What they do for us

As always, human tragedy lends itself to reflection.

And last week, surely, the wider soccer world was (still is) in moment of tragedy and fear collectively, as we all watched Christian Eriksen fall to the pitch in a clear medical emergency. Like all of you—I say this confidently although I only have talked to a few—I was state of fear and concern, almost to the point of nauseation. My heart hurt. Helpless to do anything, I stared at the television and reached out to friends while Eriksen’s teammates and medical staff took care of him in every possible way (including, I might add, making sure that no one could be a voyeur to the tragedy itself). Again, my feelings were clearly not unique as similar ones were shared all over social media.

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I write today, knowing that Eriksen seems well on the way to recovery, as a matter of reflection. Let’s face it; in most any way possible, Eriksen is a stranger to me, as he is to most of you. Sure, we’ve all watched him on the pitch on television, some of us have seen him live and even rarer few have had physical contact with him. But for all intents and purposes to almost all of us, he was stranger. I would have recognized him on the streets but he couldn’t have picked me out if he was given my name and a description.

And yet, the words and phrases people used to describe their own reactions betrayed something different than watching a stranger in pain. One person wrote that it was “the worst footballing moment of their lives.” Another observed that they were heartbroken watching Eriksen’s partner run onto pitch. As I read numerous responses, it became clear to me that the feelings expressed were those generally reserved for friends and family rather than for strangers.

And there is something to that.

I’ve seen people “in real life” have heart attacks or physically collapse for reasons I never knew. I once saw a man keel over during a church service. In those cases—real live events but also involving strangers—I felt concern of sorts. Of course, I did. What human wouldn’t feel concern about the health of someone else. 

But I have to say this:  watching Eriksen fall to the pitch, worrying that the worst might be true, I felt more concern and heartache for him, a player who was never on a team I supported, than I did for my strangers around me. As did many of you. Something about it did, in fact, feel familial.

While there are those who would posit that there is something wrong with a culture that frets more over “celebrities” than their own families, I think there is more going on than that. 

We soccer fans, we football fans, we put our hearts into this, and we take these players as something more than simply athletes. They live our dreams and hopes on the pitch, they collectively become something more than sport. When I see the heartfelt concern pouring forth from my Chelsea brethren around the globe, it reads as something more than platitudes, more than a sound of “Oh, this affects me, too.” It goes beyond the “This is how that person’s death affects me” that we see with any celebrity death. Indeed, the discourse around Eriksen’s heart attack sounded spontaneous and fresh, a wound being opened where there was none before.

In my mind, this is all part of how soccer works in our larger cultural mythology. We live and breathe our teams, but we know that others do as well. Collectively, the dramas that get drawn out over the course of a season, of multiple seasons, becomes metaphors for our lives, as well as escapes from our lives. Those games are a place where we place our dreams and fears. We simply let the team (especially its stars) play it out for us, provide us with emotional release.

Hence, even when it’s not one of “my players,” I know the very real human concern. The value of each life far, far outweighs the value of sport, and yet, I feel something of the value of each of us, through the way we invest in sport.

I was concerned for Eriksen and his family, of course, but that concern was an illustration, I think, of the way we all find an emotional and human home in the drama of the game.

And I’m grateful for that.  I’m grateful for what they—and the game—does for us.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed above are the sole views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Broadway Sports Media as a whole.

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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