“Thank you football – this type of emotion, without football, I think is impossible to live.”
So said Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino on Wednesday May 8, just after Lucas Moura’s instinctive strike in the dying seconds of the semi-final second leg against Ajax Amsterdam had sent the North London side to their first ever Champions League final.
Often pundits and journalists will roll out the old Bill Shankly line of “football is not a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that” and piously ruminate that it is most definitely not.
However, despite Shankly’s comment actually intended more tongue in cheek than it has been taken, there is truth in there. Pochettino came closer to nailing it. Football, like any other passion in life, allows us to feel the full gamut of human emotion like almost nothing else. It is the other side of the coin to which Arthur Schopenhauer opined that life without pain has no meaning – if we do not feel highs nor lows, are we even living?
I’m not ashamed to admit that those three weeks between that night in Amsterdam and the final in Madrid on June 1 was one of the most blissfully happy periods I can recall in my life. Every day I woke up almost leaping out of bed like it was Christmas Day, skipping off to work, smiling at everyone I came across. That was because of football, because of a game where 22 men kick a spherical leather object into a net at each end of a grass field. The only attachment I have to these strangers I support is the clothing, the badge they adorn that I have been associated with since I was a young boy.
So much pure enthusiasm and vibrance we have in our youth ebbs away as we grow up, being beaten down by responsibilities and the urgency to ensure one’s own survival. That is why football is an escape, like any other leisure activity or entertainment. Just like one might be moved to tears at the opera when Radames cradles the dying Aida in his arms singing her last breath, so too a last minute goal can elicit tears from the most testosterone-heavy among us.
I do find it ridiculous sometimes the effect that football, the tribal act of supporting a team, rather, has on me. My anxiety before a derby genuinely brings about physical reactions, where I cannot eat for nausea. My heartbeat increases every matchday so much so it feels like there is a drummer in my chest. I go lightheaded when it comes to any kind of important Cup match, such as a semi-final or (sadly all too rare) a final.
Don’t even get me started on penalties. Even if it’s not a team I’m supporting, such as Spurs, England, or Barnet, I still get incredibly anxious watching a penalty shootout, so high are the stakes, so unflinching is the dramatic impact of that singular moment of missing or scoring the decisive winner.
This is supposed to be an escape from the stresses and strains of everyday life. It is where we can go to supposedly relax yet it is actually the opposite. It is, apart from the pure sporting enjoyment, to open ourselves up and allow ourselves to be led by our emotions like the creatures we are.
Which is why football is such an oddity these days. Grown men regularly cry, as I did at the Champions League final in Madrid, heaving shoulders and everything on the floor of the Wanda Metropolitano. I cried more than I did after a particularly gruelling heartbreak the previous year which I thought was the lowest I had ever felt. I am not even trying to sound glib or funny, that is admittedly true. Not sure what that says about me or that relationship but there we are.
We celebrate images of players or managers crying, showing how much they care.
Yet, the homophobic abuse continues on the terraces, the racist chants can still be heard, displays of masculine arrogance spill over into physical altercations. Hatred and bile spits out like venom at the majority of matches up and down the country.
But no matter our shirt colours, every man, woman and child deserves to feel the same joy that football can bring. Passion is a word associated with a positive meaning. It can bring out wonderful things in human beings. It can transcend language, borders and race. It can bring strangers together, including a tender moment one man raises a crying man-child to his feet and tenderly hugs him and tells him it will be OK, just show your support for the lads.
Now, more than ever, we need to embrace those passions in life that make us *feel* and encourage them in those around us, because they keep us in check with our humanity.
Enjoy the new season, whoever you support. Sing loud and proud throughout, make friends, see new places, kick every ball, feel every save – oh, and come on you Spurs…