Soccer—the game that most of the world calls football—requires skill, athleticism, and grace. The sport also elicits intense emotions from its players and fans alike, particularly in Europe, Latin America, and Africa. If you’ve had the privilege of experiencing a World Cup tournament in your home country, as I did in Germany in 2006, you understand that football stirs the passions of entire nations. Fans traveled thousands of miles to Hamburg, Dortmund, and Berlin to celebrate in the streets or cry in public without restraint. The event was broadcast in 214 countries to more than 26 billion viewers—their passion for the game on display for the world to see.
“The great fallacy is that [soccer] is first and last about winning,” Robert Dennis “Danny” Blanchflower, the legendary captain of Tottenham Hotspurs and one of the soccer’s great tacticians, once said. “It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with flourish.”
I couldn’t agree more, and I have long worn my heart on my sleeve. When I was a kid, my idol was Karl-Heinz “Kalle” Rummenigge, who was a top striker, totemic captain of the German national squad, and European player of the year in the early ’80s. He played for Bayern Munich, so I annoyed my parents until they bought me a team shirt. I wore that shirt every week for a year, pretending to be Rummenigge on the playground. Go to any sandlot today, and you’ll observe the same phenomenon: Kids wear the shirts of their heroes, calling themselves “Messi,” “Chicharito,” or “Ronaldo.”
Kids who are passionate about soccer are primitive opportunists: They always want to win. Nothing else counts. Only over time do they learn a differentiating ethic in deciding for whom to cheer. Maybe they get hit by longstanding family tradition (a social inheritance, per se). Maybe they link their fandom with political or social beliefs (as a punk-rock tween, I briefly supported a “left alternative” club). Or maybe they simply fall in love with the style or aesthetic of a particular player or team. Whatever the case, they’re choosing to be part of a community. It is this feeling, this sense of belonging, this empathy for their cohorts, that really counts—and not whether a club wins or loses in any given season.
Being truly passionate about football also means trying to make a difference yourself. Soccer fans describe themselves as the “twelfth man,” a force as essential to their team’s success as the 11 players on the field and the coaching staff. I’ve been to—no, participated in—many games during which everyone in the stadium could feel the energy delivered by the rank and file, via chants and drum beats, to the players on the field. Of course, engaging emotionally in a team to influence its performance is not restricted to being at the game. Fans watching an important match on TV will often try to help their side thrive by performing superstitious rituals. (I’d argue that whether I go to the toilet during the game, eat certain foods before kickoff, or shave or not that day does make a difference to my team’s performance.)
My passion for Bayern Munich and the incomparable Kalle Rummenigge aside, I believe that being a soccer fan is a more rewarding experience when you cheer for a mediocre team. Why? To bloom and prosper, passion needs scarcity. We are often most passionate about things that are, in some respect, slightly out of reach or sight. A barely clothed body is often more desirable than a naked one. A purchase that requires saving up often means more to us than an impulse buy. The same is true in sports: When your team struggles just to stay in the league, and then wins its last game to avoid relegation, you appreciate the victories more than when your team is the reigning champion and winning comes easy. You see, when it comes to soccer, there is a good reason that the word passion comes from pēma, the Greek verb “to suffer.” It takes dignity and patience to walk this way.