Today I found myself longing for a Tuesday afternoon Carling Cup qualifier. Just me and a couple other obsessives who wanted to see their team’s young players in action, players that wouldn’t start for a couple of years, if ever. Or perhaps an early-season Serie A game at an empty, half-rate Little Italy bar, bartender flirting with a couple of Dutch tourists as I was bored and hypnotized, lulled, by the lazy back and forth of Parma and Bari in a game of absolutely no consequence.
Please understand: I love the World Cup. I am thrilled to see something that means so much to me mean so much to other people. I love how it connects the whole world. And yet- and I know it’s unfashionable- but there is a certain sadness, almost a mourning- that comes from suddenly having to share something that means so much to you with everyone else. The idea of sharing soccer with the whole world for an entire month suddenly struck me this afternoon as, well, rather profoundly exhausting.Of course, I am not exhausted by the soccer itself. I am exhausted by the astonishing, breathtaking surge of information about soccer. As the week progressed, and I became more inundated with minutiae about each team, and felt my compulsion to consume it grow, and then without warning, stop altogether, I’ve found it increasingly more difficult to hear the voice in my own head, and to document my own relationship to the game. And so I’m counting down the hours just like everyone else because I know it will be better as soon as the whistle blows. Because watching a game is the thing that refreshes me, that clears my head so I can hear that voice, and that organizes the space of my thoughts in a way I never thought possible.
I’ve been watching soccer on and off since the 1998 World Cup, but last year, when my life suddenly went topsy-turvy, watching games became the axis that I organized my life around. Because I knew that for that 90 minutes, I could just be. I did not have to think about myself, or anyone that wasn’t on a pitch across the ocean. And I was forced to concentrate in a way I never had in my entire life. Because the amount of attention I contributed to the game, to breaking down the plans of movement and linkages and patterns, intentional and accidental, was exactly what I would get back. It was an even exchange. I found that both fair and thrilling. In fact, I'd never experienced anything as thrilling as trying to solve the same equation of bodies and motion as a room full of silent strangers.
And it’s the preservation of these rooms and spaces that I’m most worried about in this, the most connected, commented on, tweeted, blogged event in history, where the real competition won’t be on the fields, but a minute-by-minute contest to see who is viewing the best and who can communicate it to the most people the quickest. Don’t get me wrong: I asked to be a part of this worldwide conversation because I love writing about soccer. But historically, while the game is actually on, my pleasure has come from the moments I share with the people around me, in flesh and blood, and I'm still hesitant to relinquish that. When I think about it, I always come back to this idea of quiet, but it’s not the lack of sound I’m trying to express: it’s the lack of noise. It’s the assertion and attempt to exist only where you are, in that second. Some people learn that from church, or meditation. I learned it by watching soccer in pubs.
One might argue that the World Cup has always been thrilling because we knew the whole world was watching: we could feel it. And then we could read it. And then we could see it. That’s true. But even if the whole world is watching, watching a soccer game in a bar, or a pub, or a park, or a town square, is one of the only true local acts left. It's in that place of postponement and magic when the outside disappears, time stops, and for a couple of moments, a new and complete community, in a new and complete universe, is created.
And how will our need to communicate at every instant affect what our experience of the game is? How do we avoid experiencing this World Cup only through transmission, and not through the act of being where we are? Will our need to communicate -a play, an injury, a bad call- make the scene itself only real to the people that read it, not the people that are there, in the room, the social club, the bar? Will the people in the room only truly feel that they’re there if the whole world has a picture of them there?
I recognize that it's time to fling open the doors of the pub, and let the world in, and hope and trust that it’s not that that the outside gets smaller, clenches down, but that the inside gets somehow bigger, richer, more present, and of course, more inclusive. Tonight, I’m worrying about these things. Tomorrow, the games will start, and I will rest.