Love, Or Something Like It

By John Sloop (@NCAMookie), columnist.

Sometimes it feels like my love for soccer is otherworldly. Instead, philosopher Simon Critchley tells us it emerges from something very much tied to our material circumstances and emotions, something he calls “sensate ecstasy.”

That’s worthy of consideration.

A couple of years ago, after I finished working out at the Downtown YMCA and had showered, one of the other gym regulars walked up to me and said, “Wow, you must really love Peugeot.” I was confused. I had no idea what he was talking about. It’s one of those weird moments in which you try everything to figure out the context of the question. Have I ever talked about cars with this guy? If so, I don’t know anything about Peugeot so that would be weird? Did he overhear saying something that sounded like that? Is he confusing me with someone else? Am I having a stroke? I considered doing what I generally do in such cases: say, “Oh, sure,” and hope that’s the end of it. I can sort it out later. But I had waited too long to respond and knew that I look confused, so anything other than “What are you talking about?” seemed the wrong response.

At that point, he gestured toward my only tattoo, a replica of the Chelsea lion logo.

Again, I looked at him confusedly.

“The tattoo,” he said, “That’s Peugeot.”

“No, it’s not,” I told him, “I mean, it's a lion, but they don't look that much alike. Also, why the hell would I have a corporate logo as a tattoo?”

His response gave me pause: “Dude, you do . . . you do have a corporate logo as a tattoo,” he said.

I was about to protest when I realized, technically, he was right. Let’s face it: the big soccer clubs are huge businesses, large companies, in addition to being soccer teams. So, I didn’t argue with him. In fact, I felt a bit deflated and uncomfortable when I thought about it in those terms.

I knew he was wrong--at least in terms of my experience with soccer--but I wasn’t sure how to put it. I mean, my love for the game in general, my love for “favorite teams” is passionate. I feel a sense of the familial when it comes to kindred fans. There is something more in the range of “love” when it comes to soccer compared to the way one might really like a particular type of car or computer.

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Now, cynics and a number of cultural critics would laugh at my stance on this. They would note that it is the cleverness of companies that makes us have a sense of passion or love toward a team. I may feel a mystical connection to, say, Chelsea, but that is simply a product of clever marketing. Ultimately, they would say, I’m not achieving anything other than lining the owners’ pockets.

And, if that was the whole of it, I would agree. But it’s not, not according to Simon Critchley, anyway. In What We Think About When We Think about Soccer, Critchley spends a good amount of time trying to think about what it is that draws us to soccer. Ultimately, he notes that both soccer on the pitch, and soccer as a fan event, are about far more than the game. Critchley goes into great detail about how the game itself is never about individual players, but about the team as an organic unit; it’s about “association.” He then adds in the fan community, observing: “These patterns of sociability find both their echo and their energy in the collective life of the fans . . . The reason why football is so important to so many of us is precisely because of the experience of association at its heart and the vivid sense of community it provides” (p7).

Casey Gower/Speedway Soccer

Indeed, in a sense, soccer provides some of the same ‘sacred canopy’ comforts that religious belief offers. In some ways, it provides both a family and a way to escape or avoid the existential crisis caused by something as minor as an emotional blip to something as major and abstract as the knowledge of our own ultimate death. As Critchley puts it, “The words that can shape and preserve the moment of the experience of football can saves us from death, giving us a sense of continuity with the past and the possibility of a posthumous survival through the words and lives of future fans” (34). In a sense, it’s why so many of us are driven to know about the history of our club, and to think about its future. Becoming part of a tradition ties us spiritually to the past and the future, allowing us to remain grounded beyond our own limits, despite our knowledge of that impossibility.

Some may think that Critchley gets a little too poetic when he describes the feeling of sensate ecstasy, but not me: I feel it, too. Here is what he says: “something like an experience of enchantment, where we are lifted out of the everyday into something ecstatic, evanescent and shared, a subtly transfigured sensorium. It is what I call sensate ecstasy” (26). And while I know we can get some level of feeling with a lot of different types of fanship (other sports, music, etc), I agree with Critchley that there is something different about soccer. Because of the rarity of goals, the games are always more intense, because there are no sonic “training wheels” in the stadium telling us when to cheer, we have to do it on our own, becoming active rather than passive participants. Ultimately, I think, along with Critchley, that there is something different, more spiritual, about soccer.

While our love affairs may factually be tied to corporations with spread sheets and quarterly earnings, that’s not how we experience it.

We experience love and sensate ecstasy.


For those who prefer to listen rather than read, here Critchley reads from his work.

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