By: Jon Townsend
I’ve sat there with you, watching each team’s wingers burn up and down the pitch, the center midfielders operate as true terriers in every sense of the word while the defenders maraud around chasing shadows and smashing each striker’s shins. We hoped we’d win but knew we could lose.
So many times we watched this maddening game and you sat there biting your fingernails and I stood in dank submission and reflection being pissed on by the rain chewing on my shirt collar — these are not moments of sophistication. The wave of anticipatory happiness can only be rivaled by the tsunami of sobering reality that comes from the mere possibility of losing.
This is losing ugly.
Each time I played, a bit of life bled off my brow and soaked into the cold mud of the pockmarked pitch underfoot because for me, the game was a bit like life. For years I trained and my sweat was evidence of effort. For years, I learned and every single time, it was the heartbreaking loss that hit hardest. The sport matters because the force that can most easily break concentration is the one players rarely see or predict — but they can feel it. That surge of worry in coursing through the veins and the cauldron of apprehension brewing in the gut.
I’ve felt those feelings, too.
For some, the passion is so strong that their side’s crest has long been burned over their hearts, searing itself into the flesh.
It’s a funny old game. The Devil’s gift of losing, God’s blessing of victory, and a heap of confusion that leads one to lose faith in both entities.
In winning we are somehow elitist, but in losing we are all the same: flattened, deflated, and cut down to size. At the start and end of each campaign, it’s the Hope that kills. Losing is the ultimate educator. Losing is the school teacher who will not relent until you’ve learned the damn lesson; losing is the ghost lurking in your basement that chases you up the stairs when you turn off the lights, and believe me, you’ll never sprint faster as when you’re trying to reach that door that takes you out of the darkness. I remember watching many of my best friends hang their boots up after a heartbreaking loss and they never recovered. Losing hurts enough to drive us mad. Perhaps they got out early enough to maintain some semblance of sanity.
I was only four years old when my father first laced up the boots for me; and I was only four years old when I learned what losing meant. It meant inadequacy and weakness. Losing meant the luck and happiness you chased around the pitch as a hare-brained child with a singular purpose could only be found in the back of your own net. The game is fickle in these ways; it reduces grown men to tears and makes young people feel old. Nothing, and I mean nothing, hurts more than losing.
Sixteen years on, there was that match I remember playing — a battle in the mud and the sleet, and the scouts were there with their clipboards. I wasn’t known for bagging many goals but that day I scored a worldly. Tie game, one all. It was the type of match where the ball stuck to my boots and my first touch was as deft as ever. It was a complete performance, or so I thought as the 89th minute ticked past, “How much time left, sir?” the captain asked the referee, who held up a single index finger. One minute. Sixty seconds. An eternity. Their goalkeeper collected and smashed the ball into the clouds before it descended out of the atmosphere like a hexagonal-paneled meteor. The center midfielder let the ball bounce — never let the ball bounce! Their striker collected the ball and the right back tackled him. The ball bounced and clattered off everyone’s shins until it fell to the captain.
“Back, back, give it to the goalkeeper!” was the order we heard from the sideline. As soon as the ball left his boot, their striker was in. I can’t recall who told our skipper to pass it back and it didn’t matter. This was the match slipping away like grains of sand escaping a clenched fist. I did what I had to and fouled their striker; it was only his third touch of the ball all game. In that moment I saw red, figuratively, and tackled him out of desperation and I saw red again, this time literally, as the referee sent me off.
He converted and rightly so — he was the hero. Three whistles sealed our fate and married us to defeat. The tears came for some, especially the skipper, whose face was covered with anguish and creased with mud. His tears parted the dirt on his cheeks. He’ll sort himself out, I thought. I was too angry at myself and the situation to cry. Some looked for the scouts in the stands but found only their empty seats. They had vanished. Game over. We had lost. Our goalkeeper shook his head, the other team celebrated in front of us, and all we could hear was the concussive echo of defeat.
The thing about losing is it gets worse with age. Losing is the soul’s rheumatism, but it’s also a reminder that you still care enough to cry, to swear, to go on a tirade, to go to the pub and cry into a pint. Losing is a reminder to hold your tongue and reflect. Losing reveals the million things we feel without us saying a single word. What does one gain in losing? In some respects, winning is the palpable embodiment of success. It matters but it doesn’t quite educate us like losing does. Losing galvanizes friendships and rivalries. Losing makes a person question their own sanity and we inevitably come to the conclusion we are just this side of crazy and to us, that’s acceptable. In this regard, losing reminds us we still draw breath in this crazy ride called life.
The smart ones don’t follow soccer with any vigor or rigor. They are immune from losing. The rest of us sit in the stands, alone on the couch, slumped over a bar stool, and each of us is filled the rigor mortis of defeat when our lads fall short. When they fall, we fall and when they win, surely, we are the victors of the day, too. Somehow, football cruelly bridges the continental gaps between supporters because it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter if you were born in the same city as your team or you’ve never seen the sight of the stadium, heard the roar of the crowd in person, or smelled the freshly cut grass of the pitch — soccer has given you a family and it has sentenced you to a lifetime dealing with a handful of loathsome rivals. You don’t have to hate them — but you do. And the feeling is mutual. Sometimes, in a strange twist of fate and circumstance, you respect the enemy.
Losing makes liars out of us all. We assume we could do better, and sometimes, we’re right. People cry and die by their soccer allegiances and there are no words to make losing acceptable. But, I contend that losing is a gift. With every loss, I learn and reaffirm who I am and where I stand. Defeat reminds me why I love soccer. Defeat reminds me why I’ve spent some of the greatest parts of my life immersed in a game that has taken from me as much as it has given.
It reminds me why soccer is more than a game — it is life itself.