You had me at zero

For those who hate soccer, a 0-0 score line is the only evidence they think they need.

What kind of sport, what kind of competition, allows a game—one that counts in the standings—to end at zero to zero?  How boring must be the people who watch this?  I have absolutely no idea how many times I’ve heard that claim made to me when someone discovers I love soccer, nor can I recall how often I made such a statement to someone else, back when I didn’t love it.

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People who say such a thing are wrong, of course, as both you and I know.  Indeed, in my mind, it’s just the opposite.  That is, I now believe that if you have a strong investment in one of the two teams playing, a 0-0 draw is perhaps the most emotional, the most draining, of all fan experiences.

Boring? Absolutely not.  Fulfilling? Absolutely not. Satisfying? Rarely.  But I’m-holding-my-chest-because-my-heart-is-about-to-burst intense?  Oh yes. Yes. Yes.

Nashville SC’s most recent game with New England (Editor’s note: and again versus Minnesota, after this column was submitted) renewed my belief in this claim.  Watching in my house alone and chatting online with the Speedway team, I began the game fairly calmly, all things considered, sitting on the edge of the couch waiting for a breakthrough by one of the teams. 

However, as the first half ended and the second began, this is when my living room drama really began.  It’s when it always begins.  I nervously paced the floor, shouted, hit the coffee table and reached with Joe Willis to block shot after shot. I was a wreck.  With each minute passing, the more emotional I became, with each possession, the more anxious.

By the time it was over, I was more grateful that the clock run out than anything else.  It’s drama that hurts, but it is drama.

Let’s face it, to lose 1-0 sucks.  But to lose 1-0 with a goal given up in the final minutes is completely devastating.  Sure, the effect on the table is the same, but the emotional effect, the emotional hangover that follows you deep into the next week, is qualitatively worse.

Sure, if I’m watching two teams play, and I’m neutral about the outcome, I prefer to see scoring, and lots of it.  The Manchester United and Liverpool losses last weekends are examples of those types of games (Manchester lost 6-1, and Liverpool lost 7-2).  Just packed full of massive scoring opportunities.  Since I don’t care who wins, it’s highly entertaining to see both skillful and lucky scoring take place.  (That said, we’ve all seen 0-0 games as a neutral that were also tense and exciting).

However, when I’m invested, as I am with NSC, 0-0 is wildly… emotional (entertaining isn’t quite the right word as it seems to connote something pleasant, and the feeling is not that).   A 0-0 draw is more dramatic, more painful, more everything than any other scoreline, even other draws (i.e., 0-0 is harder than 1-1 or 2-2 or . . . ). 

In practical effect, a draw is a draw, but in terms of the emotional experience, the 0-0 is simply harder to sit through, harder to recover from.  I think it’s because it is like watching a very tense drama that never lets up, never allows you a moment of relief—comic or otherwise. Watching the Nashville SC—New England game last weekend was akin to watching the second season of Ozark—I never felt a moment of relief. I wanted to turn away, but I couldn’t.  I hated it, but I loved it.

If New England had scored at any point in that game, I would have been disappointed, but at least it would have been a moment in which my emotions had changed. Rather than sweating and pacing, I could have swallowed my heart and prepared for a loss.  If we had scored, I would have felt a moment of excitement and release before I got back to worrying about giving up the lead and the humiliation that comes with that.

But those moments, of disappointment, or temporary victory, allow a sense of release, a time to rest your emotions (“Well, I knew it would happen sooner or later”). But no scores from either team?  Each passing second makes the sense that someone will eventually score more and more intense.  There is no release, there is nothing but sheer fear, sheer certainly that someone on your team is going to make a mistake, that Willis cannot maintain a clean sheet with balls coming at him like that.  It’s a state of existential crisis—you would rather not exist at all.

I have no idea how we watch this game and survive without therapy.

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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