An emotional game, horribly so

In the late 1960s, Dick Cecil—who would go on to be one of the founding members of the North American Soccer League and vice-President of the Atlanta Chiefs—went to England on an exploratory trip. He had never been a soccer fan but was intrigued by those who were formulating the idea of starting a league in North America.

Just what, he wondered, was all the fuss about?

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Along with Phil Woosnam, who would leader become the charismatic and overly optimistic NASL commissioner, Cecil attended a match setting Tottenham up against Manchester United at White Hart Lane. While not quite sure of what he was watching, Cecil found himself—in his own words:

“leaning forward, and all of a sudden I’m kicking the seat in front of me. You either get it or you don’t. It’s a very, very emotional game, horribly so. A lot of frustrations, near misses. I didn’t understand the game, but I understood the emotion of the game, and that’s what caught me, and that’s what caught a lot of people.”

I’ve always loved that story. Because Cecil got it, in the same way that I—and many of you—get it.

Again, “It’s a very emotional game, horribly so.”

When I meet someone who has not yet learned this and hear them talk about how dull soccer is, or how they are baffled that anyone could be excited about a 1-0 victory, I know that they don’t understand the magic of the frustrations, the inexplicable and haunting beauty of those near misses.

In many ways, Nashville SC’s victory at Columbus—while not always a beautiful game—exemplifies the wonders and horrors of soccer’s near misses and frustrations. What exquisite pain.

On our side, Nashville began without our full strength line up. Fans were already on edge, having lost a few games on the road and facing stiff competition that night. Then the game begins. On edge to begin with, once Alex Muyl scored, I was even more so. Nothing is more worrisome than getting up one against a team you thought might win. Better that they just go ahead and whip your ass than to go up by a goal and then have your hearts crushed when the opponent equalizes and then passes you.

It’s a very emotional game, horribly so.

Near misses? Talk about a ball seeming to cross the goal line only to have the referee indicate that in his mind (the only mind that matters in this case), it didn’t cross the line fully (as an aside, I think he was probably right). Whether it was a near miss or a goal that was disallowed, it was freaking crushing.  A two goal lead would have still worried me. I still would be convinced that it wouldn’t hold, but it would have let me relax a little.

Instead, near miss, frustration.

When, in the second half, we were pretty clearly getting outplayed, it seemed inevitable that we would be scored against. I mean, Columbus won on expected goals, and, in my pessimistic mind, they were always on the edge of scoring.

Later that night, I would read the words of a Nashville fan who said she couldn’t breathe for the last 20 minutes. I knew the feeling. It was freaking horrifying. Hence, when the final whistle blew, I felt something more akin to relief than to victory.

And think about what it was like for a Crew fan; a home game, an expectation of winning or drawing, only to be thwarted time and time again by a skillful defense and bad luck. It must have been crushing.

Honestly, I generously hope it was crushing for them. Only because of the fact that the game can be so crushing can it be so beautiful.

In so many ways, that game exemplified the glory of soccer. Again, not in the sense of a highlight reel (it certainly wasn’t that), but in the sense of all of us “leaning in,” kicking the seats in front of us, feeling frustrated and emotional.

I get. You get it. All of us do.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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