A midweek, afternoon game and I find myself in Minnesota, a bit north of St. Paul at the home of my in-laws. They don’t have cable, and it seems too antisocial to borrow a car and drive into the cities for Brit’s Pub. (The decision not to go to Brit’s Pub, by the way, is purely situational. If it were the end of the season, rather than the second game, or if it was a cup game, or a game I felt more confident about winning, I might prove to be a less socially minded guest.)
But, after looking up the lineups on ESPNFC and watching the buildup on Twitter, I suddenly decide it’s time to go running.
While I’m running, of course, I think of nothing except soccer.
Being a fan of a team that plays far away creates all sorts of conundrums. The home-team fan, if he is a season ticket holder, can attend most or all of the home games, splash out on a select few away fixtures, and feel no guilt about watching the rest on TV. Even if the rest are not available on TV, reading the results afterward can’t be too agonizing; after all, he is there for most of the games.
Being a fan of a team that plays approximately 4,000 miles away is a different matter entirely. All of my watching is mediated. At best, I can watch the games live on TV. Often, owing to job, family, the various volunteering in which I’ve managed to ensnare myself, I can’t, so I record the games. (With an early morning flight from Chicago to the Twin Cities, I didn’t even remember to set the DVR, and, at any rate, I won’t be back until Saturday.) When that isn’t possible, I’ve followed the as-it-happens live blogging on the Guardian, or the live stream on the Villa site.)
The worst of the worst is following a game on Twitter, waiting interminable minutes for a tweet telling you that Karim el-Ahmady has scuffed a shot just wide of the post.
So I’m running, figuring I’ll return around halftime, sparing myself at least forty-five minutes of staring at my phone, refreshing the stream, and pretending to listen to the conversation going on around me. I’d really rather be back in Chicago, hiding from the score with Simon Leach, knowing I’d be able to watch the replay at the Globe Pub with Simon and whichever other odd supporters turn up. (Praying that some Arsenal fan, still chafing from last week’s humiliation at the emirates, won’t snidely tell us the final score just after kickoff.)
“Hiding from the game”—what a uniquely modern phenomenon. When did it start? Probably a week after the first programmable VCR went on sale.
One of the reasons I love sports, soccer in particular, is that I don’t know how they will end. As a novelist, and someone who has reviewed approximately six hundred books, I have a keenly developed sense of how most fictional scenarios will unfold, and, much as I love reading, I often turn to sports for real drama. (Sometimes real characters, too.) Watching a live game, a game that counts, can be exquisite agony. And so, to preserve that feeling of agony, we suddenly start avoiding the streams of information in which we normally swim, pleading with fellow fans not to share the score, not to call, text or email us. We trot down airport terminals without glancing right or left. If we see someone wearing a particular shirt, we immediately turn around, not wanting to see whether their expression is one of triumph or despair.
It’s not easy. Sometimes my father will text me an innocuous, “Are you watching?” and I find myself scrutinizing those three words for deeper meaning. Is he asking whether I’m watching because he’s not watching, or because he is? Is it a real cracker of a game that I should be watching, but, out of respect for my fragile mental state, he’s trying to preserve a deadpan tone? Does the deadpan tone hide amazement at a high-scoring victory-in-progress sure to lift me to exultation? Or, you know, the other thing. Probably that.
Having successfully hidden from a score, with the kids in bed and the wife resignedly opening a book, the fan (e.g., me), opens a beer, maybe pops some popcorn, and settles in to watch. When at home, you would think this was mission accomplished: after all, there is nothing and no one that can ruin the carefully preserved illusion of real-time game-time agony. Right?
Wrong. Now there is a whole new level of agony. Because the fan (for the sake of argument, again, let’s say it’s me) knows he still holds the result in the palm of his hand, in the form of a much-more-complicated-than-necessary remote control. At any point, he (I) can fast forward to the next goal, to the half, to the very end of the game. Needless to say, this requires extraordinary self-control. In many cases, this power, the knowledge that you could know, adds an intensifier to an already heady brew, like a shot of whiskey dropped into a pint of beer (not that I have ever tried that, but, you know, I’ve heard of it).
Sometimes I don’t possess that much self-control. Sometimes I just can’t stand it. Sometimes we’re losing and I tell myself that I don’t want to waste that much time and emotion on another disheartening loss. But they could come back, I argue, and isn’t the unknowing what I’ve worked so hard to preserve? I fast-forward five minutes, disgusted, then debate myself all over again. If I do fast-forward, and Villa do make a late comeback, then I haven’t put in the emotional effort as a fan to deserve the celebrations, right?
But they probably won’t come back.
But what if they do?
It’s pathetic, really, but one of those fascinating conundrums produced by technology that allows us to know everything that’s happening everywhere at any time (except, perhaps, what truly lies in the hearts of our elected leaders)—so we manufacture a situation that allows us to recreate the emotional investment of a simpler time, when things simply played out in real time and you were there and you saw it or you weren’t and you didn’t.
Being a soccer fan, being a sports fan, is a lot harder than anyone gives us credit for.
So, as I say, I was hiding from the game in a different way. I took a very slow run in very high humidity along Pleasant Lake, turning around when I reached the former grave site of railroad tycoon James J. Hill and his wife, Mary. When I returned, the game was in progress, and, by virtue of refreshing my smartphone and being conversationally somewhat absent, I was able to learn that Antonio Luna, who we loved on Saturday, gave away an own goal early on. That Benteke equalized. (Come on, Chelsea, you planning to score anytime or are you going to let Villa do all the work?) That we may have had a shout for a red card on Ivanovic. And then, naturally, he gets the winning goal for his side. Oh, and we may have a had a case for handball against Terry at the death.
I haven’t watched any of the video yet as I write this, and so this take on the game was filtered through the folks I follow on Twitter, none of them true-blue Chelsea supporters. (In my defense, some of them are actual sports journalists like Henry Winter.)
So it seems a hard loss, and yet, a week ago, would we have dreamed that we had a respectable chance to take six points from the first two games? I’m sure some of us were just hoping to get through the games without being found out, then hoping for a point at home against Liverpool. (Not me, you understand; I’m just saying.)
So three points against Arsenal away, a strong showing against Chelsea away (can’t wait to hear what the Special Happy Chosen One has to say about us; I’m sure he won’t agree), and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we can pick up three points against a Liverpool attack that will surely lack its usual bite. (Sorry, I meant to say that the Reds’ offense would be toothless.) And David Moyes was complaining about his opening schedule? Crybaby.