The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup, a podcast by Brian Phillips, tells the story of some of the most iconic goals and players in the history of the men’s FIFA World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves Marco Tardelli at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
1. The Loneliness of the Middle-Distance Center Back
Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat trick in Portugal’s opening-round match against Spain at the 2018 Men’s World Cup in Russia. It was a classic Ronaldo superhuman-drama-queen performance. Portugal had been losing, 3-2, for most of the second half, and Ronaldo scored his third goal from a free kick, in the 88th minute, to claw back a draw.
And the free kick itself was magnificent, one of those oddly gentle-looking Ronaldo rockets that arc just enough to end up in the top corner of the net.
Take a look at the match footage. Electric.
The team erupts, naturally. Ronaldo does his trademark siu! celebration—you know, the one where he sort of skips once, then leaps into the air, spins around, and throws his hands down just before he hits the ground, like he’s transforming into the Incredible Hulk’s brother, the Equally Incredible Yet Also Strangely Merry Hulk?
Then his teammates mob him. This big pile of hugging Portuguese players ends up spilling outside the touchline, near the barrier around the stands.
Like I said, electric.
But what I remember about this moment is not really the goal or the human rotunda of celebrating players. What I remember most is something that happened on the periphery of the celebration.
There’s one Portuguese outfield player who doesn’t join his teammates. Doesn’t take part in the collective euphoria. It’s the defender José Fonte. He looks like he wants to take part. This isn’t a case of some disgruntled anti-Ronaldo malcontent sullenly refusing to enjoy a great goal.
It’s weirder than that, actually.
Fonte runs over to the corner flag with his arms outstretched, as if he’s going to join the group.
But before he reaches his teammates, one of them turns back and waves him away. Like, No, not you, get lost. The Incredible Yet Strangely Merry Party Bus is all full up. Find your own soccer team to celebrate with.
So Fonte ends up standing by the touchline, kind of leaning wistfully toward his teammates while, like, gingerly clapping at them?
This only lasts a few seconds, but something about Fonte’s forlornness at this moment always stuck with me. You know how you sometimes hear about, like, really mean junior-high kids inviting some other kid they don’t like to a party, and the other kid is like, “Oh my gosh, I’m finally part of the cool crowd,” and then it turns out that the whole point of the party is just to torment that kid?
That never happened to me, thankfully, in junior high. If I have one thing in common with all of you—with all the readers of this series—it’s that we’re all extremely socially desirable. Beloved, I think, really? I know personally, I possess a … a certain … indefinable cool, I believe it’s fair to say?
At least no one has ever tried to define it, in my hearing. I assume they’re too intimidated.
The point is, congratulations to us—especially you, but also especially me—for being terrific.
Anyhow, this moment with Fonte after Ronaldo’s goal kind of has that We Don’t Like You Party vibe to it. It’s like … imagine a bunch of Portuguese 10-year-olds in a room. And they’re all, “Uccch, Fonte, I hate that guy.” And then the lead 10-year-old, the head of the gang, calls them to order and says:
All right, here’s what we’re gonna do. I have a plan to humiliate José Fonte. Step 1: We all devote our lives to becoming world-class soccer players. Step 2: Cristiano, you have to become arguably the greatest player of all time. Do you think you can manage that?
Step 3: We spend the next 20-odd years systematically being really nice to José. We make him think we care about him. We make him think he’s one of us. We make him think we like him for who he is.
That idiot will never see through the trick.
Step 4: We qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
And so forth. And then, at the most dramatic possible moment, they turn to him like, YOU ACTUALLY FELL FOR IT, YOU FELL FOR IT, YOU IDIOT.
And then they all retire, and move on to their next prank.
2. What Is Actually Happening With José Fonte
OK, OK, OK. So what is actually happening with Fonte in this moment?
There’s a surprising amount of debate around the issue, it turns out. The best guess seems to be that the team is trying not to run afoul of FIFA’s rules involving goal celebrations and restarts after goal celebrations. They think they’ll get penalized in some way if all 10 of their outfield players end up out of bounds, so they’re trying to make sure one guy—Fonte—stays on the pitch.
What rule are they anxious about?
Well … it’s not 100 percent clear that they know. Goal celebrations are covered under Law 12 of FIFA’s Rules of the Game—maybe you remember we talked about this law way back in our first installment, when we were talking about players taking their shirts off after they score? Maybe you read that essay. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you were busy going to parties and hobnobbing with celebrities on boats—which of course I would totally understand.
