This post is, ostensibly, about soccer. Hence the title. But really, it's about sports more broadly. Why do we care so much about what happens when grown men - exceptionally wealthy grown men - throw and kick round and oblate balls around variously-shaped fields? What is the deal with our global fascination with competition, whether it be corporate - as in club football, or the NFL, or the MLB - or nationalistic - as in the World Cup and the Olympics? Why, in short, are the people of Ghana so upset after today's match?
It was hard to believe, really, watching the end of it. The announcers kept talking about a script, ignoring that no one could possibly come up with something so improbable on sheer imagination. As if the drama of the sole African team remaining in a tournament played for the first time in Africa, pitted against one of the founding nations of the tournament - but a nation who has not won in 60 years - were not enough, the game went to extra time, and then to penalties.
None of that is unbelievable. What is unbelievable is how extra time ended, with a missed penalty that could have and should have sent Ghana to the semi-finals to meet a solid Netherlands side that had upset Brazil only hours earlier.
Back up. First, it's worth mentioning that this extra time looked like the standard fare. Both teams seemingly said to themselves "you know what, let's just hold here and do the penalty thing." That's not to say they gave up, but there's a certain caginess that goes with that last half-hour of cup soccer, especially because most players have already been on the pitch for 90+ minutes and, frankly, don't have a lot left in the tank. Recall the USA's loss to Ghana, and how winded and desperate the team looked while trying to secure an equalizer. Imagine those bodies not needing a goal, needing only to play good enough defense to keep the score where it is. That's why so many of these tied matches go to penalties.
So Uruguay and Ghana were exhausted, and they were tentative. Ghana had just come off of an extra time win themselves, and they were clearly hesitant to overextend their attack and give an opening on the break to Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, Uruguay's top-flight striker tandem.
As extra time wound down, Ghana was awarded a free kick from far enough outside the box that a shot on goal was impractical. There were mere seconds left in extra time, and penalties were a forgone conclusion if only Uruguay's keeper could wrap up the ball or one of the defenders could clear it in whatever direction was most convenient. We were late enough that even conceding a corner would have brought an end to the match.
Instead, the ball bobbled around, and the keeper was beaten. Ghana put a shot on goal, only to see it kicked out at the goal line by a Uruguayan defender. The ball rebounded to another Ghanan player, who sent it towards goal again, where Luis Suarez did the only thing he could do, he batted it away with his outstretched hand. He was, of course, given a red card, and Ghana was given a penalty for the foul in the box.
This, alone, was unlike anything most soccer fans have ever seen. Suarez was sent off for the intentional hand ball, but he had saved Uruguay's World Cup, if only for a few minutes. He was distraught, of course, assuming that the penalty would be converted. The seconds between the handball and the penalty were odd for that reason: it was as if Ghana had scored - and they would have without Suarez's violation - but it was almost like a late-game NFL replay where no one is quite sure whether the receiver's feet landed in bounds. Or it was as if the ball was rolling towards the empty goal, but it wasn't clear whether it had enough momentum to cross the line.
Everything happened faster than that, though. Ghana's Asamoah Gyan stepped up and clanged the penalty off of the crossbar before Suarez could get down the tunnel. Upon hearing that Uruguay was still alive, he came bolting back towards the pitch, exuberant in the knowledge that he had, ultimately, saved his team and not doomed it, and all because of something done while he was 100 meters away and out of sight.
To Gyan's credit, he made the first of Ghana's penalties in the shootout, but Uruguay capped the dramatic victory by shooting with more composure. And just like that, Ghana's carriage turned back into a pumpkin. Like fans of England, Italy, France, the United States, and all of the other countries that have been eliminated - and let's not forget Costa Rica, Russia, and the myriad countries that were eliminated before the Cup began - Ghanaian fans watched heartbroken as the Uruguayan team celebrated on the field. On, in some sense, their field. Indeed, for that reason, and above all for the drama of the thing, this was a harder loss to swallow than any suffered by any other nation in the World Cup.
Soccer has become, I think, my second favorite sport (behind baseball, of course). It has been growing on me since I watched my brother play as a kid (I never played myself), and we imagined that he would one day be the striker that led team USA to World Cup glory. We were up at 3 in the morning in 2002 cheering on Landon Donovan and company as their hopes were crushed by Germany in the quarterfinals, but with high hopes for 2006 and beyond. I found myself, later, watching European Champions League matches in a packed common-room in college (it speaks to the oddities of St. John's that more students watched the European Champions Cup Final than the World Series).
