By J. Blue Chattigre
It’s a familiar enough expression, but we seldom get the opportunity to actually use it in real life, much less see and feel the real thing for ourselves. But when England prevailed over Colombia, after a roller-coaster penalty kick shootout following an already heartbreaking end to regulation and thus earning a spot in the World Cup quarterfinals, we got to see and feel the genuine article by virtue of the fact that so many of us are rooting for them this time around and practically everyone has a video camera now. And because managers in pubs and outdoor watch parties make it a point to have cameras rolling at all times in case something happens. And something did, finally, the moment the match was won.
The nature of victory is always fleeting and nevermore when it’s the Round of 16, but this victory lingered, not least because England had been so dreadful for so long where the hopes and expectations of millions were repeatedly dashed, but because this team, tied with France as the second-youngest in the field, came in without having to bring with it that mountain of awful, tacky, expensive baggage. These boys were innocent. They aren’t globally famous, except for maybe Kane. And so they were free to play—just play. And when football is played well, it rewards us with beauty and joy and occasionally breaks our hearts which is what makes us love it even more.
I didn’t grow up playing or watching soccer. I played tennis and baseball and so I watched tennis and baseball, whereas watching soccer felt like a gigantic waste of time. But then I started working at Nike Town Portland selling athletic shoes and apparel, and the 1998 World Cup in France that summer became required reading amongst my newest best friends. And I started by staring at the screen, still blind to what was actually happening in front of me. But in that staring, at Brazil with the original Ronaldo who was a more complete player than the current Ronaldo, at England with a fast and lethal 18-year old named Michael Owen, at France with Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane at the height of their powers, gradually, I started to see the music, the beauty of the game. Because it’s musical somehow, this beauty, once glimpsed, and it’s that rare kind of beauty that feels both exultant while reducing us to tears of gratitude that lasts our entire lifetimes. It’s not unlike poetry at its best in that regard as it turns out.
And here was an England side that had in addition to Owen … David Beckham, Alan Shearer, Sol Campbell, Gareth Southgate (England’s current leader), Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, and Les and Rio Ferdinands. Rare talents all, the plum of the Premiership, which I also started staring at religiously— especially Liverpool, because of the young speedster. I still remember Owen’s run up the middle against Argentina with three defenders to beat, burying a cheekily angled yet sharply worded chip-shot into the opposite corner that completely took everyone’s breath away. Which was also what made the English Premier League so exciting to watch, because these lightning-quick counterstrikes could happen at any time and seemingly out of nowhere. England would only add to this already starry lineup with guys like Lampard, Terry, Rooney, and my other favorite Liverpool player, Steven Gerrard—and yet there were still none of the international trophies we all expected them to claim. Instead, they gave us tabloids, betrayals and melodrama. All the talent and promise of an England Golden Generation, squandered and dashed at the altar of fame and club over country with nothing to show for it but regret and painful memories.
I don’t like for matches to have to end on a penalty shootout. I much prefer the outcome to be decided during the run of play, because that’s where the beauty comes from, not from something as surgical and mathematical as penalty kicks. But they are exciting, and this one against Colombia was rather perfectly choreographed for its delivery of maximum terror, hope and salvation. At two all, the unknown-as-yet go-ahead goal crossed the line. The next shot, ours, was blocked. Dread and doom, oh no please God not again, once more reared to strike. But then they missed one. Suddenly hope. Followed by a heroic block by Pickford that transformed that hope into a chance, which the very next shot made a certainty.
And all those old disappointments instantly fell away and in fact could now be forgiven, from both sides. We collectively owe that group of players our profound apology for expecting too much from them. Because their lives should be private and this game is really hard, I know, I tried once and it was awful. I’d much rather have an opponent in front of me whom I can concentrate all my time on. But football isn’t about that. Football’s about something else. But one thing football isn’t really about is the dumb trophies. It’s not even about the win-loss record. It’s about whether your play produces beauty and joy in the hearts of human beings.
