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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A Wrinkle in Time

A page from an old yearbook

I do not remember whether the thought occurred to me during the first or second game when Gareth Bale carved up Inter Milan. At some point while watching the Welshman sprint past yet another defender (probably Maicon), I thought, for the first time in my life, “he is younger than me.”

When we are young, the stars of the football world tower over us, not least because, well, at that age any adult evokes a certain amount of awe. (To an eight-year-old, every adult is wise.) Throughout most of our childhood, we think ourselves invincible, and the world ageless; only as our teenage years end do we start to see that choices are coming down the road, closing off certain paths. Yet even then these decisions seem far away, mere abstractions that teachers and parents have conjured up to entice us to do a little extra work. Rarely do the millions playing rec soccer in high school possess the self-awareness to realize that already the dreams of scoring in the World Cup final (and, in many Americans’ cases, finally vaulting soccer to its rightful place at top of the sports heap) ended when we didn’t go for the travel team in elementary school. Even the most devoted young fans, when following the U-17 and U-20 World Cups, or their favorite clubs’ youth teams, see those players just as contemporaries, classmates if we’d gone to a different school. It’s only when we finally see a true up-and-coming star younger than us, whether Gareth Bale or Andy Najar or Josh McEachran or Juan Agudelo, that the real, physical evidence confronts us: those dreams are well and truly over.

Yes, life is full of these moments. But because sports careers skew so young, often for sports fans the dream of on-field glory is the first they wake up from. Most other hopes still have years of possibility left. We could still travel around the world, write the Great American Novel, achieve fame and fortune in a host of other fields. But, after that moment as a sports fan, often for the first time in life, one dream is now permanently just a dream. Seeing these young players evokes a strange sadness, or perhaps regret, of chances gone and roads not taken.

Yet there is joy as well, for the passage of time also allows us to form a perspective on history. When we are young, we know who the best players are, or at least which ones are our favorites, but we rarely understand the little things that make them special. (If you know one of the precocious few young players who do possess that knowledge, please consider referring him to your nearest Barcelona scout.) Our older relatives and friends can tell us that a player runs faster or passes better or tackles harder than anyone they’ve ever seen, and we can nod and cheer, but, because at that age we have no experience, we can’t truly appreciate that statement. All we really know is that that player helps his team win more than others, and that such compliments are what one says about the best players.

Once we have perspective, though, once we have seen a generation of players come and go, we begin to appreciate the beauty of true greatness. In our youth, everything is new: we can watch 50 goals and see 50 ways of scoring that we’ve never seen before. As we age, novelty becomes less and less frequent. Hence a second first from watching Gareth Bale against Inter: when I heard Andy Gray say “I just have never seen a player do what he does,” I finally understood just how much that statement means, because now I have watched enough soccer for novelty to be precious and rare. In the same way, as I watched David Villa score Barcelona’s fourth goal against Madrid, I could compare this Clásico to hundreds of other games and think, “This is something special.”

There’s a physical component to the appreciation as well. Most of us, if we played sports in our youth, can recall a few fleeting moments of athletic excellence: that brilliant assist in sixth grade, that last-minute game-winning goal freshman year. Yet the moments when our body achieves what our mind conceives are few in number, and we end our playing careers wondering how anyone can back-heel a goal from 15 yards out, or casually outsprint one of the world’s best defenses again and again. Each year, though, new young talents give these ideas substance. And surely we should cherish the thought that someone can achieve what we’ve dreamed, and let us perceive in real life, if only for a moment, and only from a distance, what we can only imagine doing ourselves. I may be sad I will never run the European champions ragged for 180 minutes. But I’m far, far happier knowing that someone, somewhere, can.

James Downie is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.


A Wrinkle in Time

by James Downie · December 15, 2010

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