Barça 2, Valencia 2, aka “Finding your joy”

Marie Kondo is a thing.

For the unfamiliar, she is a bubbly organizing consultant whose most famous book is called The Life-Changing magic of Tidying Up. Her notions, rooted in the KonMari method, are rooted in joy. It’s a process that has you gather up everything that you own, and keep only the things that bring you joy.

Marie Kondo is huge, because everyone aspires to be tidy, to have a decluttered existence. This is true even as we bring things into it — ideas, notions, likes, dislikes, burdens — that clutter our worlds.

The above picture is my home office. It is, for me, perfect. Marie Kondo would probably tell me to seek counseling. But my joy exists in nothing, so that the world is a blank canvas for thoughts and ideas. A friend told me, “You think too much.” He didn’t explain whether that was a positive or a negative, which is fine. It just is.

My wife’s office looks very different. It has stuff, Lots of stuff. A sewing table, a laptop, a computer monitor, a desk, an office chair, a rocking chair, a physio ball, two rugs, a couple of dumbbells, framed quiltings leaning against the wall. She finds her joy in things, as a subset of her active mind, which strives to fill itself.

We talk a lot, and whenever football comes up, she invariably says, “You people need a life!” But that isn’t a negative, really. What she is suggesting is that we Marie Kondo our footballing lives, that we focus on the stuff that brings us joy, and jettison the ugly stuff, the anger, the meanness.

She has a point, which crossed my mind as we all dissected the Valencia match from a perspective of something bad: dropped points. And we sought culprits. Suarez was an empty shirt, Coutinho was ineffective, why did Valverde pull Aleñá, etc, etc.

Part of sitting with a match for me is to watch it again, in calmness. No Twitter, no other influences, just the match and its events. As usual, stuff happened, joyful stuff.

The single most joyful moment of that match, something that made me clap with joy and wonderment, and smile for some time afterward, was a moment that few even remember now. Messi was on a run, toward the packed Valencia defense. As he got to the edge of the box, he poked the ball forward and hopped, leaping through the air.

He landed, a Valencia defender took the ball, and that was that. Yet what made that moment so exquisite, so full of joy is that Messi was completely focused on nothing except the most effective way to get to goal. The way his mind works, he decided to try that. He didn’t know if it would work, but it never occurred to him not to try. Think of the wonder of that.

A fantastic piece by Jamie Hamilton delved into the notion of Messi, and the things that make him so great. The best passage, and you should read the whole thing because it delves into the idea of creativity, using Messi as a vehicle for a broader notion about what we see and how we perceive creative things. Hamilton writes:

It is as though Messi is updating his sense-making patterns in real time, and we get to watch him do it.

At his mystical best, Messi dances on the brink of reason, creating things for fun like an impish boy-wizard. He ‘makes things happen’, he is a ‘game changer’.

No sooner has he restructured a new sense-making frame than he destroys it just because he can, so confident is he in his ability to effortlessly weave pattern after pattern, each of greater beauty than the last.

In that amazing context, Messi’s simple leap of faith, the idea that he could poke the ball forward, leap and somehow wind up on the other side of that bank of defenders is beautiful enough to make you cry. All the hours of training, all the play, all the reams of press, match after match, and he still approaches the game with the wonder of a child, a brain filled with possibilities, each wilder than the next.

In another beautiful moment of joy, Suarez mustered up all of the energy he seemed to have in his burly body for one, bull-like run at the Valencia defense. We all knew it was doomed from the start, but he didn’t care. And he ran. And the ensuing chaos created a goal.

At the end of games lost, we supporters consider notions of failure differently than the athletes who contested the match. After the Super Bowl on Sunday, a Rams player kept saying, “We just have to go back, and work harder.” Question after question came at him, and it came down to that simple truth. What else was there?

After Valencia, we considered it a failure. Did the players? Did they wipe their brows and think they rescued a point rather than losing two? How does an athlete think of the notion of “failure?”

In my training for another season of bicycle racing, the entire structure of training is failure. Lifting to failure, trying higher wattages and cadences to failure. Everything is about failure, except the success that you envision as a byproduct of the adaptation that comes from straining at limits. If you don’t reach, you never achieve.

We reduce losses to failures, moments that in our minds define a match. Players often talk about trying more, working harder, because that is their context. It wasn’t the missed shot on goal, but everything leading up to that shot. A little more effort in the buildup might have created more time to line up the shot, less noise from defenders. Athletes perceive failure in a way that is different from non-athletes. It isn’t that it bothers them less, it’s that they put it in a different place, lock the box and move on.

Higuain doesn’t think he will miss that next shot. He can’t. If he did, he might as well quit the sport. It never occurred to Messi that he wouldn’t make that leap. We were dazzled by the display put on by Aleñá. Was he? Probably not. It’s what he does, what he has been working toward, what he is trained to do. Why wouldn’t he do it? Failure never occurs to him, nor should it.

The joy that we derive from sport comes from the affirmation of success. But we have cluttered that joy. Success now has to come in a certain way, or it is flawed. Certain players have different hurdles to leap, everything has context. A remarkable Twitter thread by Diana Kristinne talks about this, talks about joy and how we consume the team that we love. She lays out the impediments we have constructed to our joy, talks about how she feels less joy now when watching Barcelona.

It should make us all think. For me, the joy watching the team is almost overwhelming, but from a weird perspective. There are moments in every match where beauty pierces the seeming gloom. A run, a pass, a bit of control, a moment that makes you realize how crazy this all is, how amazing these athletes are. Strip away all of the stuff, reduce it to the single joyful thing, a la Marie Kondo and all your stuff, and there is joy. So much joy.

Messi struck the equalizer, a goal that still doesn’t make sense as regards physics or math, and we all went crazy. The replays came and we tried to parse it. Watching that goal again made me cry. It’s just so hard to deal with the reality of what happened in that instant, to think about how the only player in the game with the sense of audacity in that moment, knowing how few opportunities his team has had, how few will come, knowing everything, he tried THAT.

And it worked. He celebrated in a way that was a mixture of exultation and surprise. When Messi tries stuff, he probably doesn’t know if it will work, but understands that if he doesn’t try it, it definitely won’t work. That rainbow pass for Sergi Roberto that bloomed from a thicket of players like a blossoming rose, was just a moment. Few would have considered that. Paul Pogba had a similar exquisite moment that resulted in a match-winning goal. Again, an exceptional player at an exceptional moment, whose mind doesn’t consider a normal range of possibilities.

Football is pure. Whether it is a kid kicking a ball or Busquets lining up a pass, it’s still a ball, a foot, and ambition. We load it up with so much that we forget how joyful it all is, even the failure. Marie Kondo is right. We have too much stuff in our football closets. Rewatching a fraught, high-pressure football match with an empty closet was a reminder. Now to never forget.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.