The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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Write It Like Disaster

Trophy killing flowers.

The art of being an elite club in European football is the art of forgetting how to be happy. The competitions you don’t win have to sit like a stone in the middle of your consciousness of the competitions you do.

Stoke City (“not an elite club”) were ecstatic this weekend after a 0-0 draw with Leicester City secured their promotion to the top flight in England for the first time in 23 years. Elsewhere in Europe, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich were clinching top-flight league championships by commanding margins, but feeling a bit poignant, on the whole, that they didn’t win their European tournaments. Oh, there were celebrations, songs, and dousings with Weißbier in the gray continental rain, but a faint philosophical melancholy ran through both teams. Together they’ve won 52 league titles, so it takes something special to keep ennui from creeping into the experience.

If value in football were absolute, it would be odd to see Stoke City treating a second-place finish in a second-tier league as a triumph, while Real Madrid were depressed about “only” reaching the round of 16 in the Champions League, and Bayern were still stinging from their loss in the the semifinals of the UEFA Cup. But value in football isn’t absolute. Expectations color everything, and if people think you’re stupid enough, just putting verbs in your sentences will win you a lot of debates.

This begs the question, of course, of what all these wins are for. Stoke City have almost certainly graduated to a new life of being pummeled by every mediocre team in the Premier League, in which case what they’re celebrating now is the chance to lose on a bigger stage later. (It is, admittedly, a lucrative way to lose.) But suppose they don’t. Suppose they stay up in the Premier League next year, gradually acquire young talent, consolidate their position, expand their fan base, sell bath mats, and finally establish themselves as a major force in Europe. What do they have to look forward to, except crushing expectations and the slow disappearance of joy?

Last year, Fabio Capello brought Real Madrid their first league title in four years…and got fired at the end of the season because his team wasn’t “entertaining” enough. Obviously, there are disappointments at every level of the game, complex sub-competitions within specific niches (teams jumping up to the Premier League for the payout that will enable them to dominate the Championship after their inevitable relegation), and many occasions for even a Liverpool fan to feel happy. But do you ever have the sense that, at bottom, sadness is the ultimate cup? Isn’t the prize that every team is working for a state in which they and their fans become numb to success, and morbidly sensitive to failure?

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Write It Like Disaster

by Brian Phillips · May 5, 2008

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