The art of football

It was fall of 1998. The room wasn’t as packed as it should have been and people slowly filled the dank, musty space that was usually a home for cutting-edge rock sounds. If you listened closely, you could almost hear the ancient stamped tin ceiling groan. Glasses clinked, conversation stirred.

Then, suddenly, a hulk of a man, shoulders stooped as if worried he would brush the ancient roof, walked slowly to the stage, with just a hint of a limp. David S. Ware put his saxophone to his lips, and started to blow. He blew and blew, for two hours, leading a titanic, galvanic, life-changing exploration of sound that shook everyone in that room to the core. Some were crying, some shook their heads in that incredulous way that we do when things happen that aren’t supposed to. Some of us didn’t move because we were afraid to, worried that if we allowed a sliver of anything other than that sound into the world, that it would stop. Still others were just stunned.

This is the reason that music is like football. We often draw analogies with genres, with sounds, but the simple reality is that when it is played at a high level, no matter what team you support, it’s music. It’s beautiful and it moves us to our mortal cores. There is nothing else in the world except that moment, and those moements happen for every team, every group of supporters. They don’t happen every week. They can’t. Everything is too special for that. But they happen.

Those of us who are lucky enough to witness a once in a lifetime series of unrepeatable sequences really don’t know how to deal with them. Fear is a natural reaction, and clinging to past glories because we never, ever want to let go of beauty. Iniesta still has dark hair, that widow’s peak that makes him look like that dude from “The Munsters.” Messi is still a bowling ball that scores goals. Arsenal is invincible. The players perform at a level that we can’t understand, even those of us who pretend to be athletes, pretend to play games.

In a wonderful 2000 documentary about Ware that is new to me, one person said of the late titan, “He had a conviction to the music, a conviction to the instrument.”

We always wonder about art and conviction, about whether sport is art, if the two can be equated. Art, like so many great things, exists in a moment. Live sport is like live music, this thing that you want to clutch to your heart and keep forever. It makes you happy, sad, angry and a little afraid that you might never experience its like again and we don’t know what to do. Ware blows, Messi scythes through the Getafe defense, Xavi takes a pass that is struck hard enough to leave the stadium, cushions it and from mid-air, bats it past the best keeper in the game. What in the hell can we possibly do with moments such as these?

Again, from the Ware documentary, comes this remarkable quote: “When you are playing at the heights of music, you go out of your body. The big computer takes over.”

Everyone gets in the zone. On Twitter yesterday, there was a mini-poll where people were asked who their top 10 players were, and the lists varied by supporter affiliation and fan perception. Messi was on all of them, as the sole absolute. This makes sense for the best player in the game, the best player that even the best players have ever seen. Beyond that is a sea of subjectivity, something that speaks eloquently to this thing that we gather to watch, sometimes united, other times in opposing factions. As with bands, painters or poets, there is art and beauty.

An amazing live show is something that leaves you moved. Your immediate reaction is to wish for a chronicling of the event, for an audio or video tape. But you know better.

My wife and I travel a lot, but we rarely take pictures. Because one day, early in the morning, we crested a rise on a backcountry road near the Pyrenees. The sun was rising, and the light was hitting everything in an image so spectacular that we had to stop to take a picture. We did. The picture sucked. It was nothing like what we saw, because it couldn’t be. You only get one of those.

We can watch a match again and enjoy it, but there isn’t the same satisfaction. There can’t be. You don’t get that back. The Iniestazo. We all remember that moment. It’s mobile phone screen savers and kids who are now in primary school. It’s everything except repeatable, art that you can see again and again but will never be like that first time when you didn’t know what to do, when rapture made you immobile for what seemed like an eternity until your world was noise and emotion, everything all at once.

At a concert you might surf the crowd, might be there when a performer hits a certain song and moment exactly right and creates magic. We have all had those moments of art, those moments of beauty indescribable. We seek those moments, need those moments to elevate us. We don’t watch sport for the winning and losing, even as we enjoy it. It’s why after Barça dispatched Athletic Club over the weekend, BeIN announcer Ray Hudson said it was a good result, but not a good display. We want art and beauty, we want something more, an elevated experience from a team that delivers beauty. A wormanlike win is almost a letdown, like when you’ve been waiting for a concert all year, and the show is good. Just. Good.

Culers are going to watch Barça today. Supporters of other clubs will, on different times this week, watch their team. Will there be magic? Music? Will there be a moment that will make you wonder whether anything will be the same ever again? Imagine hearing Hendrix for the first time, that crazy jangle of the Rolling Stones, being a Cameroon supporter on Sunday. A musician who is in the groove walks a crazy high-wire, notes coming from exactly the right place, every time. An athlete in the zone has those days where nothing can go wrong, where they make beauty, where they make art. Vincent Aboubakar watched that pass come to him, and had a moment. Art. It’s why we watch, why we care, why a game of men capering about a golf course in short pants matters so deeply. It isn’t the game, it isn’t the competition. It’s that song, that melody that hits you right in the heart and makes everything better. Love it, but love it for what it is, soul-searing ephemera.

