In Victory, a certain loss

Written on July 4, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Philosophy

Rolf Strom-Olsen

Along with about 50 million Spaniards, I was rooting Sunday last for La Selección to bring home the glory in the final of the Euro 2008. As a Canadian, my interest in football is admittedly rather desultory and I cannot begin to claim the strong emotional affiliation that binds almost the entire Spanish nation to the national side. But insofar as I have a "home" team it is certainly Spain, for my education in the world of football came from Spanish friends. And it was in their company that I first saw, with no small degree of astonishment – and even bewilderment – the extraordinary depth of emotional commitment of the fans. Grown men reduced to lachrymose depths and bouts of extended despair as time and again the Spanish team failed to live up to the promise of their prospect and delivered disappointment and heartbreak on the pitch.

To my outside eyes, no one loses a football match as well as Spain. The unfettered, total anguish of the players and the fans, the absorbing physical expression of despair: it is like watching a fine dramatic opera. I can still recall watching Spain’s 0-0 draw with Paraguay in the 1998 World Cup in a Spanish-owned Bodega in Brussels, the small place filled to overcapacity in a sea of yellow and red banderas. As the horror of the null result – and Spain’s near certain elimination – drew to its conclusion, it was like being shrouded in the effusion of grief of Siegfried’s Funeral March. And it was a good introduction to Spanish football: the cycle of expectation, early fulfillment and then crushing disappointment. Spain’s quarterfinal exit against France in 2000; the 2002 World Cup exit after losing to South Korea; and, of course, the ignominy of early departure from the 2006 World Cup. Spain – the master of the almost-victory, the casigloriosos, coming so close time and again, only to be delivered to the chill grip of defeat.

I have only been following the national team for a decade, so I can only imagine for lifelong fans the emotional toll this cycle of disappointment has delivered. Thus, surely, Euro 2008 represents a promise finally fulfilled. And after such a lengthy drought, the exuberance and euphoria are hard to express.

And yet, strangely, I feel slightly … well, disaffected. For if La Selección
represented perpetual disappointment, it also represented perpetual
hope. This is the unique metaphysical quality of the Spanish football
side, an 11-man Sisyphian endurance that, in crushing the hopes of
their fans, also promised renewal and re-invigoration. Voltaire
expressed the sentiment well:

Un calife autrefois, à son heure dernière,
Au Dieu qu’il adorait dit pour toute prière :
« Je t’apporte, ô seul roi, seul être illimité,
Tout ce que tu n’as pas dans ton immensité,
Les défauts, les regrets, les maux, et l’ignorance.
Mais il pouvait encore ajouter l’espérance

[A caliph once when his last hour drew nigh,
Prayed in such terms as these to the most high:
"Being supreme, whose greatness knows no bound,
I bring thee all that can’t in Thee be found;
Defects and sorrows, ignorance and woe."
Hope he omitted, man’s sole bliss below.] 

There was an undeniable, exceptional glory to the pattern of anguish
that the Spanish team brought to the pitch, a nobility of loss that fed
hope and demanded perseverance of its fans. It served as an important
metaphysical lesson: a journey not yet ended, a peak not yet mastered, a 4-3-4 configuration of the existential condition of man. There’s a certain kind of poetics in all that. As John Keats put it: 

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve:
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

And so, somewhere intermingled with all the joy of victory, there is a
minor note of regret for the loss of enduring hope, a certain nostalgia
for the Spanish side that, though it had not its bliss, forever would
it love. Now that Spain has won, it is as if that fair youth has left
his song and the bold lover has had his kiss at last.

Ok, this is silliness
on my part, of course. But Spain’s football team was truly an objet
of a timeless metaphysical reality; in victory, it has sparked great joy. But that ember of perpetual expectation has been extinguished for another generation.


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