And no other sport, no other anything, is capable of delivering this to us so consistently and unconditionally as football does on a regular schedule on every continent all over the world, which is what the World Cup celebration is all about. It’s a very weird and slightly creepy relationship, but football played beautifully gives us something we can’t name, describe, get anywhere else or complain about even when it hurts us, when it’s painful, when it breaks our hearts over and over. We can’t live without it. Because we would still rather feel it than not. This game is capable of giving us something beautiful that fills our hearts with joy. A pure unbridled joy of the purest sort. It destroys us and makes us feel destroyed yet whole in the process while filling us with wonder and excitement to the point of panic. To see a Lionel Messi goal develop is to experience something unique. Type “Messi” into YouTube and you’re guaranteed awe. And it’s right that his name is Messi because he’s the Jesus of football. He walks among us and his name is what he is, the Messiah, which should be obvious to everyone but you’d be surprised how many still doubt. It’s shocking actually, like they think the earth is flat.
So the far more important thing that happened when England won was our finally forgiving them their past disappointments and they in turn forgiving us our indifference, our obsession, our cruelty as fans. The long hoped for reconciliation had happened. The spell of winning was broken, but at least the curse was lifted.
And they gave us beautiful football in the process. It was, again and at last, beautiful to watch. You could see the logic of it, the convincing arguments, the crescendos and clever ideas finally rewarded with goals and victories. And it may be true that we didn’t deserve it all the time as fans, the way some of us have behaved, the horrible things we said about Rooney in particular, but we could finally be forgiven for all of it. And we always knew you had that in you—beauty in your own creation as well as the capacity to forgive. Hence why I root for this team. They deserve to win every once in a while. And with this young squad, they were winning, like we always knew they could.
We all want our kids to succeed, especially at something they created, perfected and shared with the world. But this time it almost didn’t matter that they couldn’t get past the semis, and it certainly didn’t matter what happened in the runner-up match. I didn’t watch that match because I knew they’d lose—the spell had already been broken; their run in this World Cup had already ended. But not before we saw the beauty for ourselves. It was there. It was there and we saw it again. And this team is really young! So we just have to be patient. Because in four years, this young, hungry team that’s been playing together since they were kids and who thank heaven don’t carry the burden of the team’s fraught legacy, are going to be 28 the next time we hold this tournament. Twenty-eight. Remember twenty-eight? This team is going to be amazing. This team is going to win.
So we just have to find something useful to do to fill our time before 2022.
Which brings me finally to what this is all about. The question then becomes, is it enough that our purest form of pure unbridled joy comes from the witnessing of this human contraption for fun played beautifully? Is that the best there is, there ever was or would be, to why we’re alive? Surely, there must be more to why we are here. What about our children for Messi’s sakes, and the higher ideals of why our species should matter at all? All our hopes and aspirations that extend beyond who and what we are in a singular, desperate exaltation: I am not an animal. I am more. And we still struggle with this question, in 2018, still. As always. And the choice then becomes, for each of us, if this is all there is, is this enough? and knowing that our collective answer, for the sane among us anyway, to the question among all questions, is this enough? would be yes, of course it’s enough, did you see the backspin on that pass? and to have to reckon with the fact that this is, without question, a profound defeat of some kind. A profound failing. That this is what would make us happiest. A trophy.
So, what are we left with and what are we to do? I have no earthly idea. But I do know that this sport, this game, whatever you want to call it and even whoever invented it at this point it doesn’t matter, somehow mysteriously taps into something we need as a species, and does so so deftly and balletically as to leave us gasping in disbelief, delivering perhaps the greatest expression of pure unbridled joy there is, that there is possible, in the world amongst our kind. And if you’re liable to agree with me, we’re in a lot of trouble.
J. Blue Chattigré is a poet and writer living in Portland, Oregon. By day he works for a non-profit health care company; by night he sleeps, mostly.