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The Beautiful Reduction: A discussion of grace, loss, being a fan of sport and Paulo Dybala

Juventus FC v US Citta di Palermo - Serie A Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Fourteen people occupy a patch of grass that takes up about five percent of the entire pitch — six attackers, six defenders, a referee, and the Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri, whose customary combustion have drawn him just a few feet away from live play. It’s the Derby della Mole, and the green field is covered with maroon and black and white. The ball trundles along the right sideline to the feet of Paulo Dybala — all five feet, nine inches of the 23-year-old Argentine — and the scene looks like the iguana in Planet Earth II, caught in a skein of snakes, bordered by rock and ocean with no discernible route of escape. Dybala is facing backward, toward his own goal. A defender is draped on his back, grabbing at La Joya’s arm.

But then he taps the ball forward. It rolls, and he steps beside it. He pirouettes, throwing his left arm in the air as he reverses direction, the ball moving with him. Two and a half seconds later, he’s darting into the right corner of the field. The significant reduction of defenders has come at the expense of space; to Dybala’s right the touchline, and quickly approaching the end line. But instead of using his speed to circumvent the defense — how does he generate that much speed with those short legs! — he stops. The two maroon shirts who had been trailing him respond quickly and begin closing in, and a third, who had been trailing, gains ground from behind. But there’s just enough open space for three touches—seemingly awkward at first; the first one almost gets away, and his body weight looks unevenly distributed. He feints right, into two defenders, hops left into a gap, and then sends a sublimely weighted through ball to Gonzalo Higuaín.

I could write a 10,000-word syntactic pastiche of what Paulo Dybala can do, and I don’t think the sentences could approach the grace he demonstrates. Dybala on the pitch is Proust on the page — the madeleine cookie, the hawthorn tree, the chiaroscuro view of a ballet stage.

“Beauty,” wrote David Foster Wallace, meditating on the grace of Roger Federer, “is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.”

There’s something unsettling about this sort of beauty. There’s something about watching Dybala do the things he does that makes me experience something for which people have a number of rehearsed phrases: “out of body,” “religious.” Maybe “epiphany.”

In the Washington Post last year Marco Iacoboni, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at UCLA, wrote an article in a series of posts that describe, or attempt to describe, the reasons people watch sport. His focus was on something termed the “mirror neuron.” In Iacoboni’s words, these neurons, which everyone has, allow an individual to, in a myriad of ways, “connect emotionally with others.” For the viewer of sport, he explains, it means the spectator feels what the athlete feels, experiences what the athlete experiences, to a mitigated degree, and in a translated manner.

I think that’s what happens. Watching Paulo Dybala takes me away from me.

Somewhere in the middle of Arizona, sometime in the middle of the night, the car idles in a hotel parking lot. My dad walks into a hotel to check us in. I’m fifteen years old, and my two brothers and I, caught in the bleary-eyed obfuscation of a road trip, know very little. We know we’re going to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. We know we’ll watch a precocious sophomore quarterback named Vince Young, and we’ll know he’ll probably do something beyond our ability to imagine. We know we’ll be nervous; we already are.

But at the moment, we wait in the car. We’re subject to my dad’s absolutely insane nighttime driving abilities.

This was a trope of my childhood. From Dallas, Texas, we drove to Disney World and back multiple times; we drove to North Carolina and back; we drove to California and back. We drove and drove and drove, and most of the time it was my dad driving. Sometimes my mom. But most of the time it was my dad, driving deep into the hours of the night while the rest of us slept, my mom’s short legs propped up above the glove compartment, my youngest brother in the way back, crammed impossibly between duffels and suitcases, my middle brother and I in the middle seat, a space between us. Once, we hit a deer; it was one of the only times, as a child, I heard my dad curse.

I think this is what it means to be a child; to be subjected to the authority and agency of someone else. A child sort of make decisions, but mostly he has no idea what the hell is going on — he’s forced to acquiesce, to be along for the ride.

When my dad comes back to the car, we ask if there’s a room, if we should get our bags. With the door partially open, the bright parking lots behind my dad, silhouetting him against the night sky, my dad looks confused. He says there was someone in the lobby whistling “Dixie,” someone else speaking French, and also a guy banging on a hand drum in the corner. For a moment, we wonder: what the hell is going on in there? But before we can realize he’s kidding, he smiles and tells us to grab our bags.

This piece is, of course, not journalism. I’m not breaking news, or reporting something, or even offering much of an opinion. But I do want to suggest something, to make a sort of claim.

Here’s the main and first suggestion: Sport reduces the spectator to a child.

