Fever Pitch

January 24, 2009

A couple of years ago I fell in love with Barca (més que un club!). It’s hard to say why exactly. Maybe it was because they had these great stars, Ronaldinho, Zambrotta, Deco, Messi, Iniesta, Xavi (ok, gotta stop here because I love the entire team!). I’m sure that it helped that the local coffee shop was showing the games on Saturdays and Sundays and that the team was having a great season. And, it didn’t hurt that a book I had just read, How Soccer Explains the World, brilliantly explained why any person, whether or not they spoke Spanish or cared all that much about soccer, should support Barca. Everything simply came together. My daughter even bought me a Barca shirt last Xmas (’07) which I could wear on game days.

I should have been a very happy man, but nothing good ever seems to last. Barca’s ’07-’08 season was a major disappointment. Then, just as the team began turning things around this past fall, the coffee shop stopped showing the games. So I have been stuck with reading game scores on the internet. No futbol action for me.

Frustrated and desperate, I did the unthinkable: I ordered cable. It will get installed in another two weeks so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the team will keep its winning streak alive after I start tuning in. Of course, this means I’m going to pay a lot of money to watch the games at home by myself (soccer needs to be shared), but did I have a choice? Of course not.

If I was ever looking for some justification for my inexplicably expensive behavior, I could have found all that I needed on just about any page of Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby‘s rapturously romping memoir of soccer fan lunacy. I had bought the book last month for my daughter, partly because it had been recommended to me by a British fan at the coffee house (Brian – you were right. Thanks!), but ostensibly to help her with her 12th grade history paper on soccer, Barcelona, and the Spanish Civil War. Of course, I was going to read the book first if I got the chance, and I did. Hornby’s pain is the reader’s gain and it grows from page to page. Here are three of my favorite bits from the book:

from “No Apology Necessary” Arsenal v. Everton, 24.2.88, “Absurdly, I haven’t yet got around to saying that football is a wonderful sport, but of course it is. Goals have a rarity value that points and runs and sets do not, and so there will always be that thrill, the thrill of seeing someone do something that can only be done three or four times in a whole game if you are lucky, not at all if you are not. And I love the pace of it, its lack of formula; and I love the way that small men can destroy big men in a way that they can’t in other contact sports, and the way that the best team does not necessarily win.”

from “Home Début” Arsenal v. Stoke City, 14.9.68, “It wasn’t the size of the crowd that impressed me most, however, or the way that adults were allowed to shout the word “WANKER!” as loudly as they wanted without attracting any attention. What impressed me most was just how much most of the men around me hated, really hated, being there. As far as I could tell, nobody seemed to enjoy, in the way that I understood the word, anything that happened during the entire afternoon. Withing minutes of the kick-off there was real anger; as the game went on, the anger turned into outrage, and then seemed to curdle into sullen, silent discontent.”

from “Hillsborough” Arsenal v. Newcastle, 15.4.89, “If it is possible to attend and enjoy a football match sixteen days after nearly a hundred people died at one – and it is possible, I did it, despite my new post-Hillsborough realism – then perhaps it is a little easier to understand the culture and circumstances that allowed these deaths to happen. Nothing ever matters, apart from football.”

There are other bits that do a much better (and much funnier) job of explaining the undeniably insane nature of Hornby’s attachment to the sport, but these three summarize soccer in nearly-syllogistic terms: soccer is enjoyable, soccer fans do not “enjoy” themselves at games, yet they are driven to watch.

I have a co-worker who has grown up rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles. She told me that she was so upset that she couldn’t make herself watch the second half of the NFC title game last week (the Eagles had fallen far behind the Arizona Cardinals, but would take the lead in the second half, only to blow the game in the final minutes). She’s going to love this book.

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