From Iceland — The Experience of Watching

The Experience of Watching

Published June 24, 2010

The Experience of Watching
Any spectator sport takes its audience on a journey. It can be joyous, heartbreaking, thrilling or dull. I want to talk about three games in this World Cup and what kind of experience they offered viewers.
USA 1-0 Algeria
If you are American, this is the kind of game that turns you into a football addict. There are few sports out there that offer the kind of experience that this game delivered. After 90 minutes of frustration, exciting, intense frustration, the US team finally scored. My American friends who were watching jumped up, gesticulating wildly, overcome with emotion, attempting to speak, but all they could say was “yeeeeearrrrrrrrgh,” “awooooooo awoooooooo woooooooooot,” and “thank you thank you thank you Landon Donovan and your giant forehead and your feet.” Women asked their partners’ permission to bear the children of Landon Donovan, which was granted. No one sat down, they just bounced around, waiting for the final whistle. Like Donovan himself, some of my friends were in tears. Some were magnanimous in victory, one yelled about Carthage getting stomped on again, and all were overcome with emotion. Most of these people were not huge football fans, but they got taken on an emotional journey that few sports other than football can take you on. Many people (not just Americans) will complain that football is low-scoring. That is true, but because goals are usually few and far between, and sometimes don’t come at all, the game can build up agonizing levels of tension, without offering any kind of regular release, like higher-scoring sports do. There are few experiences in life that can be likened to orgasms, without being hyperbolic, but the release of joy that happens when you watch your team manage to win in the last minute after a matchful of near misses and bad luck, is hard to find elsewhere in the sporting world. The other side of the coin is, of course, that watching your valiant team lose in the last minute is a deflating in the extreme.
Italy 1-1 New Zealand
If one team is the underdog and somehow manages to either get ahead or equalize, that will usually mean that the other team lays siege to the penalty area. Like the type of game described above, it is almost unbearably tense for both sides. Such a game was Italy vs. New Zealand. The Italians swarmed all around the New Zealand end of the pitch, which the white-shirted Kiwis defended as if their lives depended on it. If you were a New Zealand supporter, the game started to feel like some sort of mad version of Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, with every minute feeling twice as long as the preceding one. For Italian supporters, it was the opposite, with time whooshing by, the final whistle bearing down like a freight-train in a narrow tunnel. New Zealand fans felt like survivors, esacping a terrible destiny, while their Italian counterparts felt like they had been crushed under an enormous weight.
Portugal 7-0 North Korea
If you were a Portuguese fan, this game was nothing but a series of joys. Your team, after a bad game, exploded like a pretty firecracker, bringing delight. For the North Koreans, ooh boy… lopsided defeats are common in any sport, but national football teams are bound up in the national psyche of football-mad nations like few other things. Watching “your boys” get humiliated feels like you’re getting humiliated as well. The defeat wasn’t the players’ own, but also that of their supporters. I don’t know about you, but the idea of North Koreans, already suffering under horrifying government, watching this game live, is heartrending. It was like walking by a cemetary while a funera was going on.

Photo by Gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires.

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