There is no ‘almost’ in football

One of my all-time favorite moments in a long bicycle racing career happened pretty early. After a race, during the inevitable, interminable post-mortem, a rider said, “Then I almost crashed!”

A veteran rider said to him, “You don’t almost crash. You do or you don’t. And if you do, you know it.”

This memory sprang to mind in seeing the days after Barcelona’s glorious 3-0 win over Liverpool in the Champions League semi-finals. Almost immediately after the match, the “almost crashed” stories began, lurid tales told ’round campfires to scare the children. What if Salah hadn’t missed. What if Milner hadn’t missed. Mane was in! Pique’s play was a penalty. And cue the minor-keyed violins.

Nice things are a blessing. If you can have frozen yogurt or gelato, why in the hell would you have frozen yogurt? There are people who have half a donut. We deprive ourselves of joy on a daily basis — well, some of us do — as we choose to live the life of an ascetic. Football is no exception.

Live your life determined to have the gelato. Your team won. You can examine how all you like, you can create all the scenarios you like of how things might have gone differently had this or that happened. Retrospect is a wonderful game to play for a base of supporters whose default setting is worry.

Levon, one the moderators, Tweeted a short tale about being in Barcelona and hearing a couple of older culers arguing about Dembele’s miss. He turned to them and said, essentially, instead of grumbling about Dembele’s miss, we should be happy about Salah’s. And the tone changed. Those two culers decided, at that moment, to have the gelato.

The challenge of choosing happiness is daunting, because it runs contrary to human nature. It’s like working out, a muscle that you have to exercise or it never gets stronger. At work the other day, a colleague said, “Everybody worries about stuff. Except for Kevin.” And we all laughed, and she added, “It’s true, and I don’t know how you do it.”

It’s easy, really, but it is a commitment. Sitting here writing this after a crappy workout that was aborted, having just washed a donut down with a hot chocolate made me think about choosing happiness, and things that give you pleasure. It’s become an automatic thing for me. Given the choice between reading another story about politics, or how bad the world is and looking at a puppy video, the choice is automatic. There are bad things in the world. We know this. Joyful things are a salve for the soul, a balm for the senses.

That 3-0 scoreline was so beautiful that how it came to pass is immaterial. Before the match I asserted on Twitter that I didn’t care if the winning goal was blown into the net by Suarez unleashing a mighty fart — it would still be a beautiful thing. The last four seasons, the team that we love has been eliminated in the quarterfinals, the one last season quite spectacularly.

This season, the team made the semi-finals in a defeat of Manchester United that was mostly derided and again, packed with “what ifs,” or “Why didn’t they win by more.” They won, and advanced. That is the joy. Against Liverpool, they won, and took a massive step toward making the final. More joy.

A 3-0 scoreline vs a 4-0 scoreline going into a return leg is immaterial, but somehow one is fraught while the other is insurmountable. If your team is going to have a collapse sufficient to lose 3-0, why can’t it lose 4-0? Or 5-0? How many goals are enough to assuage the fear, the worry?

When we aren’t reliving the dire moments that could have turned a win into a loss, we are worrying about the return leg, and the dire things that could happen if everything goes wrong for our team. Is there ever a moment where there is just the thing, just the joy? The time after the 6-2 remuntada was pure because it was the most glorious joy. Our team performed the impossible. But even then, we talked about the Di Maria miss, and other possibilities for failure.

Why do we watch football? For me, it’s the beauty. I don’t play the game in any sort of official capacity, but have done enough frenzied kickabouts with friends where it’s pretty easy to understand how hard it is to be even remotely good, never mind at the level of even the worst of the people we watch on a weekly basis. That accomplishment, the running, the shooting, the goals and tackles, is so beautiful, so pure. There is joy there.

When your team wins, that is joyful. Is that joy enough? Should that joy be enough?

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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.