Anyway, Law 12 recap.
Law 12 says this about celebrating goals: “Players can celebrate when a goal is scored, but the celebration must not be excessive.” It then goes on to lay out some scenarios in which celebration is excessive. You can’t climb the perimeter fence. You can’t put on a mask (though that would be awesome). That kind of thing.
There’s nothing in there about the whole team not being allowed to leave the field of play. For the most part, as long as you leave all of your clothes on and don’t make any gestures that could be construed as supportive of mid-20th-century fascism, you’re fine under Law 12.
It’s a low bar. Soccer players don’t always clear it. But still.
So Law 12 says nothing that would suggest poor José Fonte needs to lurk outside the huddle like the protagonist of a Hank Williams song about a sad center back who’s drinking his pain away at this honkey tonk slash Russian soccer stadium because he can’t hug his teammates. Scrap that theory.
A more plausible theory for why the team rejected Fonte is that the Portuguese players think Spain will be able to restart play without them if they all leave the pitch. In other words, one player has to stay on the pitch to stop Spain from stealing a free goal.
This is … totally wrong, if that’s what they thought.
Post-goal restarts are covered by FIFA’s Law 8. I’m not gonna get into it, but basically, every player has to be in their own half before the kickoff can happen. The kickoff can’t happen with 11 players out of bounds. Fonte does not have to be the Man of Constant Sorrow just to stop Spain from restarting play.
Which kind of makes this whole thing more sad, in a way?
The point I am gently corkscrewing toward here is that goal celebrations are moments that defy the normal logic—the normal order—of soccer games.
They’re simultaneously peak moments in the game and moments of unrestrained emotion that threaten to escape the game, or run away with the game. You can see that strangeness in the fact that FIFA has imposed multiple paragraphs of rules trying to control expressions of uncontrolled joy.
“This is how you’re allowed to experience transcendent happiness” is a weird thing to say to someone. Transcendent happiness is always a little bit outside the rules. It’s a little bit beyond the rules, even when everyone technically obeys them.
Which is maybe why you can end up with a scene like this, in which a team made up of veteran international players seemingly gets confused about how they are and aren’t allowed to celebrate.
The whole thing is a little unnatural. You can tell a hurricane to behave in accordance with Paragraph 4, Subsection 23. But hurricanes don’t understand paragraphs, and as for subsections? Get outta here.
3. The Celebration, Celebrated
Please don’t actually get outta here. This is the kind of party where we all like each other.
This is not a soccer essay. This is a celebration of us.
We talk a lot, around here, about joy. About the joy of soccer goals. About the joy of trying to teach tropical storms to read legal documents. And today we’re here to talk about a vital aspect of joy: How you express it.
We’re here to talk about the goal celebration. One of the most delightful, one of the most special, traditions in soccer. Also one of the most confounding.
Especially if you’re a Portuguese center back.
Italy went into the 1982 World Cup in Spain as something of an afterthought. Italian soccer was still reeling from this big match-fixing scandal that consumed Serie A for a couple of years in the early ’80s.
Match-fixing scandals in Italian soccer break out at regular intervals, like swarms of cicadas emerging from the earth. In the Italian Farmer’s Almanac, it’s all phases of the moon and late frosts and Juventus bribing referees.
Italy went to Spain and proceeded to look thoroughly underwhelming in Group 1. They sputtered to three consecutive draws against Poland, Peru, and the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon. They only made it out of the group because they’d managed to score one more goal than Cameroon. That was Roger Milla’s first World Cup.
They turned things around. Italy beat Argentina—that was Diego Maradona’s first World Cup. They then shocked one of the great Brazil teams, 3-2, in one of the best World Cup matches ever.
They made the final against West Germany.
In the final, they went up 1-0 in the 57th minute from a goal by Paolo Rossi. And then, in the 69th minute, the team executed an intricate passing move to break into the German box.
The Italian sweeper, Gaetano Scirea, swapped the ball back and forth around the goal with the defender Giuseppe Bergomi. And finally, Scirea passed the ball to the midfielder Marco Tardelli.
With the German defender Bernd Förster closing in on him, Tardelli took one slightly clumsy touch, then shot the ball by sliding into it like it was home plate.
