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.
Now…that’s reality out of the way. Let’s talk about that other thing that happened.
The moment the first lightning strike knocked out the international broadcast feed in the second half, causing televisions around the world to freeze, revert to static, or, worse, suddenly cut to Rece Davis, was, for me, the moment that Euro 2008 became something more than a great tournament or a collection of exciting games. Can you think of a more dramatic way for the mythic to anoint the competition than for a thunderbolt to fall on it from above? And not only to fall, but to sow panic, frustration, and suspense among fans in almost every corner of the world? (Switzerland, of course, once more sat out the international incident.)
There was some significant number of millions of people watching this match, I think it’s safe to say. (“Real” statistics, soon to be released on Ballhype by opponents of the modern game, will demonstrate that the audience actually comprised 17 onlookers outside an electronics store in Frankfurt, but I don’t suppose I’ll believe them.) Of that number, the overwhelming majority—and thus the overwhelming majority of human beings who were, at that moment, actively conscious of the game—were prevented by the lightning from watching 17 minutes of the second half. Of that number…well: how did you feel at that moment? Casually indifferent? Did you maybe just quietly change the channel?
I found myself thinking two things while I watched the ESPN studio crew tear into its once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show off its inability to improvise. The first was that there are moments in international football when you suddenly become aware of the fact that a meaningful percentage of the population of the world is seeing and experiencing something very close to what you’re seeing and experiencing in that instant. It’s that huge, camera-pulling-back, city-rooftops feeling in which you sense other people on your block, in your city, on the other side of the world, anywhere, invisibly bound up in the same tension that’s taken hold of you—that artificial, gratuitous, and at the same time mysteriously necessary unifying power of sport. At the moment of the Zidane headbutt I remember thinking that if you laid your finger on a spinning globe, anywhere it came to rest that wasn’t utter ocean would be the home of someone who had seen it happen and felt just as shocked as you. The lightning bolt had the same quality: millions of people simultaneously standing up in identical confusion and stress.
The second thing I thought was that we were all about to realize exactly how much we cared about the game. Watching the studio crew go through its frame-by-frame meltdown, seeing the shots from the fan zones and the irrelevant clips from earlier in the match, I felt suspense building up like an hourglass running backwards, and was that much more conscious of how eagerly I wanted Turkey to win and how desperately I wanted to know what was happening. Millions of people were trying to imagine their way around the block of whatever image their network had thrown up on the screen, to weigh up likelihoods, to guess what was taking place just a centimeter below the picture in the glass. It might have been anything, and when the rumor came through that Klose had scored, I remember thinking (I realize I won’t be representative on this point) that it was actually better this way, that for as long as no one knew what it meant, it somehow united all possible meanings, and for as long as no one had seen it, it somehow seemed to finish the story without lessening the suspense.
After that, in fact, the suspense doubled, and doubled in a way that was simply an affirmation of what Turkey had accomplished in this tournament. They were down 2-1 to the overwhelmingly favored and more talented Germans, and yet nobody counted them out. We couldn’t; they’d already come back from worse. But it was still a terrible thing to ask of them: so every second that went by was a matter—for both teams—of hope against probability and experience. Then came the confused word of another goal…and the picture returned…and the Turks were celebrating in the 86th minute…and whatever joy or despair you felt, it was noticeably sharper because of everything you’d missed.
When Lahm scored the winner, and then the picture disappeared again, it felt, in its way, like a crowning moment. We had seen, in this thwarted but unpredictably transcendent way, a great match, one that ended the story of the most surprising team in the tournament with the kind of late drama that had been their calling card individually and that of this tournament generally. It was only appropriate to go out, as ESPN did, not knowing when the final whistle would sound, not able to see the match, but watching the faces of other fans watching the match, so that the cheer from the German supporters would tell us when it was done.
Nothing brings out the essential frivolity of discussing sports like pretending to know what someone will remember in the future. The most we can talk about, most of the time, is today; and today, what seems to matter is that Turkey were in this tournament, and that they went out of it in thunderbolts, and secret goals, and satellites in flames.
by Brian Phillips · June 26, 2008