3 min read

Those profound moments when someone does something wondrous with a ball

The thoughtful fan faces a daily dilemma derived from what he or she knows about professional sports.
Those profound moments when someone does something wondrous with a ball
© REUTERS/Hannah Mckay

Or, please, enough with all the moral complexities, you killjoy

Dr Essai does not shy from admitting that he found the 2022 World Cup final riveting. Sport does this to him on rare occasions, suspends his sense of time and place, commands all of his attention, and overwhelms with emotion.

The doctor’s first experience of fandom came when he was 8 years old. The object of his adoration was the 1961 Cincinnati Reds, an underrated baseball team that won the National League pennant and lost the World Series to the goddam New York Yankees. As he grew up and got on with the business of being a grownup, he followed closely the rise and fall of one team or another, depending on where he lived, never giving his devotion much thought — he was not yet The World’s Most Attentive Man™. Why follow a baseball or football or basketball team? Because it was fun. No need to make a complicated thing out of it. No need to overthink it.

As a wiser adult prone to overthinking everything, the doctor pondered his attentiveness to games and considered how much of it spun out from his hope of witnessing a moment of unalloyed joy when an athlete or team triumphed. The pleasure of watching a superb player do something astonishing with his body was always there. But pure joy is rare in this life, and whenever he had the good fortune to witness a few seconds of it on a baseball diamond, lacrosse field, or soccer pitch, the doctor treasured it.

A wise reader commented on Dr Essai’s recent inadequate discursion on the difficulties of writing about happiness. She observed, “There is pain in beauty, there is fear in joy — the fear that it is temporary, the loom of eventual loss, the judgement in why one doesn't stop to notice or feel it more often.” Applying this more nuanced appreciation of joy to the World Cup, the doctor realized that any elation he felt during an extraordinary World Cup was complicated by the moral quandary that accompanies giving allegiance to a professional sport in our venal age.

Writing for The Ringer, Brian Phillips addressed the experience of being brought to tears by the brilliance and beauty of the World Cup final despite all he knew about the reptilian behavior of the men who staged the tourney:

…the story [of Argentina’s triumph over valiant France] felt so innocent, and just beneath the story, the reality was so grim. On the pitch, this was the best World Cup I’ve ever seen; it was also a tournament that was conceived as a sportswashing exercise [by its host, Qatar], obtained through corruption, constructed with no regard for human life, and staged with contempt for anyone who spoke up for human rights. The childlike way to regard this competition was to delight in the stories it generated; the grown-up way was to mourn the fact that many, many people are dead now who would not be dead if this tournament hadn’t happened.

The thoughtful fan faces a daily dilemma derived from what he or she knows about professional sports. Many if not most team owners are deplorable individuals (and in the case of some soccer clubs these days, despicable countries). Male players from all sports beat up and rape women with dismal frequency. Female players are exploited in just about every way ever invented. Fans who follow martial arts, ice hockey, and American football know how many of their heroes will enter their 40s with irreversible brain damage, and cheer anyway. The sports entertainment complex has done everything it can to pollute the pure experience of the games, but try as they might even they can’t ruin the joy of watching Lionel Messi or Killian Mbappé with a soccer ball at his feet.

What Dr Essai most loves about the game the rest of the world calls football is the freedom of its improvisatory play. Every other major team sport, at least in the States, is subject to interference every few minutes by the overpaid control freaks known as coaches. But on a soccer pitch, once the ball has been kicked off to start the match, coaches are reduced to shouting and waving their arms on the sideline in ineffectual desperation, spectators with really good seats who can only watch as the players do whatever they want to create something that in an instant can go from commonplace to magic, magic of their own creation, magic only they can make. Out of that magic comes the joy. Joy complicated by moral complexity, yes, but only on reflection. In the blessed moment, the joy embodies a freedom we all crave, the freedom to create and the freedom to exalt.