Goal. Great goal, actually.
Tardelli then did something that millions of soccer fans would remember much more vividly than they remembered that great goal. He celebrated.
Tardelli sprinted toward the Italy bench, shaking both fists, screaming his head off, and sweeping his head back and forth. In the video, he looks like a bear chasing you down a forest path. Only the happy version of that? He looks like a bear chasing you down a forest path to let you know your invention just crossed the production threshold on Indiegogo. You did it. Your combination waffle iron slash guitar tuner is going to exist in the world, and no one believed in you except your friends the bears and your lawyer, Hurricane Francine.
Tardelli’s dash of jubilation became the most celebrated goal celebration in World Cup history. There were no memes in the modern sense in 1982. GIFs were not a thing. The Internet was a single chat room where three scientists at MIT debated the lore of the 1981 text-based adventure game Zork II.
I’m sorry if you’re in the dark about what Zork II is. It’s fine. You’re gonna be eaten by a grue. Don’t worry about it.
The point is, the channels that we take for granted now in the cultural dissemination of images did not exist in 1982. But Tardelli’s run, Tardelli’s fists, Tardelli’s scream were such a pure embodiment of a feeling. They seemed to distill all the joy of scoring a game-winning goal in a World Cup final—because Tardelli’s goal was the game-winner; Italy went on to win the match 3-1. They seemed to distill all the joy of sports into one five-second video clip.
And even though you couldn’t post Tardelli’s run on 1980s Instagram with a caption like “Me when the supply-side economics hits,” you could still respond to it. And people did.
People in history had their own crude version of the Internet. It was called remembering things.
Here’s what Tardelli later said about this moment.
After I scored, my whole life passed before me—the same feeling they say you have when you are about to die. The joy of scoring in a World Cup final was immense, something I dreamed about as a kid, and my celebration was a release after realising that dream. I was born with that scream inside me, that was just the moment it came out.
Could you please … put that quote … on my tombstone.
4. Every Doctoral Dissertation Everywhere All at Once
There is a question hanging over this essay like FIFA’s Law 12 over your good mood.
The question is, What do goal celebrations add to goals? What do they give us that wasn’t already there? Why do we enjoy them so much?
And I hear you answering those questions—because you have good observations; it’s one of the things I like about you—I hear you saying, Well good grief, Brian, it’s not rocket science! It’s fun to watch a happy person express their happiness. Were you, Brian, not fun to watch when you celebrated after finally beating Zork II?
I apologize for that reference. I’m sorry. It just slipped out. It’s a computer game. Text-based adventure. Infocom. 1981. There’s a volcano gnome? Don’t worry about it.
Also, I actually never did beat Zork II, because it’s a notoriously hard game, and I spent the 1980s as a very small and lazy child.
But yes! It is fun to watch happy people being happy. We don’t have to overthink this.
Not long ago, when we talked about Roger Milla dancing at the corner flag after scoring at the age of 38—well! You don’t need a PhD in affect theory to understand why that was such a joy to watch.
Meanwhile someone with a PhD in affect theory is reading this and going, “Oh yeah? Well, I beat Zork II, so who’s laughing now, pal?”
In the first match of the 2002 Men’s World Cup, Senegal versus France, the late Papa Bouba Diop—the Senegalese defender, who died way too young, in 2020—shot the ball from close range. The French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez blocked the shot. Bouba Diop got the rebound and scored. First goal of the tournament. Ended up winning the game for Senegal. Scenes.
Bouba Diop pulled off his shirt, sprinted toward the corner flag, laid his shirt down gently on the ground, smoothed it out, called the whole team over, formed them in a circle around the shirt, and then led them in a group dance around the shirt.
Why was that fun to watch? Because it was a group dance around a shirt!
Here is the title page of my dissertation. Submitted to the Faculty of the University of This Thing We Call Life, in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements of the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, 2022. BECAUSE IT WAS A GROUP DANCE AROUND A SHIRT by Brian Phillips. No page 2, no bibliography, title page is the dissertation.
Let’s keep going.
In the 1994 Men’s World Cup in the United States, the great Brazilian striker Bebeto scored against the Netherlands.
Bebeto and his wife had a new baby, born just days earlier, and Bebeto celebrated his goal by rocking an imaginary baby. Everybody does that now. Back then, it was new.
