In the waning minutes of the 2010 World Cup group-stage match between the United States and Algeria, the collective anxiety of American fans reached a tremulous peak. The game remained scoreless, and the United States men’s national team was facing the prospect of being eliminated from the tournament. Just after the end of regulation time, Tim Howard, the U.S. goalkeeper, parried a header on his goal line from an Algerian player and quickly slung the ball out to the midfielder Landon Donovan, who was sprinting down the right side of the field. Donovan’s first touch of the ball, near midfield, pushing it far ahead as he raced forward, seemed on the verge of being out of control, but no Algerian defenders were close enough to take advantage. Donovan’s second touch was more measured, keeping the ball close before he flicked it ahead, with the outside of his foot, to the striker Jozy Altidore, who side-footed a pass across the front of the Algerian goal. Clint Dempsey, who had a goal in the first half called back when he was ruled offside, and then had another shot glance off the post in the second half, managed an awkward stab at a shot with his left foot. The Algerian keeper sprawled to his right to save it, even as Dempsey tumbled over him. The rebound bounced away, just out of the goalie’s grasp. Donovan, trailing the play, saw the ball squirt loose. Suddenly, it was a foot race. Donovan dashed forward and slammed it into the goal from just outside the six-yard box.
The emotional release for American fans watching around the world, as sonorous vuvuzelas blared inside the stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, and the rest of the U.S. team piled on top of Donovan at the corner flag, was rapturous. The goal instantly became part of American soccer lore—and is as good an example as any of the potential for the quadrennial soccer spectacle that is the World Cup to transfix and transport.
With this year’s World Cup poised to begin on Thursday, in Russia, I have been mulling how to explain such moments to non-fans: when anxiety gives way to pandemonium, when the forgettable becomes unforgettable. In “What We Think About When We Think About Soccer” (Penguin), a slim book published last year, Simon Critchley, an English philosopher and fanatical supporter of Liverpool Football Club, in England’s Premier League, attempts to take a philosophical method of inquiry known as phenomenology—involving the examination of subjective experience and its meaning—to articulate the metaphysical experience of what is often called the beautiful game.
Critchley draws upon the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger to describe the “rapture of the moment” in soccer. In “Being and Time,” Critchley explains, Heidegger describes instances when “we are carried away in a rapture where we stand outside our immersion in everyday life and truly encounter that everydayness for the first time.” In Critchley’s telling, fandom in soccer involves the shared participation in such incandescent moments, experiencing them communally and conveying them to others, and yearning for the possibility that there might be more. For those who root for a particular club or national team, it is an accumulated “history of moments” that binds fans together “into a collective, a deeply felt form of association,” Critchley writes.
I’ve experienced this binding while standing in line in Manhattan, waiting to buy, of all things, a salad. I was wearing the jersey of my adopted club, Liverpool, when the worker preparing my meal called out to me “Y.N.W.A.,” the shorthand for the team’s anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It turned out he was a fellow-supporter, and, in that moment, as we chatted about the team, we shared a history. I’ve encountered the same comity in random subway encounters, when I’ve met people wearing Liverpool gear, and we’ve made small talk about a certain player or lamented or lauded the team’s recent form. And I shared in it in 2010, in a bar in midtown Manhattan, where I witnessed Donovan’s miraculous goal and found myself exulting with strangers.
The part of the game that is harder to explain to non-fans is the interregnum in between the memorable moments—those ninety minutes of scoreless tension before the Donovan goal; the ubiquitous nil-nil draw—and how thoroughly pleasurable that can be, as well. Critchley, again, summons Heidegger to explain. Heidegger helpfully distinguishes between the similar but, ultimately, differing emotions of fear and anxiety. The former is always “about some entity,” whereas anxiety “takes nothing in particular as its object,” Critchley writes. In soccer, when it is played and experienced at its highest, most transporting form, the sensation should be that of anxiety, not fear. “Anxiety is not the fear of making a mistake, or losing possession, or even losing a game,” Critchley writes. Instead, it is a state of consciousness, “when our entire being is stretched out into the experience of time, and we feel ourselves most alive.” It is amid this heightened condition that we can experience the transcendent.