“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… the natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter what the score.”—Nick Hornby’s thoughts on attending his first game.
When my team loses, I feel justified in my expectations. When they draw, I feel like they should have won. When they win, I don’t feel exaltation; I feel something closer to relief.
This is a miserable sport. I don’t know how we do it.
In my mind, there are three primary orientations one can take toward the game. And while we all may have moments of each, in general, we fit snugly into one of these categories. The thing is, while your orientation can shape how one watches, what one looks for, it ultimately cannot save you from the misery of being a soccer fan. There is no stance that doesn’t lead to misery, and you’re not fooling anyone.
1. The Rational Analyst: This is what I sometimes wish I could be. While this fan does have a favorite team and likely lives and dies for his/her team the same way I do, s/he avoids the misery of the game by keeping focus on strategy, on individual performances, on key match ups. But rather than getting too tied in every possession, every pass, the rational analyst keeps the eye on the bigger picture. Rather than die a million deaths when, for example, the keeper spills the ball at the opposition’s feet, the rational analyst thinks, “Well, statistically this happens from time to time.” Rather than feel a gut punch and anger when a penalty kick goes way over the goal and off into orbit, the rational analyst can tell you exactly how many PKs are missed out of every 100 and, indeed, sees this missed one as just part of the game.
After the game is over, the rational analyst can talk pretty evenly about the positives and negatives of both side’s performance. S/he doesn’t go online and talk about some players being garbage or some players being the best in the league; no, the rational analyst just puts it all in a larger context.
Sometimes, I think I would like to be this type of fan, if only for a little while, because the way I do it seems so much more painful. But, ultimately, it’s just an attempt to ignore how rotten you feel. Yeah, yeah, talk you talk science and point out the numbers, but in your soul, you know the crying fan inside isn’t buying it.
2. The Deluded Optimist: For my money, this would be the absolute worst state of being. The deluded optimist has so much faith in his/her team that not an hour goes by that the Optimist isn’t thinking happily about his team, checking rumor circuits to dream of what great new signing is coming through the transfer window, relishing in the way former players are now doing well in the Bundesliga, etc. The Deluded Optimist sees every goal his/her team scores as a sign of momentum—“We’re going to score again.” Every victory means another victory is more likely. If the Deluded Optimists team is in 6th place and fighting for a Champions League spot with two games to go, s/he will dream of every scenario that could make it happen and expect that one of them will.
After the game is over, this fan either wildly goes on about what a great game they just played and predicts that his/her team is on the way toward the highest seed in the playoffs or of winning the league outright.
These fans annoy me, to be honest, and, ultimately, they are a very unhappy lot. When you expect your team to win, the losses are even worse. Paper it over with a smile all you want; the team is going to let you down. Smile at me, and tell me there will be better days. But you and I both know better. Optimism can only carry you so far before the reality of your team’s awful defense and misfiring offense will leave you shaken. You’ll put on a brave face and a happy smile again, but we all know you are broken inside.
3. The Deluded Pessimist: This is my home. I expect my team to lose. When we are up by three or four goals, I think, “It would be better if we had not scored at all, because when our opponents come back to win this, it’s going to be even more crushing than losing 1-0.” When my team sells a player to another team, I expect that only now will that player blossom into the world class star they were meant to be. When my team scores, I wait for an offside call, or, barring that, I expect that VAR will discover a foul from 10 minutes ago that negates the goal. When my team has won three in a row, I don’t see it as momentum: I see it as more likely that a loss will be next.
After the game is over, things can at best be ok for a moment. When we lose or draw, I face the expected and feel like we are on the path to a really bad patch of results. When we win, it’s a moment of relief before the anxiety and gloom set in when I look at the fixture and see either a very strong team up next, which means we will likely lose, or a cellar dweller, which means a loss will bring even more embarrassment.
There simply is no escape. The moment we became addicted, we were doomed. We find ways to hide our angst; we find ways to face it, to get to the next game, but we know, deep inside, that we are going to be let down. Again.