Between the despair of defeats to the elation when you see a mazy dribble, football is captivating, and takes us to great emotional heights. It’s The Beautiful Game indeed.
On a bright day in early May 2018, I found myself repeating “football, bloody hell” on loop, in a stadium in the south-west of Germany. Surrounded by blurs of noise, and blue and white, I was gripped by a pure joy surprising not just in intensity, but also in its very existence. I closed my eyes for a second, so I could take a sunlit part of it away with me, stowed away for the days when I’ll desperately need it.
On that day, TSG Hoffenheim qualified for the Champions League for the first time ever, and I was there, one of 30,000 others. Yet, that day will go down as one of my best fan experiences irrespective of bearing witness to a historical moment. I’ll cherish it because of the electric atmosphere reverberating through the smallest stadium I’ve been in, because of the friend I went to the game with and the people I met, because I remembered what it was like to watch football for the sake of the game. After the toughest season in my 16 years of being an Arsenal fan, that victory versus Dortmund at the Rhine-Neckar Arena was something I never knew I needed. It answered the why. Why I’ve let a sport so overwhelm me, my heart, my life – and why I do so happily and gratefully.
But, only a day later, as I was on the train, shrouded by the the rain, the grey, and the hastened dark, I felt a weight settle in my stomach. It refused to budge. Yes, I was missing Arsene Wenger’s last game in charge, but I’d already said my goodbyes when I wrote his tribute, then at the Lir with the Boston Gooners for his last home game on a glorious London afternoon. But I was suddenly, inexplicably emotionally spent and even the thought of the upcoming World Cup couldn’t lift the veil.
April 16, 2003 was my first Arsenal game. It was a 2-2 draw versus Ferguson’s Manchester Utd and, as most of that season, I was watching with a Man Utd fan, a friend. He tried so hard to shift my burgeoning loyalties to the sport in the direction of Old Trafford, but couldn’t stop the pull of the lads from Highbury – and their bespectacled professor-like manager.
Wenger, the only manager I’ve ever known, became responsible for showing a 12-year-old girl just how much beauty there was to be had in the game, and, eventually, in life. Now, I was struggling to justify its importance and my own purpose as a football writer; as a writer, period, and I couldn’t muster the resilience that being an Arsenal fan, or simply a football fan, engenders.
In his fabulous piece on why football matters, Joel Slagle talks about our act of wilful authenticity in accepting that football is essentially meaningless but still marvellous. By consciously entering into this pact with ourselves and the game, we are revolting against this essential meaninglessness of life itself.
Composer Richard Wagner came up with the notion of “universal art”, believing that art, equally like science, can be a celebration of the communion with the universe. He’s not alone in the pantheon of greats, alive and gone, who shook a fist in the face of the inherent desolation and emptiness that surrounds us, in order to decipher the point of our existence even as our solar system careens through space toward a point east of Hercules, wherever that may be.
As a writer, this isn’t the first time I’ve questioned my purpose or my usefulness. But each time of doubt feels new and bottomless. Language, Toni Morrison argued, may be the measure of a life whose only meaning is that we die. But what is it that we’re measuring? Actions, not words, matter, we’re all taught as children and reminded as teens and adults. What then can black marks on a page or sounds on a screen achieve? What can a ball kicked across a field by 22 men hope to accomplish?
On prior occasions, it has been easier to find the answer to why football matters. As a 12 year old, I watched a smiling Ronaldinho Gaucho bend the laws of physics in my first proper World Cup match. As a 20 year old, I experienced the visceral nature of my first live match, a 2-0 win for Arsenal versus Manchester City; I sung and cheered and jumped amidst the red and white on a spring day in North London, 5000 miles from home. As a 21 year old, I learned how geniuses see and create space as I witnessed Iniesta and Messi and Xavi work in tandem live at the Camp Nou. Beyond the sporting memories, football has given me friends and connections and the chance to meet legends. And, no matter how hard it is being a fan, it’s always, always worth it.
It’s hard to make this point without a cliché, but there’s truth in signs; in words and stories and people finding you at the “right” time. And that must mean that some miniscule part of the universe cares enough about you, you whose very existence is proof of an improbability made true, against all laws and beliefs.
The universe cares about you enough to quietly place in front of you Under the Lights and In the Dark. Beautiful stories of women around the world who pursue the sport for no other reason than love and passion – captured for posterity by a writer who cares, who’s making a difference through her words.
It cares about you enough to remind you, through beloved actors from your teens, that everyone, no matter how great their life seems, is working, struggling and growing through their insecurities; that being creators can be incredibly frustrating and nerve-racking but equally rewarding.
It cares about you enough to send you a message from David Winner (whose Stillness and Speed has lifted you at another particularly uncertain time) who says that you really “got” his work.
And it cares about you enough to make you remember, through the tournament, the World Cup, that began your footballing journey all those years ago, why the sport’s important. Why, to you and to millions of others, it will always matter.
“When you least expect it, the impossible occurs: the dwarf teaches the giant a lesson, and a scraggy, bow-legged black man makes an athlete sculpted in Greece look ridiculous.” – Eduardo Galeano
My father always says our purpose in life is to find our own meaning and leave the world a little more beautiful than we found it. We exist on a planet that, as Cornelia Funke points out, is spinning at a very fast speed around an extremely big, fiery ball of gas that is our main source of natural light. Our world is fantasy, our universe is fantasy. We are probably never going to get all the answers. So why not make our own meaning?
When you think about yourself as part of a larger design, something clicks into place. As artists and creators, and simply as humans. Art is what everything else is for, Neil Gaiman says, and who am I to question him?
“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” – Gandalf
And if that meaning comes through football, so be it. Let us enjoy the sport’s capacity for surprise, for the gravity-defying moments that bind us to a communal communion with the universe. Embrace the stories, the people, the euphoria, the pain.
Football, just like anything else, is us shouting into the void, boats against the current; it is a testament to, among other things, the incomparable human capacity for hope. And with words, as writers, we can only hope to try and capture a part of its essence, to borrow some of its magic to create our own, just for a while…all the while accepting that it’s all fleeting, that there’s always going to be what Eduardo Galeano called that “irreparable melancholy we all feel after making love and at the end of the match.” But, as we fans know, there’s always the next one.