The question was a simple one, posed by a favorite Twitter account, that got at the core of everything about this game that has become so much more for so many.
The more BVB fail the more I cheer for them and like them. What’s wrong with me?
My reply was a simple one, that “Hope is at the core.of sport. It’s why it’s all so beautiful. It isn’t the winning. It’s that moment when hope is realized.”
Even when humanity intrudes into sport, making game irrelevant, when all you want do is stop thinking about something and crying, hope is a part of it all.
I came to sport at a very early age, thanks to living in Chicago, where if you weren’t a Bears fan, something was wrong with you. My family would gather to watch this awful football team be awful for yet another week. Quarterbacks couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Star running backs had to jam a hand in the back of an immense sluggard of a pulling guard, to give him a boost getting to the outside to block.
Coaches came and went, even one maned after a famous astronaut (who might have had more success coaching the Bears). I used to always wonder what brought us back, week after week, decade after decade. We grew up and scattered, but we all, wherever we were, kept watching the Bears. Wins brought exultation, as on any given Sunday, all of that time and rooting didn’t go to waste.
And then one year, one amazing, remarkable year in 1985, everything came together and the dog-ass Bears won the Super Bowl. I remember sitting down, fresh-popped popcorn, to watch that game, to wait for it all to be snatched away. They scored touchdown after touchdown and I couldn’t believe it. Nobody could. It was a team that you loved, doing precisely what you’d hoped they would do. And at the end of the 46-10 dismantling there was joy, and a weird sort of emptiness.
The above Twitter exchange reminded me of that time, of the sporting innocence of fans and what happens when that innocence is lost, when hope becomes anticipation becomes expectation and unavoidably, the game loses some … no, it loses all of its magic, to transform into this unrecognizable thing where wolves surround a struggling entity to bark at it, to demand more, to expect a meteor to hit the same place again.
At another time in Chicago sports history, 2005, the Chicago White Sox kicked the crap out of everybody to win the World Series. I watched some of those games because I couldn’t believe it, just as I couldn’t believe it was happening with the Bears. And a man, as big a Sox fan as I know, took to Twitter the other day to reference some ugly truths about sustained mediocrity, hanging on to past glories and sporting expectation. And in two Tweets, he summed it all up:
I enjoyed the hell out of 2005 (the baseball portion of it, at least), but it’s the equivalent of going on an epic craps run. Walking up to a table, plunking down some money, and walking away with $800 is fun, but it doesn’t happen all that often.
I came to Barça right around the aftermath of the Rivaldo bit of improbability that launched the Blaugrana into Europe. Year after year, there was hope. Then came the Rijkaard teams, dream teams of another kind because their success was this absurd kind of high-wire act, carried on the shoulders of a Brazliian genius. Culers didn’t know enough to expect anything because those years seemed so improbable, even as success was starting to eat at the core of hope and beauty.
Two silverless seasons came and went, and the club president faced a censure motion. Had we all gotten used to winning so quickly? Winning to me feels a lot like a house of cards, balanced on a skateboard, rolling downhill during a windstorm. At any time, anything can happen. It isn’t that I expect less, that I don’t believe that our athletes are wonderful. It’s just that the very nature of hope is what makes it so fragile. People don’t cry when they get their paycheck at work, no matter the sum. You’ve worked for it, you expect it, it’s your due. Hand someone a winning lottery ticket, and see what happens.
Hope is, next to love, the most blissful of human emotions. Unlike love, it’s also the most fragile. When you love someone, that love is usually requited. It isn’t hope. It’s joy. When you hope that someone loves you, when it makes you search for things to give succor to that hope and if even one of those things comes … the feeling is beyond words.
Laporta survived the censure motion, and rolled the dice with an untested coach. The result was a memorable season, a love story that I still get a lump in my throat thinking about. All the hoping, all the dreaming, all the lucky scarves and doing the same things week after week because they won last week when you did it and you know that’s just a silly superstition, but you don’t want to be the one …
Believe if you dare
You want to believe, but all that you have is hope. Parades came, speeches were made, excellence sustained and hope changed. When I think about being a culer now, it’s with a great many emotions: hope, love, anticipation, desire, longing. The only one that’s missing is expectation. I used to always wonder why that was — even though that Treble side had an astonishing collection of talent and the ability to play in any style any time any where — why I worried about every match, and celebrated every win like it was a championship. But it’s the simple purity of hope.
When our teams play, we hope they will win. We hope they will do well. We hope they will make European play. We hope they will win a championship. Wins become special because at the end of 90 minutes rolling downhill on that skateboard, more good things happened than bad and our team won. It’s beautiful.
Over the years, so much has changed. Hope is now expectation. Messi has gone from No. 19 and that number on his back that caught the light as he almost cartwheeled up and down the pitch, to a No. 10 with a thousand-yard stare. After all the goals, all the wins, the sustained excellence, all that’s left is the insatiable demands of a global base besotted with success and demanding more.
But I don’t watch Barça because I expect victories and championships. I watch Barça for the same reason my Twitter muse falls ever more deeply for Dortmund, despite their struggles — hope is beautiful. Hope is pure. When people ask me why I am always so positive about Barça, it’s because hope doesn’t allow you to be any other way, really.
A boy sits in study hall. He doesn’t need to study, but that’s where She is. He looks, he hopes, gets a little glance and that faith is restored. It’s joy. There isn’t any desire for more, because that might mess it up. That’s sport. In 90 minutes, countless actions happen, any one of which could make or break not only the event, but the season. Messi takes hundreds of steps during one of his mazy dribbles. Any one of them, a foot planted wrong, could change a career. If Pique leaps an inch lower, that header to Bravo falls to the feet of an opponent. It’s everything all at once, a grand conspiracy of potential failure, and the only thing that gets you through it is hope.
I’m struggling not to weep as I write this, because it’s all so indescribably beautiful. You can’t explain to someone why you love a team, why you watch them week after week, depending on where you live at stupid hours of the day or night, why you hope, week after week, that everything will come out alright. You hope for not losing, because you don’t dare hope for winning even as you know that logically, that should be a desired outcome.
And yet hope doesn’t make you settle. Hope always makes us want the best even as hope would never make me demand it. One of the most beautiful definitions of hope is “to cherish a desire with anticipation.” Will Messi elude that last tackler? Will that free kick curl just the right way? Will today be the day?
But because hope also carries with it the possibility of anguish, sport achieves its absolute beauty. You always want the best, because that is the embodiment of hope. A win is a win. Enough wins and perhaps a championship of some kind results. Wins aren’t these things to be discounted for the grand prize. Wins aren’t diminished because a championship didn’t result. Each victory is a special, wonderful thing, made even more so by thinking of everything that could conspire to dash hope, never mind expectation.
So with one more match before the holiday break for Barça, I couldn’t help thinking about that Dortmund question, and the answer that seemed so obvious to me. Losing teams embody no less hope on the part of their supporters than winning teams. In fact they rely on even greater quantities of hope. Every match is fate, odds, luck and a crazy quilt of potentialities that might collaborate to dash everything or hug and kiss a complete stranger.
But none of that matters, because hope is everything. It’s why we’re here, it’s why we care, why Arsenal fans are Barça fans are RM fans are Dortmund fans. Everyone is the same, as we dump our souls into that one thing.