I’m a happy crier.
I rarely cry when I’m upset, but I tear up easily when something brings me joy. I’ve cried over birthday cards, seeing my work in print, cat videos, Moana. Much against my expectations this summer, watching groups of 11 guys kick a ball around some grass in Russia brought me curiosity, intrigue, and yes, tears.
Being a writer by both profession and by hobby means I spend a lot of time in my head, listening, parsing, learning, and wrangling the various fictional and nonfictional entities in residence. It can get pretty hectic up there and mental real estate is not cheap. In other words, an interest has to earn its place and help pay the rent if it wants to stick around.
After the World Cup ended, I expected football to kiss me on the cheek and tell me it’s been fun while lamenting that it’s just not looking for anything serious right now.
Instead, it moved in.
The whole thing started innocently enough. I like good sport, I like a good narrative, and occasionally I like trying to tap into the current athletic zeitgeist. There was nothing on that afternoon and I needed some background noise for freelance projects after one too many Midsomer Murders reruns, so the World Cup it was.
Half my Twitter feed was excitement and fan analysis while the other half was a running commentary on which players celebrated by taking their shirts off. That became my cheering metric: if a country I’m fond of was playing then I’d cheer for them, otherwise I’d throw my support behind whoever had the best hair or got the most naked.
Croatia fell into the former category. I had a client in Croatia at the time, a very pleasant guy, so I opted to cheer for them one afternoon. Certain things appeal to me across broad swaths of life: competence, tenacity, fire, and a certain je ne sais fuck you confidence. The Vatreni had all that and more, and the knockout stage game against Denmark sealed the deal for them as my squad of choice for the rest of the tournament.
They were fun, they were relentless, and they fought until the very end.
Fandom, whether it’s for a movie, or a book, or a sports team, lives in a special place where a well-placed “asdhfhdslfjkhdsfhl” keysmash can be the highest form of articulation. It’s a wonderfully individualistic space and there are few consistent rules beyond “don’t be mean.” There’s no wrong way to be a fan, aside from -isms, gatekeeping, or purposefully seeking to make someone else’s fannish experience unpleasant.
Anything in fandom can be customized, from the level of interest to the level of engagement. Some people are happy with a casual fannish relationship while others dedicate large chunks of their time and energy. Like your thing, shout about it, make or write or draw something celebrating your thing, and there’s a great chance someone is waiting to shout with you. Emotions rule the roost in fannish spaces and logic doesn’t always get a say, and that’s part of its beauty.
It never fails to amaze me just how far emotions go when it comes to sports fandom. Not just for myself, but for others all over the world, especially once interest turns into genuine caring. Being a sports fan opens us up to shared joy, pain, disappointment, frustration, euphoria, and devastation like few other things do. We may have some modicum of control over other things in our lives, but sports? Ha! No amount of yelling from the bleachers or the couch or the pub gives us control over what’s happening on the pitch and yet we as fans accept it willingly.
When it’s good, it’s so good, and when it’s bad, we’re not upset alone. I love the community aspect of fandom at its best, that people all over the world who’ve never heard my name or seen my face can share a feeling with me based on our shared appreciation for a game. There’s magic in that. It’s incredible.
My sports fandom is rooted in ice hockey. Discovering hockey was about as happenstance as discovering football; some mentions and some Googling during the 2012-2013 lockout led me to watch some games once play resumed and I was hooked. I’ve talked to other American hockey fans who are bemused that I love both hockey and football. They bemoan what they perceive as a slower game without sexy goals or spectacular saves. Football takes some patience, which American sports fans as a collective aren’t always great at.
Falling in love with a national team in football is different than falling in love with a national team in ice hockey. Ice hockey is less popular around the world, fewer countries have their own individual pro leagues, and the best players are primarily in the NHL, so following them is pretty easy.
Football . . . does not work like that. By the time the season started I’d succumbed to the inevitable. I was in, I wanted a team or two to support, but my favorite players from the World Cup are scattered in different leagues all over Europe, which left me near square one. A dear friend jokingly suggested I support Liverpool, his club of choice. They’re a fine club and Klopp is delightful, but the epiphanous “YOU! YOU ARE DORKS AND YOU SHALL BE MY DORKS!” pull wasn’t there, and so I watched, and I waited.
I’d heard Arsenal mentioned alongside a handful of other Premier League sides mentioned in passing across UK panel shows over the years. I knew nothing about the club’s history or that Unai Emery was the first new manager in 22 years. My reference points before I watched a match stemmed from ‘should Hector cut his hair?’ and some bleak Tumblr humor.
It didn’t take long for the Gunners to resonate with me. They weren’t the biggest, they weren’t the best, they had a fondness for doing things the hard way and treating halftime leads like cryptids, and they felt right.
I messaged my friend. I’d found my team.
I care much less about the best teams and players in the world than I do about how they make me feel. Be fair, be decent human beings, let your personalities shine, and be interesting. I respect Héctor Bellerín and Mesut Özil for speaking out against social issues in both sport and society. I’m thrilled that Shkodran Mustafi appreciates trolling and being trolled by his teammates all across Instagram stories. I’m consistently delighted by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and his friendship with Alexandre Lacazette.
Fun to watch is only part of the Interesting Equation: I want sport to move me, I want to watch my team play and feel myself overflow with all the good and the bad their showing on the pitch brings.
Make me cry, lads. I dare you.