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.

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Football and Rain

Why does bad weather make a game feel more dramatic? I’m thinking about this because of the snow in England, but I’m thinking as much about rain as about snow. Take a good match and add a downpour (the Champions League final), or a lightning storm (Euro 2008), or anything that could send you scrambling for the rare possibility of a relevant Mervyn Peake blockquote—

[T]he hot black eyelid of the entire sky closed down again and the stifling atmosphere rocked uncontrollably to such a yell of thunder as lifted the hairs on his neck. From the belly of a mammoth it broke and regurgitated, dying finally with a long-drawn growl of spleen. And then the enormous midnight gave up all control, opening out her cumulous body from horizon to horizon, so that the air became solid with so great a weight of falling water that Flay could hear the limbs of trees breaking through a roar of foam.

Add anything like this, and a terrestrial game somehow acquires the glamor of a grim epic. John Terry weeping on dry land is strange and a little embarrassing. John Terry weeping in the mud while being lashed with vertical torrents is a cry from the core of the Earth.

Isn’t this essentially a phenomenon of television? There in the rainy stadium, freezing in your club’s licensed poncho, you can take a lot of things from the weather, but it’s likely to fall somewhere on a continuum between “ruining the match” and “a chance to prove something about yourself.” It doesn’t give you the impression that the roaming eye of Homer in heaven has temporarily settled on the pitch.

When you’re at home, however, you’re seeing the match through a certain aesthetic distance, through the feeling of not-quite-reality that TV creates. This is the point that means I can only manage to be 90% in disagreement with the reactionary-kitsch movement that wants to see TV as the enemy of everything good in soccer. TV has, if only slightly, a numbing effect; it takes a continuous low-level application of conceptual understanding to remember that the events you’re watching are taking place somewhere (rather than being flickers in a magic box) and that they’re unscripted and spontaneous (rather than existing on the same imaginative plane as, say, the football in Friday Night Lights).

It isn’t hard to remain conscious of that, obviously; it’s virtually automatic. But the technological remove has the effect of slightly but steadily dehumanizing the players. And when you combine that with the inundation of media coverage that already treats them essentially as fictional characters or as clusters of cultural associations, it’s easy to wind up with a feeling of heightened artificial sympathy but deadened actual sympathy for them that strongly resembles your response to characters in novels or TV shows. You care about the hero of the movie, but at the same time you want him to suffer in a way that you wouldn’t want someone you cared about in real life to suffer. You want his plane to explode, you want him to crash through the skylight, you want him to come within a quarter-millimeter of dying.

That kind of audience-wish merges so naturally with the desire for the kinds of conflict and catharsis to be found in sport that it’s easy not to think about the fact that, in a specific way, you want football players to suffer. You want them to reach the ends of their endurance—in a safe and semi-controlled environment—so that you can see what happens when they do. On TV, then, rain has the double benefit of helping along one of sport’s basic functions (it makes things harder for the players) and of giving you the feeling of breaking through the aesthetic divide (while actually, of course, making it more pronounced, since it’s precisely your immunity from the unpleasant sensation that makes you sympathize with someone who’s experiencing it). There’s a pathetic-fallacy invocation somewhere in the background here as well: seeing the world open up before the emotional power of a game can give you the (illusory) impression that your slightly unreal impressions have attained some kind of universal transcendence.

This doesn’t make it any less awesome when one of those moments happens, partly because there is something legitimately stunning about seeing people contend with that kind of ongoing competitive catastrophe, partly because we’re just wired to find it awesome, regardless of the reasons. Of the matches that affected me most strongly when I saw them and that I remember most today, a disproportionate number were played in the rain, and I still feel like it made them more significant. I just wonder about a mechanism that requires the game to become less real in order to feel more real, and the players to have life made harder for them so that we can finally sympathize.

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Football and Rain

by Brian Phillips · February 2, 2009

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