Other than arguments over kits, why do we watch soccer?

Over the holiday break, an old friend wrote to wish me a happy holiday and, while he was doing so, he asked a question that I always find it difficult to answer directly: “Just what is it you like about soccer?”

I mean, I adore soccer, so I should be able to easily respond to a question like this. But I end up just mumbling about the situation with old chestnuts about the “beautiful game,” “supporters” and “tradition.” And, yeah, that’s all important, all right, but that doesn’t exactly get at what keeps me either on the edge of my seat or creating a pacing path in the bar floor.

And now, while we are in MLS off-season and are left to contemplate trade and kit rumors (I’m not even seeing good online arguments about “Never Give Up On You” or stadium parking right now), I’m going to give this question a little more thought. 

One reason it’s difficult to answer is that the question is specifically about soccer, so the answer needs to be different than simply describing aspects that are true of all sports. I like competition; I like watching top performers do their thing; I love watching and talking to other fans; I love rumors; I love kits.  I adore scarves.

But there has to be something more to it than it being “just a sport” because, for me, it feels so different. I was thinking about this the other day while I was watching the Chelsea-Liverpool game. At first, I was simply thinking about how grateful I am to enjoy two leagues (PL and MLS) with interlocking seasons that allow me to watch meaningful games year round. 

But, again, I know it’s more than that. And after watching the blowouts of the two CFP semi-final games, I’m more and more convinced that it is the tight score lines of most soccer games—in addition to the beautiful style of play, the supporters, etc—that I find most riveting and… while I don’t want to overstate… most important for me psychically.

The close scores, the rarity of goals, I think we can all agree, makes this game so difficult to watch. Not because it’s boring, but because one never (or rarely) feels comfortable with a lead. Take the recent Chelsea-Liverpool game, Liverpool looked like they were going into the half with a 2-0 lead as the clock past the 40 minute mark, only to have Chelsea score two goals in rapid succession. Nothing happens until it does but, when it does, each goal is a magnificent bump that seemingly arrived from nowhere. 

As a result, you pace, your heart beats, you sweat it out in every game (or at least I do). It doesn’t matter if you are ahead or behind, a goal score feels disproportionate to being “just a goal.” It equalizes, cuts leads in half, doubles leads, etc. You rarely get the leisure of being far enough ahead to relax or far enough behind to give up. As a result, every viewing is a shitshow of emotions. Moving from excitement to fear, from hugs to banging on the table. There’s an intensity that, to me, is unlike any other sport.

As a result, soccer acts as some form of emotional pressure release valve. The intensity of a game leaves me exhausted—almost every game. And while I feel like an addict who returns time and time for that exhaustion, I do so because, ultimately, it helps me deal with other life pressures.

Soccer is the ultimate distraction because of its intensity. And while I don’t believe it’s a distraction in the “bread and circuses”-watch-this-game-rather-than-deal-with-the-horrors-of-neoliberalism distraction, I do believe my sense of addiction is precisely because being a fan offers useful distraction, a useful release that allows me to dig back into my work life, my emotional life, my relationship life, with an more intense vigor. 

But this seems like so much gobbledy-gook when I try to explain it.  As a result, don’t say this to my friend; I don’t offer this explanation.  Instead, I tell him something that is equally true at times.

“It’s just so freaking beautiful.”

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