Why was it so wonderful to watch? Wild guess? Because it was a baby!
BECAUSE IT WAS A BABY: A PHILOSOPHICAL INVESTIGATION, Submitted to the Faculty, etc etc. Dissertation written on a napkin. Acknowledgments section at the bottom of the napkin. Acknowledgements reads: “SINCERE THANKS TO BABIES.”
1998. Denmark’s Brian Laudrup scores against Brazil.
The celebration starts like a normal run to the flag, but then Laudrup slides to the ground, props his head on his hand like he’s posing for a centerfold, and affects a blank expression, like he’s too cool to care.
ON THE IRONIC SUBVERSION OF EXPECTATIONS: THE JOY OF WATCHING SERIOUS MATTERS TREATED LIGHTLY AND LIGHT MATTERS TREATED SERIOUSLY: A DISSERTATION … submitted to the Faculty … no page 2 … dissertation typeset in Comic Sans.
2002, again. Nigeria’s Julius Aghahowa scores a brilliant header against Sweden.
Cue the trademark celebration! Aghahowa’s famous for doing gymnastics routines after he scores. Now he spreads his arms and unleashes a run of six back handsprings—I count six?—followed by a backflip.
I ENJOY IT WHEN SOMEONE DOES A BACKFLIP: WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME: I’M A PERSON, NOT A ROBOT: AN EMPIRICAL STUDY INTO THE NATURE OF PLEASURE. By Brian Phillips. Title page is followed by a flip-book animation of a dude doing a backflip, and then the dude lands, and as you keep flipping the pages, his tongue slowly slides out of his mouth and he blows a giant raspberry at the academic committee.
2014. The U.S.’s John Brooks scores an 86th-minute header to steal a last-gasp win against Ghana.
Brooks puts his hands to his head in disbelief, then gently lowers himself to the grass, where he lies face-down, completely overwhelmed by the moment.
SOMETIMES IT’S ALL TOO MUCH - COLON … nothing after the colon, except a map leading to a bathroom, through the door of which I can be heard weeping and occasionally murmuring “A Dissertation by Brian Phillips.”
I demand tenure at Oxford immediately.
5. The Diego Maradona of Skipping Philosophy Class
There’s a story I always loved about the modernist writer Gertrude Stein.
When she was in college, she took a philosophy class from the Harvard professor William James, the eminent thinker and brother of the novelist Henry James. And on the day of the final exam—it was a beautiful day—Stein sat down in the classroom, got out her pen, and wrote, “Dear Professor James, I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today.”
And then she got up and left.
And Professor James gave her an A. Because of course that answer contains a richer and deeper understanding of philosophy than a 60-page essay full of technical language.
He wrote her a postcard that said, “Dear Miss Stein, I understand perfectly how you feel. I often feel like that myself.” And gave her the highest grade in the course.
Gertrude Stein. Just the all-time greatest. The Diego Maradona of cutting class. The Lionel Messi of outwitting the system.
But “really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today” is the philosophy of the goal celebration.
It’s the elation of vanquishing seriousness.
I mean, you can object to goal celebrations, if you really want to for some reason. You can say, Well, we watch sports to see gifted people perform difficult feats, and there’s nothing difficult about running in a straight line while pumping your fists.
And that’s true. I myself can run in a straight line while pumping my fists successfully, like, four times out of five.
Or you can argue that players should be classier—that back in the Victorian era the heavily mustachioed soccer stars of the day only frowned manfully after scoring goals. Maybe shook hands with a single teammate, while both wearing long pants. To which I say, Indubitably, my good sir.
But put all those arguments on one side and then put one backflip on the other side.
I am so sorry, but really I do not feel a bit like pretending this is an argument.
6. The Great Underground Empire
OK. Big news. I … have just downloaded Zork II. Someone posted the source code online.
Zork II is a very early computer game. The company that made it was called Infocom. Possibly the most early-’80s-computing-ass collection of syllables possible to assemble in one word. In-fo-com. They were famous for this line of really delightful text-based adventure games they published in the ’80s.
Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was a huge Infocom fan. He helped them make a Hitchhiker’s game, at one point. When I was in, like, sixth grade, I thought this game was the most sublime piece of art ever crafted by human hands.
I still kinda think so.