But why? What is it about soccer? Indeed, what is it about sports? I find soccer incredibly frustrating to watch when I am rooting for someone. The ebb and flow of the game is so much more violent than in almost any other sport. Possession can change in seconds, and a near miss on the attack can - and often does - turn into a goal on the counter. In no other sport does the score mean so much. A team might spend 80 minutes chasing the goal they gave up in the 6th minute, abandoning their entire game-plan. Or a team might try to hold a 1-0 advantage against a superior opponent, giving up on attack entirely and thus living and dying with the bend and spin of shots taken from just outside the penalty area, hoping that the rebound doesn't end up on a striker's foot. Regardless, each goal transforms tactics, transforms strategy, and transforms the watcher's interaction. And so you can't lose focus for even a second, as a player or as a fan.
When I'm not rooting for anyone, that ebb and flow is fascinating. The tactics of soccer are unmatched, because they are as intricate as American Football whilst taking place in real-time. The physical skill needed to play the game is general - pace, stamina, strength, and so on help as much as in any sport - but also specific in that players must be able to direct the ball accurately without using their hands. The precision of the strikes of International stars makes it easy to forget how hard it is for most of us to kick a stationary ball 20 yards without it zipping around in unintended directions.
Is that it, though? Is it the combination of the mental and the physical that intrigues me, intrigues, indeed, the entire world? And what of baseball, or basketball, or cricket, curling, rugby, tennis, polo, or (our) football?
Drama has something to do with it, of course, and that drama comes from the finality of victory and defeat. Every sport, in the end, has more failure than success in it. For every champion, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of losers. In most Cinderella stories the evil step-sisters win. So what is more dramatic than victory? What more meaningful to a species that is always searching for meaning? Victory is something certain in an uncertain world, something we can hold on to, something we can unite around. It's no wonder fans say "we" when their team wins, "they" when the team loses.
I think it's more than that, though. Fandom that cares only about victory and defeat is shallow. Why, if victory is all that matters, am I happier watching the other nations - not the USA - in the World Cup? Why, indeed, was I a happier Rockies fan back when the expectation was that the club would battle for 4th place, and not for a playoff spot?
Victory alone is limiting, and dangerously addicting. Too many fans, I think, get caught up in wins and losses, get caught up thinking that what matters is the outcome of the game, or even of a play. What strikes me as more important, though, is the art of the games we follow. Indeed, I would argue that, in our modern era, athletic competition has become our more refined art form, our most respected creative pursuit. Just as the Romantic era honored its composers, and the baroque its painters, we're in the Athletic era, when art is spontaneous and physical.
Sports - as they stand in the modern world - are an outgrowth of the spirit of jazz. In almost every competition what draws us are those extemporaneously constructed solos set against the background of a familiar theme, and supported by an able band. Just as in the 30s bebop listeners would bob along with a Charlie Parker solo, knowing that Dizzy was right behind him, and that the rhythm section had his back, we love to watch the artists of modern sport, their foils, and the teams that make it possible. Indeed, like in music, while we honor those stars, we know that, deep down, the best player in the world is nothing without a good team, just like Bird without a good drummer keeping the beat.
Don't get me wrong, competition is not incidental to sports. Competition is not incidental to any art. The need to be the best, to out-do one's opponents, to achieve victory, all of that is a huge part of why athletes and artists (and indeed anyone) does what they do. Victory and defeat - we might as well say life and death - are an integral part of the canvas of human experience. Without them, there's no art at all.
Is it any wonder, then, that soccer is called "The Beautiful Game?" Is it any wonder that there's a special place in the Baseball Hall of Fame for the Vin Scullys of the world, who nightly turn competition into words and stories and art? Is it any wonder, indeed, that we have "Halls of Fame" to begin with, or that elder statesmen in every sport strive to instruct young players in the history of the game?
I suppose it's hard to describe watching Ghana lose to Uruguay this afternoon as beautiful. It was hardly that. But it was every bit as moving and as surprising as a piece of music nonetheless. I don't mean, ultimately, that is was like something from a movie, as the announcer described, but rather, that it was so much better than that. Here was art for arts sake, sport for sports sake. Sure there's all the money, all the hype, all the over-extended metaphors (of which I too am guilty, I suppose), but, in the end, there was something pure that sits below all of the silly language we're reduced to using when trying to describe anything meaningful in the world.
The Beautiful Game, like any game, isn't really all that profound. What makes it so gripping - what makes me a sports fan - is that it seems so profound even when I know it isn't. The cynic in me suggests that maybe all art is like that. Even if it's not, even if some things really are profound, I think that sports occupy that seemingly-profound space because, despite their unscripted, unpolished, sometimes brutal, often money-grubbing exterior, the heart of why we play and why we watch and why we care does matter, even if none of the particulars do.