Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The World Cup Epiphany, Or Oh, What A Lovely Holy War

So I had a mild and probably obvious epiphany today while watching the World Cup. Indulge me, or not.

It was during the South Korea - Russia match, a 1-1 tie where the Koreans scored on a terrible bobble by the keeper, then the Russians got the goal back to salvage the tie. As the cameras panned the stands to find traveling loyalists in facepaint, I realized that what was a trailing diversion and cheap source of humor (in that Vladimir Putin was sure to do something Bondvillainish to the poor keeper's family) for me was life and death to the people in the stands... and that wasn't a moment to get snotty or superior.

Rather, this was, in all likelihood, the game that they watched when they were eight years old or so, otherwise known as the age of declaration. Think back to your own life, and I bet that the teams that you rooted for then are the ones you root for now. That's certainly the case for me, on two of four teams, and it took active deprogramming to stop caring about the Philadelphia Flyers (and hockey) and Philadelphia Phillies (and for a long time, baseball).

Here comes the impertinence: I bet that for many of us, this is when we became identified with a religious affiliation. This isn't to demean your choice, or to cause anyone to question their faith. Whatever gets you through the night, so long as you don't harm someone else on their own journey. You might get a lot out of your faith, just as you might get a lot out of your laundry affiliation; similarly, you might feel victimized by this choice, if you've spent decades paying for tickets or tithing without any sense of payoff. It's really up to you.

But to me, the corollaries go deeper. There are people in this world who want to talk about that South Korea - Russia game to distraction, and if you are one of those people, you really need to find other members of the congregation, fast. We all dream of having others join our group due to its overwhelming success, while simultaneously hoping to keep the same intimacy and comfort that was there before the congregation got big. After all, we were here during the lean years, when the sun wasn't shinning and there was nothing in the nature of redemption promised or delivered.

OK, yes, the analogy is strained. But doesn't it hit at the core of why people get so irritated with futbol proselytizers, especially when they tell us how beautiful or clever their game is, and by extension, ours is not? We didn't have this in the mix when we were eight. we can tolerate it, even like it for all sorts of non-game reasons (architecture, artwork, tradition, pageantry, etc., etc.)... but we're never going to feel it in the gut, take a loss to the soul and mourn it for a week or more, see the fateful moment when it all went wrong in our nightmares and on other team's all-time highlight reels. In baseball, I was on the wrong side of the Kirk Gibson and Joe Carter home runs, along with Derek Jeter's flip, and any number of other gutpunch moments. Other members of my congregations feel my pain.

Oh, and one final point on this before I put it to bed... this is also why people freak out over this game so much. I've got games and seasons coming out the wazoo here, with one sport almost always overlapping another. Futbol Fan doesn't, especially World Cup Futbol Fan; he's going to wait years, and maybe decades, for redemption. My sports spread out the pain over multiple game series in baseball and basketball, and it's unlikely that any singular moment is going to be the only reason why it goes south. You can ease into the pain. Futbol? Other than a first half blowout that just rubs your nose in it for an hour or more, not so much. My sports have hundreds of scoring opportunities that aren't necessarily going away due to the opinion of a ref that, history shows, really might not be on the up and up. Put it all together, and the story becomes not why futbol fan riots, but why it doesn't happen all the damned time.

So have some pity for futbol fan. He's not watching a sport, he's watching a religious war. That only happens once every four years, and matters more than any of your laundry does to you. And probably always will.

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