Another day, another guest post from Isaiah. When it rains, it pours. You can find him on Twitter as @rockofthune.
There’s no space, I think. There’s no space, I repeat, maybe out loud, maybe still in my head. I’m not sure. There’s no spa—and the ball is wedged in like some spherical needle, finding that miniscule void that I swear wasn’t there, but I guess I just didn’t see it. And then on on replays I swear never it existed. What is this unfathomable magic?
I’ve played this silly game of ours for a few years now; nothing special, just a bunch of intramural seasons, a few glorified intramural matches after graduating, and and a lot of pick up. Most of my teammates were and are far better than I am. I learn a lot from them, including how to understand spacing, how to see passing lanes, and which bars are the best for post game drinks. I’m routinely envious of footskills, which I have few of, always jealous of the ambidextrous, and constantly bamboozled when I’m stuck on defense. So I’m no stranger to just closing my eyes and thinking “talent” whenever something magnificent happens on the field.
And yet—there was no space. This is the joy and the wonder that this game and this team, my team, our team, can evoke. I remember the absolute glee that came with witnessing Ronaldinho’s standing toe poke against Chelsea, the stares I gave the TV when Messi made the supernatural look simple, or the giddy sputtering when, more recently, Iniesta being a kind grandpa to PSG: “Lovely afternoon, fellow footballers, how about I just mosey on over here with the ball? Oh! Cheeky monkey! Stop trying to take the ball from me, though I admire your efforts, they appear to be real. Anyone care for a casual pass and goal? Take care, everyone, I hope you have a lovely evening, especially you, Mr. Luiz, though I recommend you work on your positioning.”
From Rivaldo to Ronaldinho to Messi (with a fair few others mixed in), I’ve watched a surprising number of goals that made the hairs on my neck stand on end. That’s quite a thing, really, to experience on a regular basis. There are goals like the Iniestazo or anything against Madrid that are more guttural, more like primal screams than celebrations, more like vocalized manifestations of the bitter fear that has fallen out of my fandom. Instead, these goals, the ones that are sometimes mundane, or sometimes brilliant, bring joy. The kind that’s a smile and a high five; the kind where, if you’re alone on your couch watching a stream at odd hours, you just sit back and look away from the screen after you’ve seen it, like “wow, hi world out there, you missed that.” A secret smile to yourself that comes back from time to time when you’re in a boring meeting, on the subway, or in the 60th minute of basically every Barça game ever when there’s that crazy lull and you’re trying to wile away the time until the squad wakes up again.
I have a routine now, with games. If it’s late and my daughter is asleep, I have to be quiet, which is hard when a goal rips the “WOOOO” right out of my throat, but generally, I just wiggle in my seat and pump my arms and my wife extends a hand for as many high fives as are necessary to get me through my fit of happiness. The first PSG knockout match had about a thousand. And then there was Getafe.
I was interested in the tactics, the formations, the general game for just under 9 minutes. Then Bartra stepped up, fired a sizzling pass to Suarez, and that was that for the game. Whatever we think about how games develop, if there was a narrative to that game, it wasn’t “another final” like Sport continues to call everything from actual matches to tweets about the latest Barça gear on offer. There was no pressure on display, no relief at the first goal, which was taken with such nonchalance that I thought for a moment that maybe the whistle had gone and he hadn’t really hit it. Or that the “panenka” I was watching was at least far less dramatic than El Loco Abreu’s match winner against Ghana. I giggled, which I’m not accustomed to doing at penalties. I pumped my fist afterwards, sure, but that doesn’t erase the existence of that primary reaction.
The second goal was brilliant in so many ways. I don’t know what I would have thought had I seen it live, because the stream I was watching died and I had to pull up another one only to see the team celebrating and to hear the commentator basically vocally ripping his own clothes off and jumping in a lake. But the goal that summed up the game for me was this one:
The goal itself is good, but the celebration is even better. The team’s reactions were not relief or clenched-fist chest pounds, they were amazement at the brilliance and quality from their captain. Adriano’s huge grin, Rafinha’s disbelieving hug, Neymar’s Lambeau Leap, Messi’s “Ha! Isn’t that fun? That’s why I do it so much!” look, and Xavi’s own smirk of self congratulations as he headed back to his own half for the restart. This is a team having fun, not a team pushing the limits of their bodies to achieve sporting success. Certainly they are doing that too, but it’s so much easier when you’re doing it with friends.
I didn’t see this coming and I’m elated. I don’t know that I made any specific predictions prior to the season, but thinking back to the state of the team and my own negativity toward the Suarez deal and the transfer ban, I think I would have said no titles or at most La Liga. I didn’t expect to be in the semifinals of the Champions League or the Copa final; I didn’t expect to see Abidal strolling through NYC, feeling up cars for some reason; and I didn’t expect to be having this much fun.
It’s not only that I’ve lost my fear, it’s that I’ve gained back a measure of joy alongside the team. Maybe it’s not the ability to thread a pass through nonexistent spaces, but instead the delight that they take at doing what they do that is the real unfathomable magic. If you didn’t watch that video embedded above to the very end, go back and do it. Watch Munir and Alba. That’s not a set of players worried about playing time or first team contracts. Sometimes it feels forced when a team celebrates, but this is just kids out for a day at the stadium.
And it’s infectious. I hope you’ve caught it too.