Thursday, October 20, 2016

In praise of ambiguity

Late Tuesday evening while most American sports fans were watching Game 3 of the Cubs/Dodgers series, I watched a recording of a soccer match played six hours earlier in Germany: Tottenham v. Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League. Parenthetically, in cases like this I quarantine myself from media so as not to learn the result before I have a chance to watch it. As a diehard Spurs supporter I experienced the match as a stressful emotional rollercoaster. It wasn't until the final whistle blew that I fully exhaled. "Wow," you may be thinking, "it must have been quite the back and forth high-scoring affair!"

Actually, no. You would be half right. It was a back and forth affair in which each side had the upper hand at various times, but the final score was 0-0 "nil-nil" with both teams walking away with a point (instead of the three points a win would have earned). Here would seem to be Exhibit A to the "soccer is boring" crowd's jibe that it's a sport that features "lots of running around with nothing happening." I get it, believe me, I get it, having once felt the same way. But like Saul on the Damascus Road I've had an epiphany, so even a match in which neither team scores can leave me breathless. Another example of an utterly compelling match that ended nil-nil -- and felt like a massive victory under the circumstances -- was the 2013 USA v. Mexico World Cup qualifying match at the Azteca. Still one of my favorite soccer matches, and sports memories, ever.

Football fan Andi Thomas writes in praise of the nil-nil draw in a terrific piece at SB Nation in which he compares the Tottenham/Leverkusen match with a less scintillating 0-0 result the night before in Liverpool (if you're a fan of the English Premier League you'll want to click through and read the whole thing). Thomas writes:

This is why the nil-nil draw is so important to football as a sport. Most, if not all of the other sports that might aspire to a similar kind of cultural penetration don't even permit such a thing to happen, either through explicit rules mandating some kind of overtime or by implicitly ensuring that points (or whatever) cannot help but turn up. (One exception is test cricket, which has produced some truly beautiful five-day draws.) As such, while almost anybody that takes any sport seriously comes away from a match thinking about the things that were good and were not, and barely any victory is entirely joyous, there is always a result to centre the response. 
Perhaps, to adapt the joke slightly, it's not that a nil-nil draw is 90 minutes in which nothing happens — did you see Hugo Lloris' save? That was definitely a thing — but 90 minutes in which lots of things happen but fail, ultimately, to resolve into anything immediately coherent. Which is a problem, perhaps, if you've promised millions of Monday night viewers one of the games of the century or you wanted to pick up three points in a tricky Champions League group. But we might also suggest that part of the singular character of football is that it forces those that follow it into not-infrequent moments of institutionalised ambiguity, where the uncertainty is the result, and frustration and satisfaction just have to find a way to rub along.

That last paragraph is the best thing I've read in a while about football -- and come to think of it -- is not only an apt description of a sport in which victory and defeat often cancel each other out, but of life as experienced most of the time.


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