I remember one year, for my birthday, my parents knew I was really into these games, and they got me a whole box full of them, probably seven or eight titles, which seemed like an unbelievable windfall at the time. I opened the box and a golden radiance shone up onto my face, as if my parents had wrapped the briefcase from Pulp Fiction?
’80s computer games—that’s what was in the briefcase. Mystery solved.
I got Plundered Hearts. I got Wishbringer. I got A Mind Forever Voyaging. Honestly I think the games probably cost about $6.99 a pop at that point, because someone had gone out and invented computer graphics, and the bottom was falling out of the whole text-game industry.
Ask me about Blogspot sometime.
Anyway, one of the games in that birthday stash was Zork II. Way, way too hard for me as a 12-year-old.
It was set in a fantasy milieu—swords, etc.—but with a comic spin. There was a ruler called Lord Dimwit Flathead, which, to me at 12, was like the Sistine Chapel of jokes. Sublime.
Zork II, as a whole, was way too hard for me, partly because I hadn’t played Zork I, and partly because I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to be doing at any moment. Zork II dropped you into the game with no clear objective and didn’t give you any hints about what your goal was or what the story was or how you were supposed to play.
OK, should I fire this up? Hang on. If I beat this I’m doing the Marco Tardelli celebration in my living room.
Typing typing typing …
Oh yeah, here we go. Booting up. It says—
INSIDE THE BARROW
You are inside an ancient barrow hidden deep within a dark forest. The barrow opens into a narrow tunnel at its southern end. You can see a faint glow at the far end.
All right. I remember this. I am inside an ancient barrow hidden deep within a dark forest. This is so cool. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. Let’s see, what’s around me ...
A sword of Elvish workmanship is on the ground. A strangely familiar brass lantern is lying on the ground.
OK, I’m taking the sword, obviously.
Typing: “Take … sword.”
One of the big running narratives in Infocom games is that there are these creatures called grues—“gruesome” minus the “ome”—who are absolutely ferocious, but terrified of light. And if you walk into a dark place, you inevitably end up getting eaten by a grue. So we’re gonna want to nab that lantern too. Let’s see.
The barrow opens into a narrow tunnel.
I think we should go into the tunnel.
Typing: “Enter tunnel.”
I don’t know the word tunnel.
Hm. Apparently Zork II is narrated by Siri’s dad.
Typing: “Walk south.”
You are standing at the southern end of a narrow tunnel where it opens into a wide cavern.
Typing: “Walk south again.”
OK, we’re on an underground footbridge over a deep ravine. Let’s cross the bridge.
Oh wow, this is so cool. We’ve entered the Great Cavern. I have no idea what that is, or why I’m underground. It says, “stalactites … stalagmites … phosphorescent moss … weird shadows move all around you.”
Typing: “Follow the path.”
Hm. OK. It says:
You have moved into a dark place. It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
Well, that’s not what we want. Did I forget to take the lantern?
Yes. I realize now that I forgot to take the lantern. However. I am actually not too worried about this. Because I remember this spot from when I was 12, and I’m nearly positive that if I keep going I’m going to come to some phosphorescent moss in the next room. And phosphorescent moss, my friends, is a foolproof grue-repellent.
The cave is always darkest before the phosphorescent moss. I’m gonna keep going. This is going to be fine.
Typing: “Go south …”
You have been eaten by a grue. You have died.
Huh! That’s disappointing. Well, at least we know what’s going on my tombstone. The scream that has been inside of me from birth, which I let out when I fell into the slavering jaws of a grue.
The game’s restarting.
You are inside an ancient barrow hidden deep within a dark forest.
7. Being Tardelli, and Nothingness
Well. You know who wasn’t inside an ancient barrow hidden deep within a dark forest?
Marco Tardelli in 1982.
Marco Tardelli. Born in 1954. He was 27 when the World Cup kicked off in Spain that year. He was born in the north of Italy, in Tuscany. Family didn’t have a lot of money. His dad worked for the Italian state road network.
Marco was the youngest of four brothers. As a kid, he had to play soccer on the sly because his mom didn’t want him to become a footballer. Whoops. He failed at auditions with Bologna, Fiorentina, and AC Milan before finally signing as a youth player at Pisa. To make ends meet while he was training in Pisa, he worked as a waiter in a restaurant near the leaning tower.
