Monday, February 1, 2010

The kid who tried too hard

The kid who tried too hard to be cool. To be accepted. To be a part of the pack. The kid who had to walk at double-time just to keep up, even though he knew he wouldn't be talked to or included. Even though he knew he wasn't much more than a patsy. To call him a tag-along would be kind. It implies that he was welcome to be a part of the pack, even if it was just as a satellite.

Mmmm (and if you recall from last year, that's the "mmmm" of dulled acceptance, not of something delicious .... like booze).

I enjoy watching football because I think it's an artist's game. I grew up watching hockey, idolizing Wayne Gretzky and struggling to stay awake to see his Edmonton Oilers win Stanley Cup after Stanley Cup in the far reaches of Alberta while my 7 year old eyes tried their best to close. I enjoyed the shifting nature of the positions, the speed, the ability to see three passes ahead and the patience to do what is necessary to get to that final pass. More than just a pass, I embrace the movement that it takes to evolve what you see ... to ameliorate what is presented to you. To evolve how the pieces are set on that table. If you pass it there fine ... but what if you also move over here ... what will happen? How will that change the dynamics of what we're watching? How will it lead your teammates, extensions of yourself, to the right destination? Do they see what you see? Will they recognize the work that needs to be done or will they try to skip ahead? Will they fancy themselves too much and force a move from step one to step three ... or most ineffectually ... just try a round-about straight to the end?

That's why I watched hockey growing up (along with having a father who played the game professionally, but that's beside the point). That's why I so embraced Wayne Gretzky. He plotted the course with each movement. He plotted the course for the others, teammates and opposition alike, without them even knowing it. Gretzky retired from the game in 1999 and I was already falling out of love with it. The players got bigger. The movement more urgent. It was like a college placement exam with the time cut in half. I like things you can ponder.

That's one of the reasons my spirit of sporting idolatry passed to Zinedine Zidane. Watching him play is like witnessing a miracle. You want to talk about knowing the steps ahead of time? Here's your man. To say he conducted the game would be an understatement. He didn't just play. What he was doing was executing something he already written, something he already conceived.

While I'm inclined to say that's all beside the point, fact is it's directly to the point. While I enjoy settling down to watch my football unfold, and trust that the team I support sees it as I do, there are times when the tension makes it slightly unbearable. You want it to be, you tell yourself it will be ... fun. And it is. Awfully fun. Except ...

Except when they lose the plot completely. When they are completely unrecognizable there's not much you can do as a supporter but throw your hands up in the air. And that's the nut of this torturous existence we all lead as football supporters.

Quick sidebar: I heard/read (can't remember which) recently a comment about college sports in America. You buy the ticket, you take the ride. People sign up for that winning feeling. They go to a 'big school' because they want the guarantee of more fun weekends and wins than of sulking losses that are meaningless. When it comes to football ... I'm not signing up for a particular feeling each weekend. I'm signing up for an understanding. I expect and understand that my team will play the way I see the game. The way I identify with it (and yes, I've fully explored the notion of what will happen to me should Arsene Wenger even retire and I have to settle for something ... less). I turn to it because I expect to see an artful evolution, because when I dream about the game, I dream about how the players will come together to express a series of moves that lead to the inevitable. Step 1. Step 2. Step 3. Step 4. Step 5. Step 6. And every little movement in between.

I often joke about how a team needn't really score a goal. The goal just ruins everything. It brings an end to the proceedings ... to the creation of it all. A goal brings an end to the creation and a trophy just inserts gnawing tension where we'd otherwise have football as a altruistic art form. After all, no one wins at the ballet, do they? It's just ... appreciated.

That's all a long way of explaining that I didn't get to enjoy the Arsenal game on Sunday as they were battered by Manchester United. It happens. Losing you can accept. To say it again, buy the ticket, take the ride. It's appropriate though. I bought a ticket, dammit, and I didn't get to take the ride I signed-up for.

Arsenal shrugged off everything they stand for. They tried to make one pass do the work of four. Football is awfully geometric. That's nothing new. But a triangle, obtuse as it may be, takes three points. You plot one with a pass, then you need to stretch the pivot to a new spot, or you need to know ahead of time that someone else is in the know as you are and that they'll fill the place and allow that angle to come to life. It takes an awful lot of lateral movement and you need to ponder what you're doing. You can't race along like a bat out of hell and hope all the brilliance will just come.

It was all absent on Sunday. They didn't play their game. They didn't play my game. The one I expect to see. The one I bought the ticket for. Instead, they played like the kids struggling to keep up. The ones who were too eager to impress the cool kids. They were too damn eager to pretend they belonged that they gave nary a thought to the fact that they actually do have the credentials to be there on their own merit. Dammit (just for good measure).

When you're cool enough to be at the party, there comes a point when you don't have to keep telling people. They just know. And it's when you just be yourself.


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