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

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Not Watching the World Cup

The World Cup is an experience. The sport is exciting, but it’s much more than that. A game is a narrative arc, fulfilling itself in an ending we all see coming. Cascading, pitching, reaching plateaus at completely obvious and utterly unexpected times. It is an arc only in the sense that before the game, there’s nothing but the promise of something. Moments of excitement—whether plentiful or scarce—pitch the game’s progression upward. Then once the 90 minutes are up, the arc once again comes to rest. Draw or not, there is some sort of resolution.

You read a book to get to the end, at the simplest of levels. Really, though, we read books to try to absorb the words, the events, the ideas, the people and the places within the pages between our hands. These are the things that change us, even if it’s only in the slightest of ways. We accept some, repel others and still hold on to extended struggles with that one sentence that didn’t sit quite right. It’s the pages between the first and the last that matter. The ending is often nothing more than a byproduct of this experience.

And this is why we watch.

We watch the game to experience it. So much happens in a game. It’s an obvious statement, but really, everything—from the decision of what part of the foot to pass with to how the technically sound winger matches up with the unrefined-but-monstrous fullback—is an event. Regardless of the scale, all these events have some stake in the final product, but more importantly, they refine what we take away from the game. Deep down, we only care so much about the score. The result may skew our perception, but it’s a combination of all of these separate events that shapes the ideas we keep at the end of every game. The process behind the equation is more valuable than the result of the equation itself.

So what happens when we can’t watch? Our perceptions are shaped entirely by two opposing digits and events as rendered by people we have no reason to trust. Today, it’s true, we’re almost always able to watch. With replays, DVR and online streams, it takes a lot of effort and a bit of carelessness not to be able to watch a game—especially at the World Cup.

That leaves us with two options. The first is to find out the score as the game happens and then watch it, knowing the result. Some may say this is giving in. Hold out. Seclude yourself from society for a few hours. It’s far from it. If we can’t watch the match live, tracking the score as it plays out is the closest we’ll come to experiencing it. It’s imperfect—the score isn’t everything—but at least we’re suspended in the tension of the event. The trouble is that if we know the final score, watching the match later is like reading a book with the ending revealed on the cover: a failure before play.

We don’t watch only for outcomes, but events are caused by a striving towards a point. If we know the score, then the players are playing only to please us. The result is determined. Any actions are futile. There’s nothing at stake, and when there’s nothing at stake, there’s no meaning to take from the game. We’re holding a carrot ahead of the mouse. He’ll try hard. He’ll run fast. He’ll jump and squeal. But it doesn’t matter. We know he won’t ever reach it.

But say unforeseen circumstances lead us to a living room, to a couch, to a television set containing an entire game, results unknown. Watching this should be even better than the live game—no halftime. But it’s a shell of its live counterpart. Live games are live in more ways than one. They live. It’s a collective experience. We all experience together: the people in the stands, the coaches, the players, the referee, Sepp Blatter and all of us at home. The experience is communal. The moment belongs to all of us.

Watching a game on delay isn’t that kind of experience. Live experiences suggest community, but a recorded game is shared with, at most, the people in the room with you—and never with the people you’re watching. It’s too personal, in a way; the players are playing for you, no one else. We try to pretend there’s suspense, but we always know that the result has been decided, the events have already occurred. What kind of feeling can we really take from this? Anything derived from a delayed viewing is something we’ve tricked ourselves into creating, not something brought to us by what we see on the field.

Some mornings during this World Cup, like many of you, I’ll be working. I’ll record each game, but I won’t watch it. I’ll play it later, in the background, while I’m reading or eating, but I won’t exactly focus. Instead, while the game is live, I’ll track its progress behind whatever real work I have. I’ll get text updates. I’ll follow it on Twitter. I’ll try to salvage some small piece of the experience.

Ryan O’Hanlon is a recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Not Watching the World Cup

by Ryan O'Hanlon · June 18, 2010

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