If you look up a photo of him, you’ll see has kind of an exaggerated soccer body—his torso is kind of short and slight and then he’s got these long, incredibly massive-looking legs. Probably from all those trips bussing dishes back to the kitchen from Table 16.
He spent most of his career at Juventus, where he blossomed into one of the great Italian midfielders of his generation. The Italian schemes of that era were very defense-first, and his job was to bridge the gap between defense and attack. He did this extremely well, and he won almost everything there is to win. Five Italian titles with Juventus. Two Italian Cups. A European Cup. A World Cup.
Tardelli’s affect on the pitch, and also off the pitch, was powerful yet sort of tightly wound. He could never sleep the night before a game. He said it wasn’t because he was nervous. He just didn’t feel tired. Used to drive roommates crazy on away trips because he wanted to stay up and talk all night. Italy eventually started giving him a room to himself, and he’d end up wandering out into the hall at four in the morning so he could knock on the coach’s door or another player’s door to find someone to talk tactics with till the sun came up.
Before the tournament in 1982, Tardelli was in kinda rough shape.
He’d been injured. He’d been playing a lot of matches, and the game took a toll on him, partly due to his hard-charging style of play and partly because the human body does occasionally need sleep to function. Pro tip: get some rest!
He talks, when he looks back on his famous goal these days, about how the Italian media wasn’t convinced he should even be part of the Italy squad for the tournament.
So when he scored the goal in the World Cup final, and—as he says—saw his life flash before his eyes the way dying people do, his brain had a lot to work with. He saw all the obstacles he’d overcome, all the doubts, all the questions. He felt what it meant to score in the final and put all those ghosts of negativity to rest.
He said it felt like he’d gone “beyond madness.”
He’s running toward the touchline, pumping his fists, screaming. You can picture this, I think, even if you’ve never seen it. The essence, the absolute, of sports joy.
And you know, the funny thing about Tardelli—something I’ve always liked about him—is that he’s this emblem, this icon, of euphoria, of expressing pure ecstasy. But his personality, the way he talks about and thinks about this stuff, is very existentialist. It’s a little dark.
He’s thoughtful. He says a lot of stuff that you could imagine, like, Monica Vitti saying in a voice-over in a Michelangelo Antonioni movie—those sort of bleak midcentury ruminations on human fate?
Exhibit A, Beyond madness.
Exhibit B, I was born with that scream inside me.
Something else Tardelli has said about the moment after he scored his goal: That he felt completely alone. He says everything went quiet, like he was in a silent film. He says:
What has remained inside of me is this solitude. It’s not a solitude that implies unhappiness. Instead, it was absolute ecstasy, happiness lived out alone.
I was with the others but I was alone because I couldn’t hear anything … It’s difficult to describe.
It’s true—there is no doubt that a man is born alone and dies alone.
B+ from William James, I think, for this philosophy paper? Full credit to Marco for staying in and taking the final.
But the other thing that occurs to me when I listen to Tardelli’s thoughts about that moment. He’s identifying a kind of loneliness that’s different from the loneliness of someone at a We Don’t Like You party. And he’s identifying a kind of darkness that doesn’t end in getting eaten by a grue.
8. How to Be Less Lonely
Do you remember the question we asked earlier? The Law 12 question?
The question is, What do goal celebrations give us that we don’t get from watching the goals by themselves?
I said we’re not going to overthink this. After all, we’ve already gotten, like, five PhDs in the last 10 minutes. But my guess is that the answer has to do with loneliness. I think it has to do with the feeling each of us has somewhere that we’re alone.
I mean, sympathetic identification is a huge part of what we get from watching sports—that’s obvious, right? We invest ourselves in certain athletes. In certain teams. We make their success and failure our success and failure. We feel an echo of what it’s like to be them on the pitch. We celebrate with them. We mourn with them.
We all have this tricky thing inside us. When we look at another person, we put ourselves in their shoes, at least to an extent. You shiver when you watch someone step into an ice bath. When you watch someone eat a piece of party cake, you imagine what it tastes like.
And sports, for whatever reason, has the ability to widen that aperture a little bit. It makes us more open to feeling with other people. To feeling what other people feel.
I remember one time a few years ago, right after my wife and I moved away from L.A. and bought our current house in central Pennsylvania. Our current house has a yard. Not a huge yard by any means, but it’s kinda pretty. It’s got a little pond and a weeping cherry tree and a border made up of these sort of half-buried stones. I like it.
