“Crack cocaine is a substance that affects the brain chemistry of the user: causing euphoria, supreme confidence, loss of appetite, insomnia, alertness, increased energy, a craving for more cocaine”
We need a few studies and data. How many soccer fans, let’s say in Europe and the Americas south of the Río Grande, have played the game? And at what level? I’d have to guess almost 100% of the men who go to games have played street soccer. Fewer have played in formal leagues, whether 11 v 11, 5 v 5, futsal, or what have you. But Dutch research indicates that a 4 v 4 game has all the necessary elements to learn the big game, and it gives more touches on the ball. So it is possible when soccer fans watch a match, they take it in from the perspective of a player. Contrast that to say the NFL: how many fans have put on shoulder pads or pushed a blocking sled? Of course as kids everyone’s played catch or touch football. But I suggest that the gap between touch football and the real deal is greater than the similar soccer experience. I’d further extend that to ask how many baseball fans have tried to hit a curve ball or had to get out of the way of a fast ball under the chin. And how many NBA fans have played a full court game with six offensive plays and three defensive sets?
If it’s true that playing street soccer provides a very similar frame of reference as the full match, then the fans in the stadium and the bars understand and are experiencing many of these sensations vicariously, to a greater extent than fans of other sports. Soccer fans are more mentally involved in matches than other fans. Since they have played the game they are watching, their involvement is deeper and richer. They are not watching passively (opiate) but participating actively in the play (crack). That’s why soccer fans watch differently. There are no trips to get a hot dog while the game is in progress. No vendors move through the crowd. Fans relieve themselves en masse at half time and that’s it. Fans don’t converse during the match, catching up on spouses, jobs, and kids. Everyone is fixedly observing the action, putting themselves in the players’ place, thinking what the next play should be, living and dying on the fortunes of their side.
As a point of comparison, read The Onion’s sendup of baseball fans, No One At Baseball Game Has Any Idea What Inning It Is, What Score Is, What Teams Playing
Segue: what happens when you play soccer?
1. Runner’s high. The amount of distance covered in professional games can reach 10 km (6 miles) or more. While a marathoner can cover more distance in that time, this is still a considerable expenditure of energy, especially considering the high number of sprints involved in the distance covered.
Most of the running is without the ball, at various speeds, and it’s common to hit “runner’s high” in the middle of a game.
2. Fight or flight. As my late friend Manolo Vilches used to say, “el fútbol sin hostias no mola” – “soccer without hitting isn’t hot” in other words it is important to always remember soccer is a contact sport. Shoulder charges, getting kicked, tripped and stepped on are continuous risks and consequences of play. The pain kicks the brain into a higher level of alertness, adrenaline flows and the reptilian brain awakens to decide whether to fight or withdraw. When we decide to fight, we may experience “supreme confidence, alertness, increased energy, (and ultimately) a craving for more cocaine soccer.”
3. Continuous mental stimulus. The amount of thought required to play soccer at a good level is huge. Several times a minute players are looking to see where everyone is, where the ball is, where it is likely to go next and ask themselves what their reaction should be.
4. Gambler’s High, or the risk / reward of technical challenges. When you have the ball in a game, you always have several choices what to do with it. When you decide, it is up to you and your technique to propel the ball in a way that gets the result you have decided on. Succeed and you automatically get a rush of pleasure. Fail, and you, your teammates, coach and fans (where there are coaches and fans) all let you know their displeasure. It’s like a gamble, and the more difficult the play you attempt, the bigger the reward if it works. This is why in a pickup game poor players will often avoid a simple play and instead attempt something with a low chance of success. Completing a five-yard pass has no suspense to it. A 30-yard curved pass that splits two defenders, that’s a challenge.
This is one place where formal, competitive league play separates from recreational games. The higher emphasis on winning, or not losing, drives a more disciplined approach to possession. It is a universal truth that teams must play conservatively near their own goal, efficiently through the midfield and save the “party pieces” to break down the opponents in the final third. In a “fun game” it’s more common to see risky plays all over the field, because they are more fun. In a serious league match, that fun is outweighed by the emphasis on a deferred pleasure, that of winning the match and possibly the league.
5. Belonging to something larger than yourself. This is where the “sport as religion” and mindlessness of the masses argument comes in. All possible, all could be true, and something more can be true: the euphoria of community and shared struggle. I have no statistics on this but when I watch people like this talk about what they experienced, for me there is something significantly there:
One Night In Istanbul – Liverpool 3-3 AC Milan Part 2 of 3
Playing soccer can give a player all these sensations at once: runner’s high, the adrenaline rush of physical combat, continual mental stimulus, the gambler’s rush of beating the odds, and finally belonging to a community larger than yourself.
Am I saying that the stadium where Scunthorpe play are filled with Nobel Laureates and Ph. D. candidates in statistics? Of course not. Are there fans whose idea of athletic endeavor is throwing up in the street while trying to miss their shoes? There are.
When I hear the argument that sports deaden the mind and being a fan is for those who do not, cannot access the higher aesthetic calling of symphonies or literature, all this runs through my mind. Any sport requires a certain type of intelligence from the player in order to excel; even boxing is called “the sweet science” by those who understand how it works at the highest levels.
This two posts started when I saw what the late Christopher Hutchens when he wrote,
“Listen: the paper has a whole separate section devoted to people who want to degrade the act of reading by staring enthusiastically at the outcomes of sporting events that occurred the previous day.” “If you want a decent sports metaphor that applies as well to the herd of fans as it does to the players, try picking one from the most recent scandal. All those concerned look—and talk—as if they were suffering from a concussion.”
I was hapy to see the publication In These Times respond, “Progressives should be concerned about the conditions of production for the entertainment consumed by the public. They shouldn’t, however, launch broadsides against that act of consumption itself. That ascetic rejection of sports—from Orwell, who called sports “war minus the shooting,” to Hitchens and beyond—represents nothing more than a failure of vision.”
For me, the best riposte to Hitch might have been, “Where did you play?”