“It’s Only A Game” – Why Football Matters

Have you ever been told matter-of-factly, on a miserable Monday morning, that it’s “only a game”? Joel Slagle explains why football matters and that you’re not alone.
Have you ever been told matter-of-factly, on a miserable Monday morning, that it's "only a game"? Here's Mr. Slagle on how it clearly isn't and why football matters.
Brazil superfan Clovis Fernandes’ picture from the 2014 World Cup semifinal tells us everything about how much fans invest into the game.

My wife doesn’t particularly care for football. She tolerates it, and generally leaves me to it when I watch a match at home. One Sunday though, she saw me getting more and more upset as my team was on the receiving end of – what I perceived to be – a series of increasingly poor refereeing decisions. My team lost 3-2 after having two men sent off and letting in a late winner. I seethed, and then my wife said it: “It’s only a game.”

But it isn’t, is it? In the 1997 film adaptation of Nicky Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Paul is feeling low following Arsenal’s draw at home to Derby County and his girlfriend tells him it’s only a game. He explodes and says, “it quite clearly isn’t ‘only a game.’ I mean, if it was, do you honestly think I’d care this much?!”

Why do I care this much? After all, this is just 22 men running around kicking a ball. There are plenty of bigger issues to address in the world, but I keep coming back to football. The fact you are reading this means I am not the only one.

We care because football is an ontological shortcut. Most of us are unable to spend our days meditating on cognition, reality, and being. So, our brain develops a shorthand to make sense of it all, and it is expressed in a variety of ways: religion, philosophy, psychology, scientific inquiry, or… football. Indeed, the early days of VAR and slow-motion replays indicate we all could do with more time spent pondering the nature of comprehension when we cannot agree on what is a foul and what is a dive.

The debate over what is a foul has more to do with tribalism, however, than comprehensive reality. Football though can occasionally allow us to throw off the shackles of conformity and appreciate a much greater perspective. As Srijandeep Das wrote recently, football, like art, is a celebration of a communion with the universe and a revolt against meaninglessness. Sport, at its deepest level of understanding, hints at an absolute reality of perfection. A pinpoint cross resulting in a smashing header, for example, can be so satisfying it allows us a glimpse of what Thomas Aquinas called actus purus: the very nature of God.

It is not all cerebral though. At its most basic level of understanding, football is visceral. Michael “Dave-O” Davies and Roger “Rog” Bennett, the Men in Blazers, once discussed on their podcast what the point of sport was. Davies argued that, surely, the point was to win. Bennett disagreed, and told an anecdote of when he visited Goodison Park as a boy to watch Everton; the Toffees scored and the man behind him jumped up and shouted, “Take that, Gloria!” Young Roger turned around asked him who Gloria was. The man sheepishly replied that she was his ex-wife, and she loved the opposing team. That, he argued, was the point of sport. He elaborated later and called football “a safe, emotionally rich world filled with a bizarre array of characters…  It prevents you from being plagued by your own failings, the world’s failings, your own flaws, and the flaws of those around you.”

In the moment of that Everton goal, the man behind Roger was able to cry out from the depths of his pain, self-doubt, failure, and anger. This was not only a game; this was primal scream therapy. Football frees us to rage at the injustice, hurt, and frustrations we encounter in way that is not acceptable in most of civilized society.

However, experiencing the joys of football also opens one up to experience its pain. After all, is there any feeling more fleeting than the joy of victory? A. E. Housman wrote that the laurel withers quicker than the rose, and as a Chelsea fan, the pleasure of seeing the team crowned champion in May was already tempered with worries about next season. For centuries, when a new pope assumed office, his procession to the Vatican would be punctuated by the master of ceremonies halting him, burning flax, and shouting mournfully that thus passes the glory of the world. I personally think that would make a fantastic addition to every champion’s victory parade.

Regardless of what happened last season, August always brings enthusiasm. A newly signed striker promises excitement, while the new center-back will usher in a period of solidity heretofore unknown in the history of the club. Maybe. What a new season really brings is hope  – a belief that THIS year, it will be different. If not this year, then definitely next year, and so and so on. If there is never an ultimate winner and with hope constantly, damnably springing eternal, why bother with the present? With enough perspective, every season, whether good or bad, becomes meaningless. A gamer recently simulated 1,000 years of English soccer on Football Manager; I was intrigued and read the article hoping for… something. Surely after a 1,000 years there would be a champion of the football. There wasn’t. It went on, interminably.

If I accept that this whole sports thing is without objective meaning – and I suppose on a rational level I do – then that means every game I watch or play has the potential to be either exquisite or excruciating. The fact that I’m genuinely excited ahead of each new season leads me to believe I find it all (the pleasure, the pain, the worry, the fear, the anger, the joy, Diego Costa) exquisite. I have chosen to participate in the playing or viewing of football knowing it is ultimately meaninglessness, but existentially marvelous. It’s a willful act of authenticity pursued to the end of time.

As we enter into spring, we enter the most soul-sapping point of football’s calendar. It is becoming more and more obvious who will win the title, who will be relegated, and who are simply making up the numbers. Interest is starting to wane. No wonder T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month; he must have been Arsenal fan. And, yet, there is still beauty to be found.

Red Star Belgrade fans remonstrate against NATO. Fans have often used stadium for socio-political dialogue.

That joy can be found by becoming deeply absorbed in the game. In the documentary Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait the filmmaker follows the Madrid maestro in a tight close up for an entire match; Zidane is so engaged in the activity, he does not realize he repeatedly, unconsciously drags the toe of his boot across the grass. I thought of Konstantin Levin from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Throughout the novel, he frustratedly searches for meaning in his life. In one of the most beautiful chapters of a beautiful book, Levin loses himself in his work, mowing hay in the fields.

Coming off the pitch after a hotly contested Sunday league game, I feel the same exhilaration and peace Levin felt in the “the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed not his hands that swung the scythe, but the scythe mowing of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own… These were the most blissful moments.” Asking me why football matters is like asking Billy Elliot what it feels like when he dances: it’s not only a game. It’s electricity.