There is something profoundly human about a dramatic sporting loss, particularly when it befalls a team on the brink of victory that you wholeheartedly support. After an initial shock, a secretive wish that you are merely having a horrible dream follows, begging to be awakened to reality. But you wait, and keep waiting. The waiting never ends. The nightmare persists.
And slowly, it finally dawns on you that you can’t change the past. With recognition comes numbness, a sense of simultaneous denial and acceptance. The feeling is not how real the loss appears, but how surreal it feels.
But let us look at an actual event. The date: May 21, 2008. The location: the Luzhniki Stadium. The characters: an incredibly successful manager against another criticized for his perceived dourness, and the backdrop pitting opposing owners from America and Russia, a specter of the Cold War. The event, meanwhile, was the biggest match of all club competitions: the final of the Champions League – the ultimate soccer tournament. The match was monumental, not only in the magnitude of the occasion, but also for the stature of the clubs: Manchester United FC and Chelsea FC.
A club, in many ways, is only a club; it truly becomes an institution through its people. For the players, this was the very stage where careers are defined, the very realm in which legends are born. It is the ultimate date with destiny.
Great matches are often the function of context and of talent. And so an astonishing match it proved to be – two goals, an absorbing intensity, goalpost rebounds, extra-time, a sending-off, penalty misses, sobs of despair, tears of joy, sorrow, triumph.
In the end, Manchester won. But it is more accurate to say that Chelsea lost it. For the Chelsea players and fans, their dramatic loss was compounded when their talisman and captain – John Terry – fluffed the winning penalty.
Loss is a self-absorbing moment punctuated by abrupt spasms of hopelessness. Upon defeat, a fleeting, transient evocation of withdrawal occurs. We have suffered. Nobody wants to experience the feeling of the loser; a loss places our ability in question, scars our pride. Our talents have been disproved, and we bear collective shame.
But in the midst of it all, the match reminded us something very redeeming about sport.
For sportspeople, sporting excellence is the exercise of a deliberate practice. It is about the meticulous preparation, the pattern that has been perfected on the training ground. After much effort, this training internalizes into an instinct, players preparing to perform when it really matters.
And during the match, against the constraints the moment imposes, players battle through improvisation. It is about mastering their fears, transforming the chorus of support into strength. With all these endeavors, they perform with simplicity what for us often appears phenomenal.
Meanwhile, for the fan, a soccer match in itself is not an attraction. Instead, it is the moments when the team has defeated overwhelming odds, the time when the players‘ unyielding spirit defied reality. To these moments, we attach a special significance, etching within our minds the feelings they provoked. For their passion, we stand together in affirming applause, our minds united in a common purpose. At this moment, we are one.
Ultimately, it is about the human connection that we make with the players. We attain a sense of belonging, unhindered by criticisms, a rock against the injustices the world commits upon us.
And we often desire to relive this moment. We repeat the same story at dinner tables, beaming proudly as we recollect that swift, graceful acceleration. Delightfully, we sometimes imitate a favorite move, because in the imperfection of our own skills, we remember the relationship. Our lives have been visited, touched by the knowledge that such a moment is possible. We are transported to another time when impossible is nothing.
In retrospect, there is no doubt what I wish had happened. But for all the disappointments the loss created, Chelsea’s close date with destiny will remain in eternal memory. The wish lives on. The hope strives. They will last.
ZACH HAN thanks all of you for the e-mails throughout the year! Just as Chelsea remains in memory, you will be too, but nudge him one final time at email@example.com.