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There’s something masochistic about watching a bad soccer match. It takes a certain type of fan to endure the moments of sheer boredom as players kick the ball to no one and swarm without rhyme or reason. Throw in a dirt pitch in a provincial outpost, and you have a game hardly anyone would want to watch.
But that’s what I did last week: I watched Joe Public lose to the Montreal Impact from Port-of-Spain, Trinidad on FSC. This was a long-ball-to-the-striker, knock-down-the-defender-and-run-to-goal kind of match, a long way away from the idea of the “beautiful game.” But for me-maybe I’ve read too much of V.S. Naipaul’s post-colonial literature-there’s something both exotic and reassuring about seeing a dull match between two small teams on a small island in the West Indies. A match like this shows you something about reality, and about how soccer can sometimes lift you out of it.
These are grassroots players, after all, especially on the Joe Public side. The wages they receive are minuscule and the coverage outside their own country is nonexistent. What else can they play for but the passion of the game? There’s something almost existential about the soccer player in a small country: he continues to play game after game, year after year, when there’s no possible chance for advancement. He’s stuck with the same ten teams in the league, traveling to the same venues year after year, and getting beaten by the same big teams in continental competition.
Yet there was something artful about the play of both teams even on this lumpy pitch. The occasional touches of brilliance seemed to reveal some other way of playing the game, a way far above the heads of these players. But soccer is soccer, and it sometimes happens that even everyday people will enjoy a moment of greatness: when the player whose touch usually lands five feet away from him whirls around the defenders and slots the ball in the lower corner, temporarily becoming a genius akin to Pele.
Anything can happen, even in a match like this. These were everyday people like me, attempting to make sense of an incredibly complex game. I admit I’m even worse than these professionals. When I step on the field, my skill is so low that I can’t even stop to admire the random complexity of the game: how a game can change with one pass, one deflection, one touch of the ball. The goal I scored the other day for my high school team is an example: I was in the right place at the right time. I could’ve been anywhere on the field, but I happened to be exactly where the ball was and I headed it in and I scored. How would the game have changed had I arrived a second too late? All the variables would be impossibly distorted.
Only after the game, and watching other games, can I truly appreciate soccer. It really is a form of art. And this is why we play the game time after time: we wish to imitate the great, temporarily become the great, before diving back into reality and returning to the level of play we’ve known our whole lives. We struggle to replicate the great works of art we’ve seen on television: the curling free kicks, the audacious lobs, the courageous penalty saves. Most times we fail because we’re human. The few times we succeed, we become larger than life.
I don’t know if I’ll ever stop following soccer. I suppose I will sometime, sobered by reality and adulthood. But the thing that brings me back time and time again is this Sisyphean struggle for perfection: every time we touch the ball, we want to take it to goal and score. Every time a defender steamrolls us, we pick ourselves up, tell ourselves it was only a mistake, and keep playing. It’s the only thing we can do.
Back to Port-of-Spain. The second half minutes tick down and the camera pans around the half-empty stadium revealing insipid managers and bored ball boys. But it’s almost comforting watching a dreadful second half as two teams run out of steam after taking care of all of the scoring in the first half. In fact, it’s calming and strangely reminiscent of something. Reality.
Written by Andrew Sartorious
This article is a submission for the Soccerlens 2008 Writing Competition; to participate, please read the details here. The competition is sponsored by Subside Sports (premier online store for football shirts) and Icons (official signed football jerseys).