World Cup football separates the men from the boys. Not on the field alone, but off it too – in front of television sets. The test is a simple one: those who come to work bleary-eyed and irritable are true fans. To look relaxed and well-rested in the morning means only one thing: you don’t know your Neymar from your VAR.
The obsessive hates to miss a minute of the action. In general, he hates to watch alone, for screaming at the referee is more fun if there is someone else in the room. Alternately, you can always scream on social media.
On the day Argentina played Croatia, I – along with thousands of others, no doubt – received a message: “A friend of mine bought a ticket for the World Cup finals in Russia without realizing the date coincided with that of his wedding. If anyone wants to go in his place, the church is St Anthony’s in Frazer Town, and the bride’s name is Sharon…” It took a split second to realize this was a joke; but in that moment it seemed natural, just the sort of thing that not only would be done, but should to be done.
The World Cup is an undemanding mistress. All it asks is your undivided attention every four years. The in-between years are for graduating, for getting married, for writing that best-seller, for trying out new recipes. And then it starts all over again.
Olympic medallist and former world record holder Pablo Morales has spoken of “focused intensity” while watching a sporting event on TV. The cultural critic Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht borrowed the phrase to describe fandom: “Being lost in focused intensity precedes, accompanies and follows the events of sporting performance. It describes both sportsmen and spectators, and thus helps us to understand a basic convergence that occurs.” This convergence occurs, he explains, despite the different levels of body investment made by them.
So perhaps there is an element of gratitude involved in watching sport. We sit on our sofas, out of shape, with a drink in one hand and fried food in a bowl beside us, grateful that the Messis and Ronaldos of the world have put in the hours of practice and sacrifice so that we don’t have to. We like to believe that with similar practice and sacrifice, we too could be on the field playing rather than at home (or pub or community hall or park) watching. “Fantasy” and “fandom” evolved from different roots, but the two come together neatly here. We know the players intimately; they don’t know we exist.
Separated by huge distances geographically and emotionally, privy to close-ups of the participants while being fully aware that TV-watchers, unlike live spectators, cannot in any way create the atmosphere and tension so important in a stadium, we are still conscious of a communion with the world’s best. The energy and excitement are shared through a semipermeable membrane.
Bleary eyes and a foul mood at work are small price to pay for such communion.
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