Forgive me for a moment, for I am only just snapping out of a trance… I was staring at a freeze frame of the Nou Camp in Barcelona, completely empty, without any lines painted on the pitch, and it forced me to take pause. It was a completely blank canvas, hills rising from a valley for which the local team fought every other week to protect that patch of turf. Vicariously, it serves as the symbolic homeland for far more than can cram into all those empty seats encircling the pitch that will soon enough have lines painted on it soon enough.
Then I sat here at the computer for a good eight or nine minutes, trying in vain to capture a screenshot of the point in the video I had just watched, and while I’m normally capable of doing such things this particular DVD from Knight Library at the University of Oregon was not allowing me to do that on either computer on which I tried.
So you’ll just have to hear me rant about it for a moment, because it got me thinking about the rationality about just why we all love sports. (And I’m assuming that, given that you came over to a sports website with sports right there out front in the URL, you have at least a passing interest in sports if you happen to be reading an article titled “Why Do We Love Sports?”)
And then Google saved me as I finally capitulated to my ignorance, gave up, and asked the world for assistance. And now you at least get to see the image above that mesmerized me for at least a dozen minutes between simply staring and then trying in vain to figure out technology.
But technology is not the answer when it comes down to the question, “Why do we root for a particular team?”
I know I’ve thought a bit about this question in the past (those who might actually follow along could probably point out here, and here, and any number of other things I’ve written on the subject in the past) — but there is something about that picture that has me thinking.
The video from which it was clipped, History of Soccer: The Beautiful Game, is an incredible seven-disc anthology that captures the essence of the game throughout the ages. But what it did for me as I watched the first volume of the collection — after an advisor’s recommendation, unexpectedly, for a resource as I research the impact of the American Soccer League of 1921-1931 on the first (and as of yet most accomplished) U.S. World Cup team that took third in Uruguay in 1930 — was cause me to pause the video immediately when I saw this moment.
Rarely do we see the fields on which our favorite athletes compete without the demarcation lines within which the visiting team comes to try to overtake the home side. Now I’ve certainly seen some large patches of unadulterated turf, possibly some even larger than the Nou Camp could offer, but this juxtaposition of empty seats and borderless field define in more words than I can offer what we are looking for as fans as we root on our favorite team to victory.
And we don’t even have to be tied to the actual locale where that stadium exists. We might never have even been to whichever city we might cheer for in a particular league. But the fact remains that even that late-blooming diaspora has an intrinsic tie to a particular patch of grass, or a sheet of ice, or a court of hardwood, or whichever other medium might serve as the basis for the sports we love.
The sentiment remains the same across the board. Whether we are playing the sport or watching our favorite athletes defend our “home”, the same course of emotions rages through every fan. We are cheering and groaning, feeling that thrill of victory and agony of defeat, for a specific location that represents something far greater.
For Barcelona, the club which defends that patch of grass up above, it is Catalonian individuality and defiance for which the players play, fighting their symbolic struggle (despite coming from regions often far from the turf itself) against a larger Spanish project that has over the centuries sought to homogenize the Iberian Peninsula as much as possible. For the Montreal Canadiens, it is Quebecois individuality for which the club fights (and even, as was recently revealed through data analysis, for an entire country) on its patch of Quebecois ice. The Bronx Bombers aren’t fighting for Manhattan, after all…
This visceral connection to a place, a home territory, is what is integral in sport. It is our way to vicariously solve a short-term dispute between regions, even if the players and managers themselves are hired mercenaries brought in to do the jobs that local boys of yesteryear might have done. We root for a patch of turf, with all its lines painted, because it represents a battle on a controlled field against a foreign intruder — no matter how local that opponent might be. Even in a case like the Milan derby, where AC Milan and Inter Milan square off against one another at the very least twice a year at the San Siro, the turf becomes symbolically the “property” of one side or the other in the battle.
Vicariously, in an age of globalization, we long to root for any patch of turf — be it one we have visited in person from youth to adulthood, or one which we have only seen through the glories of modern broadcast technologies. That vicarious battle, healthy in its defined parameters and relative lack of mortality, is what keeps bringing us back. It is what ties communities together more than ever, and it is what unites a global communities in more ways than the founders of our modern sports might ever have imagined.
So root on, fans, for whatever tickles your fancy is ultimately a matter of picking a side and rooting that direction. Or perhaps you choose to wander about, a fair-weather fan doing his or her best to avoid the storms that inevitably arise from time to time when following a specific franchise through history. Either way, know that what you are really rooting for is a patch of grass, or ice, or wood, or whatever other medium might be used, that represents something far greater than the footprint of the arena in which you happen to sit…