Categorized as Transfers

By Kxevin

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.


  1. The fleetingness of such moments is often painful. I remember being very relieved upon realizing (though not on my own) that those moments are never lost as long as those experiencing them still live. Like sediments of rock, they are heaped upon each other, but unlike those the beautiful moments actually change (to varying degrees) who we will be in the future. They leave their marks upon us, a small change in perception, a small change in thought. And so they persist making themselves heard even when we can’t consciously remember them anymore.

    Of course, death puts an end to that, and not just for killer androids of the future sitting on rooftops with a dove in their hand. But I guess since our interaction with others can transmit some of what those beautiful moments left in us to others, all is good. Or I guess you can use your phone to take a picture of every moment worth it, greatly annoying those around you, and put it onto everlasting Facebook. That seems to be the popular option right now.

    Sorry if this is derailing what you wanted to bring across, Kxevin. I’m not even sure why I wrote all that.

    1. Wonderful comment to add to the wonderful article. “But I guess since our interaction with others can transmit some of what those beautiful moments left in us to others, all is good”- I guess that’s why we all are here, sitting across oceans and mountains, sharing the love for a team that brings us joy, with people whom we’d never likely meet.

  2. No reference to the great Philip K. Dick is ever wasted, Georgejorge 🙂

    Lovely piece, Kxevin. Captures beautifully in words something which is basically beyond description. I still remember the one and only time I saw Xavi play and also Iniesta’s display in his absence against Scotland at Hampden, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.

  3. Hmm, decent lineup but I sure hope we’ve been working on getting past the press. Soon find out I suppose. I’ll be particularly interested in whether Rakitic can perform at DM in the face of a hard press ( which I assume is on its way). He is a decent passer but he’s gonna have to take it in quicker and not just palm it off back to the defence. Looking forward to it.

    1. Beautiful piece, Kxevin! Let’s hope for some of that magic finding its way to the mids – I’m a bit surprised that Denis starts, since he seemed a bit light-weight last time around (would have thought Masche at DM), but let’s hope he can provide some control and give Rakitic options passing forward. Exciting!

  4. Holy… that was dramatic. An awful but lucky first 20-25, but we survived and grew stronger. Gomes showing some great composure, Denis is crawling his way out of a hole. Messi had a terrible half, but then…

    Let’s go! Give a display that will keep Andrés and Sergio on the bench!

  5. And Suarez also got a red card… what a way to put the team at risk… but maybe it will be for the better on the CDR final.

  6. I’m sure there are some tactical things to be said about this game, or something about player performances, but I don’t know what they would be. What a crazy game that was, with its three reds, two disallowed goals (theirs wrongly), missed penalty and so on…

    1. Yup, crazy indeed. Goal wrongly disallowed, but on the other hand I’m not sure that was a penalty. Either way, what to say? Apart from that FK, I’ll just say – Samuel, what a man (and Gerard, yes, you were nice and commanding in the air).

      Some nice moves from Denis before Roberto’s red – combined with positives from Gomes… things to come? Though I must say SR had another weak outing; he has lost his flow, it seems.

      But whatever – final! No Luis, but Ney will be back and Paco is scoring these days, so it should be fine. He is good enough to put away those Messi rebounds!

    2. I also didn’t buy the penalty. If they got their wrongly disallowed goal, I now would have to endure another thirty nerve-wracking minutes of this game…really glad it’s over.

  7. Strange game.I start to believe that the problem in this team is not the system but the perfomance of the players.I dont understand what happened to Roberto and he starts to make me remember Oleguer.We were up 1-0 and he made a dangerous challenge.He was lucky because in first half escaped the 2nd card.He cant defend and the problem is Vidal is not better at defense.Huge mistake by the club not sign a RB in the winter market.Opponents know where to attack.And the problem is big because when Rakitic play as RCM our RB have anyone to create something,a combination.Andre Gomes,Alba,Umtiti and offcourse GK were our best.And Pique.And Leo.Arda also was good but after Roberto red card everything was chaotic.A strange game.

  8. Has there been an Atleti-Barca game in recent years that’s not been totally bonkers? Three red cards, disallowed goals (wrongly AND rightly), missed penalty, FK from Messi that just made no sense (I am pretty sure that ball had a GPS chip in it, only a slightly faulty one). Holy cow! I thought it couldn’t get weirder than Arda throwing his shoe and Alba getting hit by the flag and 5 goals in the first half stuff, but boy this one was something else in the nerve-wracking quotient. And I had to go teach in 15 minutes after the game ended! I am fairly sure I was not making much sense to my students.

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