Soccer and the Language of Hope

It is hard to find any silver lining in the news about Nashville SC’s delayed (non?) participation in the MLS is Back tournament.

We all worry, I am sure, about the health of the individuals who tested positive, of course, as well as the concern their loved ones must feel. More, we likely also collectively feel concern about other players, coaches and staff who now must wait anxiously each day to see if their own health takes a downturn.

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In some strange sense, I suppose, some people worry about the financial picture for the team and the league as this virus continues (these are much, much lesser concerns). It is not as if TV ratings have been a huge money maker for the league and, with no one buying tickets, who knows what the future holds. All in all, the news is unpleasant and forces us again to respect the reality of a disease that does not care what we think or what we worry about. COVID just keeps on doing its thing as efficiently and effectively as it can.

As the news was announced that more Nashville players had tested positive for Covid-19, I heard – in addition to those who simply expressed disappointment – those who said that this (and the news about the Dallas side) should be enough to cancel the tournament all together, indeed, that it never should have been planned.

And, to a degree, I get the argument. In an earlier column, I predicted that we would see no more soccer for the season—no Bundesliga, no Premier League, no MLS (at the time, I wasn’t quite sure Belarus existed, much less had a soccer league). I figured that the mere threat of someone testing positive who passed it on to someone else, and so forth, was just too much of a human and financial liability. Moreover, I though, why risk it for a game, a mere distraction (even a very important one like soccer)?

The last month or so has proven me wrong. Not only has soccer come back (although in the weird form of no live audience, pumped in audience sounds, water breaks and five substitutions), but it has thus far seemed fairly safe (outside of the MLS numbers, where, the idea of the “bubble”” only worked if players got in without being contaminated).

While I am furious with people who want to go out and party at bars and risk the spread of the infection in a casual manner, I have no problem with an adult choosing to enter an isolated environment to pursue games with others as long as they are fully isolated outside of that environment as well. That is, while I would have a huge problem with Jordan Henderson just deciding to take his mask off and have wings and a beer at a crowded bar, I have no problem with him agreeing to isolate himself from others in order to play soccer.

If the controls are tight enough (and I suppose they can never be tight enough, but we can get close), and if people act adult enough, then there is supposedly a very low risk of infection.

And yet, what is the value? I mean, pharmacists and health care workers need to be in these risky environments because their work is essential in protecting health. But soccer players? Exactly what is the value of soccer, or of any sport (as they each decide how to come back)?

For one, it is a distraction. And for those of us who love it, it is a glorious distraction, several times a week, that allows us to get our minds off the low level anxiety for a just brief period of time. That alone, in my mind, is a great national/international service right now. We need distraction; we need relief.

But, secondly, soccer is more than mere distraction, more than mere entertainment. It gives us hope.

If you listened to our recent interview with Laurent Dubois, Duke professor and author of The Language of the Game, you heard me pull a quotation from the book in which Dubois describes the role of strikers. Dubois writes: “A forward, ultimately, is the person who reminds us how to turn a possibility – of a goal, of a victory, of happiness – into a reality.”

As I’ve been watching over the last few weeks, I notice how much I miss the feeling of watching someone turn a possibility of triumph into a reality. And I need to see that. We need to see that.

As we wait to see if the possibility of a vaccine will become a reality, as we watch with low anxiety as our economy continues to edge along, we psychically need a reminder that possibilities do turn into realities and that there are people out there who can make that happen.

So, while I’m fully supportive of all of us wearing masks and continuing to distance ourselves from one another, in the end, I’m also supportive of athletes returning to their jobs, for our sakes.

We need distraction, we need heroes. Now, more than ever.

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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