Friday, June 25, 2004

Being a football fan is an exercise in religious truth

"The reward is proportionate to the suffering." (Pirkei Avot, Chapter 5)

It's times like this I'm not sorry I'm abroad. If England had got through last night I might now be slightly envious. The collective hysteria cuts both ways. How much higher is the high when, at the instant of relative footballing glory, you're in a pub with tens and hundreds of hoping, shouting, drinking, jumping compatriots? Conversely, how much lower is that low? You can't have one without the other, not without being a bit inauthentic. If you want those moments of sheer visceral joy you've got to take those others, the moments of deflation and disappointment. You can't pretend to love it when you win and not care less when you lose.

The events of last night have made me think being a football fan, I mean really throwing your lot in with a team, can be a religious experience. It's almost a cliche to say your team's stadium is your place of worship, where you idolise the players and sing songs of praise. (The sports team is actually my favourite analogy for non-dualistic, omnipresent God: the team manifests itself in the current players, fans, management staff, board, stadium and so on, but none of those things are the team itself, which will continue to exist through new players etc.) But I'm not being metaphorical. Supporting a football team is an exercise in learning religious truths. It teaches you how to accept, which is to trust in God.

Let's be clear. I'm not talking about some deity of football who you think will eventually send your team glory. That's the "we still believe" of Skinner and Baddiel. I'm talking about the real and the unchangeable, which football eventually leads you to accept. What is, is.

I know I can't change the Portugal match's outcome. But it doesn't stop me involuntarily trying. My mind struggles against what happened. I walk around today replaying it all. The injury, the substitutions, the disallowed goal (sorry, I needn't go on)... in short, all the little incidents that combined to make it go wrong. To me it's 'wrong' because I've firmly attached myself to a specific outcome. So I resist the truth. And I feel pain and sorrow.

Hang on a minute, you might say. Where is the acceptance? How is attaching yourself to certain results the best way to learn about the real? 'Whatever will be will be' - but surely the non-football fan, the indifferent observer, is in a much better position to know it?

Yes, but he's not learning. He knows already. Or at least he thinks he knows. Maybe he pontificates about the stupidity of the supporters. "They're so irrational. How stupid to be happy or unhappy depending on a win or a loss, something they've got absolutely no way of affecting." Thing is, maybe he loses his wallet on the way home and spends the rest of the night worrying and regretting.

By the time it went into extra time last night I was nervous and shaking, my head pounding and my heart running double speed. I wanted so badly not to lose. For that reason, because I was scared pain would come - and I didn't want the pain - I tried to detatch myself. Portugal were attacking. I tried to see it as shapes on a screen, men in coloured shirts kicking a sphere, something I didn't really care about. I tried imagining we'd lost already.

Near impossible. And in any case, inauthentic. Still, I wanted to be calmer. So I tried something else. I looked for the part of me which was already calm. I found it was my awareness. Though the rest of me was a wreck, I could still watch, perfectly. Not my eyes, but the consciousness my eyes report to. When I found it, I calmed down. My body became less frantic. I started to smile and laugh a bit more.

I still cared. I still celebrated our extra-time equaliser. There was still an 'us', still a 'them'. Actually all that was just as strong. But there was also that part of me that was constant and unaffected. It's not that I was keeping something back, splitting myself off and steeling myself to avoid the pain. Rather I just noticed what was already there. And when we lost, I accepted.

At least I thought I did. After the match I went with my friends to a trance party by the waterfall. We danced, sat and chatted till the sun came up. On the way home the events of the football started to creep in and haunt me. Today, as I said before, they've been replaying in my mind. The point is I still attached myself to the result. The desire was and is still there, no matter what I pretend.

So again, why do I say football is a lesson in detatchment?

Because I can't learn unless I acknowledge the attachment that's there. You can't pretend you're further along the process than you already are. In fact, the combination of desire and disappointment is the process.

So is it leading to football renunciation? Is it x number of World Cup and European Championship penalty shootout exits and then I'm free, no longer a supporter? No. We keep coming back for more, don't we? Suckers all the way.

No, I'm free from football only to the extent that I'm free as regards everything else as well. In the meantime, there's no need to do anything apart from continue to wish fervently that England win.

And we continue to lose. And each time I feel pain. And each time I eventually accept. And the cycle repeats and repeats and it's all got to go somewhere. It's true of life in general, only with football the process is more concise: more intense, faster, clearer. And nothing more is at stake than a game.

I repeat:

Supporting a football team is an exercise in religious truth.

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