It was Sarah who taught me about football, really.
For years, soccer was, for me, something viewed from the top down – an arrangement of men in space, all generally in motion, synchronized around the ball. I grew up an intensely nerdy and observant kid in central Indiana, in an era where you could still earn a hoops Ph.D. by sitting and listening to the old men quietly complain. “Gotta see man and ball what is that kid doing” and “weak side fer Chrissakes” and “thank the screener, Jeff, anyone can hit that.” My sixth-grade basketball team played a diamond-and-1 press to surprise a local rival – the idea that sporting competitions were not just skills contests or dominance challenges, but also mental skirmishes, settled onto me like a cloak. I resolved that I would peer around the corner; I would see the pattern. (To be clear, I was also a fragile, perfectionist kid who’d grown up performing. I was undoubtedly a gigantic pain in the ass to coach.)
Fast-forward, then, past college and into my second year as a sports writer. ESPN had recently added coverage of this crazy competition called the UEFA Champions League, the broadcasts of which coincided nicely with the break between office time and field coverage. Here was this thing, football, I was only glancingly familiar with (thanks to a season at right back for Team Jaundice in the Williams College intramural league), but the football didn’t need a lot of explanation – I would sit, entranced, while the great sides of the early-to-mid 90s would carve out these beautiful shapes. Football was like the basketball offensive sketches of my childhood, multiplied by themselves once and again, made vast and three-dimensional; its malleable nature and unrelenting clock shaped it so very differently than the usual American thing. But it suggested more than a surfeit of combinations – football’s amorphous nature seemed a closer fit with the universe as we know it. In soccer as in life, the offside line is drawn only by the ingenuity of the opposition, and exists only as a group hallucination. The way dominant teams can draw out time, keeping the ball; the levelling power of a scrum after a half-cleared corner: Soccer had me hanging limply in its jaws for years before I truly understood.
Sarah is, of course, my wife, Sarah Hylla Spence, lately of the NGS Grenadiers. She inherited my towering obsession with soccer when we fell in love. For years she’d watched FoxSportsWorld alongside me, just soaking in football from every corner of the globe – Argentina and Mexico and their shared sense of the game as guerra, the Netherlands and their taut constructions, the knives-out staredown of Italian calcio, on and on and on, the beauty and hilarity and cultural resonance of the world’s greatest game, hurriedly dumped into the living rooms of America like the booty from a diamond heist. She’d grown to appreciate the sport a bit, but I think I’m not exaggerating to say that – if we went back in time – that earlier Sarah would say she’s a bigger fan of hockey than soccer. In any case, she had a surprise prepared for me in the summer of 2005: She’d bought tickets for DC United at Columbus Crew. If our car would make it, we’d see Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez (and, uh, Freddie Adu and Kyle Martino) live and in the flesh.
Our car made it. We were about 10 rows up, middle-center, and almost entirely alone. There was a group of four guys sitting rows in front of us who seemed to feel it was their responsibility to keep the Crew backline apprised of the offside situation; one guy spent most of the match screaming “UUUPPP!!!” every time a Columbus defender dawdled a step into negative space. You could hear the players’ touch on the ball; Josh Gros’ donkey-touch had a unique sound, like a muffled gunshot. Then DC United’s infamous Barra Brava started singing in the lofty aerie assigned to visiting support at Crew Stadium, and something … changed. A mundane thing became something else; Sarah’s attention was drawn immediately to these celebrating weirdos setting up a decent samba beat in the 12th minute, singing and slithering around each other, maybe 30 hardy souls making a ruckus, just doing their thing in the corner of the stadium.
Sarah is an empath. Her emotional antennae never retract; she can use clumsy physical and emotional feedback mechanisms to blunt the effects of their inputs, but (unlike most of us) she cannot simply mute their pipings. Obviously, this makes being in uncontrolled social situations fraught – how many places can one go these days where people are generally in a good mood? All the outliers are negatives in a society that’s lost respect for the idea of human dignity, and the baseline surliness of life in late-stage capitalism is like emotional sandpaper. Swaggering aggro-philes, wheedling addicts, preening narcissists, need and greed and rage, Sarah feels it all at just less than one remove. These outside influences color her own feelings enough that being in public can be an exercise in damage limitation.
Barra Brava didn’t take over the stadium, and DC United didn’t dominate that game (although they did win 1-0) – what they did was establish a mood. They altered the emotional reality the game was played in. For the first 10-12 minutes, it was soccer as I’d known it, taking place in a place of geometric purity, spacing and touch, almost silent and airless, with the occasional “UUUPPPP!!!” or Gros Donkey Touch breaking up the peace. The Barra dragged the game back down to earth, salted it, gave it a little wiggle ‘round the middle, made it alluring and passionate and free. Sarah sensed it immediately, and spent most of the game vibing on the waves of delight and defiance rolling off the legendary Chico and his posse.
Then we left, and waited nearly nine years to feel it again. This time, we never left.