-should-pick-a-third-horse team, the Netherlands, lost on heartbreaking penalty kicks in the semis. I dislike both Germany and Argentina (the football squads, not the countries or their people), which meant that I could observe the reactions of the fans from a comfortable critical distance.

Because here’s another curious thing about fandom: in the darkest moments, we easily forget why we bother at all. Suddenly the absurdity of it all becomes crystal clear and we wonder why we waste so much emotional real estate on a group of strangers competing with a different group of strangers for our ostensible entertainment. I often think about how much more history I could have memorized if I didn’t know any basketball stats or scores or records. Think of the books I could have written already if I hadn’t spent those countless hours watching basketball. When fandom becomes difficult, I start believing that my life would be better, more accomplished, less harrowing without sports.

These were the anxieties running through the bar and passing by in the street during the first one hundred and thirteen minutes of the 2014 World Cup championship game. There had been moments of brilliance on both sides, but no goals, and though this was certainly better than an Argentinian advantage, the Germans were looking uniformly restless. There was a lot on the line: It had been 24 years since (West) Germany won a title; a European team had never won a World Cup in South America; each of us has only about twenty world cups in our lives (if we’re lucky). Adidas-wrapped natives drifted to the bar for more drinks, others ignored the ashtrays on the tables and went outside to smoke cigarettes, just for the fresh air and break from the tension. Nobody spoke.

It’s important to remember, however, that the darkest moments serve a purpose: to increase the elation of victory. I’ve never felt as elated as I did when then-freshman Austin Rivers hit a buzzer-beating three point shot to beat UNC in Chapel Hill after Duke trailed for an thirty-nine minutes and 58.7 seconds. Or when Duke won national championships in 2001 (we were down 21 points to ACC-rival Maryland in the Final Four) and 2010 (sadly ’91 and ’92 were slightly before I hit my memory-making stride). Or when any team I care about has come back to win after seeming to be making a beeline towards defeat. These emotions, both the good and the bad, are unique to sports fandom and cannot be replicated in any other part of my life. It is, for me, what makes it all worth it: to feel in a way I would never otherwise be able to feel.

And so it was on Orienstraße after nearly two hours of goalless football starting dredging up all kinds of awkward facial tics and ontological questions. One moment we sat with dwindling steins of backwash-diluted pilsner, surrounded by Germans very nearly ready to forsake the Enlightenment for French ennui. The next, Mario Götze gently chested down the ball right in front of the goal, took one step, and then put the ball into the back of the net. We were swept up into one of the most powerful waves of jubilation I have ever witnessed. I do not even like the German football team, but I couldn’t help but be moved (literally and figuratively) by the moment.

The remaining seventeen minutes were an anxious formality, the happiest Purgatory you’ve ever seen. There was an injury on the field at the very end of added time, a series of pointless punts from the goalies, eyes that begged for mercy, benches trying to control their facial expressions. Then a whistle blew and the world officially split into winners and losers. The bar exploded. Germans screamed and cried and grown men hugged each other as if their sons were the ones on the pitch. We said “Congratulations” to the Germans sitting next to you and they said “Thank you so much!” as if they had personally achieved something.

In case you haven’t caught on by now, those guys really did feel like they had achieved something. I think almost everyone in Germany did that night. It’s why the cars in the street blew their horns continuously, why people lit firecrackers on the sidewalk and nobody cared, why total strangers formed spontaneous chanting dance circles in the street, arms around each other, sending refrains of “Deutschland!” into the night. We went to a different bar where people were literally dancing on the tables and young Germans were buying old Germans shots of Jägermeister. Someone put on Queen’s “We Are the Champions” and the entire bar sang along because it was true. We drank beers in the street and made new friends based solely on the principal that they were German and happy, and we were happy for them.

When I watch ESPN’s World Cup montage, above, it still brings a few tears to my eyes, even though England basically doesn’t make it into the montage. Those non-sports-fan friends of mine will make fun of this, of what a frivolous waste of time all this sports watching is, of how I could care so much about people I don’t know. They are wrong though, because looking into the faces of the Germans that night, you knew that they were feeling something unique and something completely worth the years of watching, waiting, and heartbreak. I always think of Sapphire’s quotation in Almost Famous, a movie that has nothing to do with sports, but which has a great deal to do with being a fan: “[The new groupies] don’t even know what it is to be a fan. Y’know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.”  Sometimes it really does hurt (see: Brazil post-semifinal), sometimes it feels so great that we go temporarily insane(see: Germany post-victory), and this is the heart of the love of the game: the expansion of our emotional range, the chasing after new sensations, the reminder that after the darkest moments of doubt and loss can come the brightest of victories.

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2 comments

  1. I think that fans most certainly do have an impact on their teams. In American Football it’s most apparent to me (although I’m not really a sports person I pick some things up from my other half) the home team always has an advantage just because they have more fans to back them up. When the opposing team is playing offense the fans scream their heads of trying to drown out any communication between players. But I think it goes further than the physical aspects, just think of all that positive energy being pushed into the universe when fans all over the world are watching their teams.

    What an experience to have in a bar. It’s truly fascinating to me! I’ve seen fans go nuts when I’m actually at a game but never out in public where, in the US at least, the fans are always split up or there are other people around who don’t really follow the sport that’s being played at all.

    Thanks for sharing Alyx, as always your writing is lovely =)

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