Our little dog, Lilybean, had never lived in a place with a real yard before. We got her in L.A. We’re not billionaires. She’d been to the dog park a lot. She’s a whippet, so she’s bred for speed, she loves zooming around. But she’d never had a place of her own to zoom around in.
She’s a city dog. So at first she didn’t really understand what the yard was. We’d go out there and she’d be like, “Well! This is certainly interesting. What does it do? Is there a manual? Granted I can only read on a hurricane level. But I could use some guidance here. All this untrammeled green soft space under my feet.”
So finally, one day, I was like, we are going to figure this out.
I took her outside and got her to run along next to me. We start sprinting in circles. Well, I’m sprinting, she’s gently trotting. I’m looking down at Lilybean like, “Do you get it? Do you get it?” and she’s looking up at me like, “Oh! It’s for THIS!! I know how to do THIS.”
And you could just see this wild happiness seize her whole body. She started rocketing around and around the yard. One hundred percent having the time of her life.
And I am not really a sprinting in circles enthusiast, under normal circumstances. I’m more of a sitting in the shade with an old fashioned trying not to look at my phone sort of person. But Lilybean is feeding off my energy—I’m showing her how to do it, we’re playing—and I end up feeding off her elation. So we’re just flying all over the place grinning at each other.
A super hilarious scene if you were spying on me with an overhead drone. But sincerely wonderful if you were living in it.
So at one point I’m running as fast as I can from one side of the yard to the other. I’m making a little “aaaah” noise to entertain Lily.
So in a way, I’m sprinting in a straight line, pumping my fists, and screaming.
At that moment, I feel something hard hit my toe and I lose my balance slightly.
I wouldn’t say my life flashed before my eyes. But the part of my life when I completely forgot about the border of half-buried stones that formed a major tripping hazard in my yard—that part definitely flashed before my eyes.
And my brain went, Well, you’ve just tripped on one of those stones, presumably. But don’t worry, my brain said calmly, as I started to lurch forward, it’s fine. I’ve gamed out all the possible scenarios here. You’re probably not going to lose your balance, and if you do, it’s no big deal. You’re just going to catch yourself with your hands before you hit the ground. Whatever happens, you are not going to land on your face.
“OK,” I said to my brain, “I’m ready for this. I … seem to have become airborne, and am now slowly spiraling through the air like a touchdown pass. But as you so wisely suggest, brain, I will catch myself with my hands. I am not going to land on my face.”
When I woke up, an indeterminate amount of time had passed. I was lying on my face, on the concrete at the edge of the yard. There’s a concrete sidewalk past the stones. Lilybean was standing over me wagging her tail to let me know she was really enjoying this new phase of the game, and if I would like to lose consciousness again, she was here for it.
I have indeed flown some distance through the air and landed on my face. I told you I could only do four out five straight-line fist-pumping sprints. It’s not the end of the world. I’m all scraped up. Got a couple scars. I’m fine.
The point is, that was a bad experience, obviously. But looking back? This is a happy memory for me. I remember it as a good day. The universe loves to go AHAHA YOU FELL FOR IT, YOU MORON, YOU IDIOT as it pulls the ground out from under you. But it was worth it for those few minutes when my little dog and I got to have a blast showing each other how to play in the yard.
What it comes down to, I think, is that we’re all trying, pretty much all the time, to figure out how to feel, what to think, how to interpret the world around us.
Social media gives you the impression that most people are fiercely confident opinion machines who always know their own minds. But I don’t think most people are like that at all. I think most of us spend most of our lives feeling like we’re inside an ancient barrow hidden deep within a dark forest, and there are no instructions telling us where to go or what we’re meant to be doing here, and we’re looking for any hint that will help us avoid being eaten by a grue.
And a goal celebration? It’s a clue. It’s a candle. It’s a guide to how to feel. Because of the sympathetic identification we feel with athletes, because of our openness to sharing their emotions, a goal celebration makes the joy of the goal more complete. It lets us take in their happiness, in the same way that we take in their athleticism, in the same way we take in their grace.
If that sounds like overthinking, well, I was born with this doctoral dissertation inside me, and this is the moment when it happened to come out. But a good goal celebration helps unite you with other people during one of sport’s peak moments.
It’s a little bit outside the game, but it’s also at the heart of the game.
It makes you—it makes us—less alone.