Why Keith Richards Made Me Think About Soccer

By John Sloop, columnist.

“Memory,” Keith Richards tells us in Life, “is fiction.”

While Richards is talking about this in the context of how we tell our life stories, it’s a fairly apt expression in general. Clearly, Richards doesn’t mean that all memory is simply “made up” out of thin air. All of the memories we share are based on what we think happened, what we re-member. And even when we shape memory for narrative effect, we feel pretty certain we have an idea about the facts. However, Richards is right: when we think about the past, we tend to alter it, thinking through our trauma, our pleasures. We leave out bits and add others.

And every study on memory shows that he is right. Indeed, almost as soon as an event has moved into the “past,” two individuals—both positive they are correct—will give different accounts of an event. The longer time passes, the less the story actually fits reality itself.

More, even what we choose to remember at all is papered by our thoughts about who we are in the present. People tend to linger in the “glories” of their past when the present isn’t quite as exciting. When we make fun of someone stuck in their glory years, it’s because memory, as fiction, can be better than the present.

So, what does this have to do with soccer? I’ve been thinking about a lot of my knee jerk reactions to nostalgia in soccer. One of the refrains you often hear if you are a Chelsea fan is “You guys have no history,” or, ‘You weren’t even a real until the Abramovich revolution.” And while, on the one hand, that’s a ridiculous thing to say—hell, we were a club, a struggling club with brief moments of glory, since 1905. Of course, there is a history there. That said, Chelsea fans often seem to act as if the only thing in history that matters are the big victories. For example, the anniversary of Chelsea’s Champions League win, or the anniversary of one of the times they’ve won the league, my news feed will be filled with people posting videos of these victories. And, heck, all Chelsea TV wants to show me are highlights of victories, never losses. It’s as if history is only made up of winning.

Casey Gower / Speedway Soccer

And we’re not alone in this: far from it. For the past 20 years while Liverpool was floating underneath the glory of Manchester United, all I ever heard from their cheers and chants were discussions of the past. Every conversation with one of them would be about their glory years. Oddly enough, as Liverpool is reasserting itself, Manchester United fans are taking on their place: endless discussions and celebrations of the past.

History and identity, however, are not made up of glory alone. Only when memory is fiction is that the case. Instead, history is riddled with losses and struggles and rivalries. History is filled with heartbreak and anger. Memory may be fiction but, for my money, it needs to keep that pain and frustration in the forefront as well. If the only history that matters to you is the history of winning, I’m not quite sure what kind of fan you are, what kind of community member you are. Indeed, it’s in the history of struggle, of loss, rather than of wins that our love for a team is fused.

So, while memory may be a fiction, I want to embrace the hard bits at least as strongly as I do the victories. I worry that equating history with victory misses the point of what we are all up to with this game.

Turning to the local, I hope we all embrace these early years—a time that will likely be marked more by struggle and loss than struggle and victory, more by falling below the red line than vying for championships. We are building our history now; we are forging identity.

If memory is fiction, let’s try to build a narrative of struggle, of victory and of loss. Let’s embrace it all, the welts and the roses.

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