A child is dependent on others in every way. A child lacks what I want to call bureaucratic agency: the agency to choose what to eat, how to spend money, even what to wear. Virtually all decisions are made on behalf of the child, not by the child himself. Sport has the same effect to the spectator. The spectator controls nothing; he or she is merely at the behest of the players involved.

Suggestion No. 2: Being reduced to a childlike dependency is a good thing, because being reduced to childlike dependency means one experiences a sort of de-centering.

Let me try to explain.

Sport can be — and has been for me — a moral education in at least three ways: First, in the knowledge that I am not the center of the universe. I think about David Foster Wallace, and his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005:

Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.

The implication, of course, is that this belief of self-centricity is false. And if false, then something it morally behooves me to realize, and be aware of. I think sport harbors the possibility of unseating this false belief.

Juventus FC v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

What I’m talking about is watching Dybala and the grace he displays with the ball. I’m talking about Iacoboni’s mirror neurons. Both emotionally and even neurally, watching sport actually unseats me from myself. And most of the time when I’m living my life, I’m king. I’m considering my needs and my desires. I’m thinking about the universe affects and revolves around me.

Two corollaries to this: The first is that if am not actually the center of the universe, then I am freed from the burden of self-justification. If I’m not actually the center or main point of the universe, then I don’t need to spend all my time and energy trying to convince other people that I, in fact, am the center of the universe. I don’t have anything to prove. This is a very unpopular idea, and goes against every modernist/postmodernist/hip/American sensibility. (I think self-reliance is a bullshit concept.) But I believe it’s immensely freeing to not bear the burden of having my job, or my morality, or my whatever, be the sole reason why I exist. It’s a heavy life to live that way.

The second corollary is that if these two things are true — I am not the center of the universe; and that seeing I am not the center of the universe frees me from the need of self-justification — then I have a greater capacity to empathize with others, to live freely and generously, to be humble and not a pain in the ass and be capable of actually loving other people.

I probably sound crazy, because when I first mention sport — or sports — the first image that pops into my mind is a hoard of drunk NFL fans wearing ridiculous costumes flicking each other off, or first-fighting, or I’m reminded of the recent brawl at a Brazilian match, or racism and sport.

But this is stuff I believe.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of things that, according to bookmakers, are or were more likely to happen that Leicester City winning the Premier League last year:

  • Fatally slipping in a shower (2,232-1).
  • Simon Cowell becoming prime minister (500-1).
  • Kim Kardashian becoming president (2,000-1).
  • Elvis being alive (2,000-1).
  • Alien life discovered before 2017 (1,000-1).

Of course, the Leicester City odds were grossly inflated. It’s not difficult to come to the inclusion — without reading up on it, as I did — that bookies needed to over-inflate the odds just to get people betting on them, so that they — the bookies — could make money. But even if the odds were “only” 1,000-1, that’s still crazy!

The thing about all this soccer stuff is that I’m from Texas.

Both of my parents graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, and so all my childhood memories are saturated in burnt orange. I remember Ricky Williams breaking the rushing record. I remember going to the 2001 Big XII championship game between Colorado and Texas, in which Major Applewhite (nearly) led a dramatic comeback after the foibles of Chris Simms.

I didn’t hear the name of a soccer team until probably high school, when my eccentric, red-headed, electric-guitar banging, strangely rebellious friend named John told me he was an Arsenal fan. What is an Arsenal?

Then the 2010 World Cup happened, and my friend Andy and I — we stayed in Iowa City that summer; it’s a college town, which means it’s lovely and serene when all the annoying assholes go back home for break — would get up at 7 a.m. to watch Ghana play Serbia, or Cameroon play Japan; we’d make way too many frozen pizzas and drink the terrible coffee that he made out of his single-cup brewer which smelled of stale hazelnut, and that’s when soccer made sense to me.

Trying to stand back from the immediate emotional connection to the sport, there were three immediately identifiable aspects to the game that eventually have convinced me that soccer is the purest expression of one of the two ends of the spectrum of sports, which I see as a blend of live-action fluidity and out-of-play tactics.

  1. With its single official break in play, its lack of timeouts, and its real-time adjustments, soccer is the most fluid major sport. Tactics are of course important, but play nowhere near the role they do in, say, American football, in which there is actually only 10-15 minutes of gameplay with a live ball.
  2. Because of the high numbers of players, the importance of a each individual player is reduced, thus giving the game a more egalitarian feel. In other words, there is room for niche roles in soccer. In the NBA, for example, virtually every player on the court needs to be an athletic aberration. The rare exception—say a sharpshooter who lacks top athleticism—is usually enabled only by the sheer talent of another player who attracts extra attention. There are ten players on a 94 by 50 foot court; a single player can cover the entirety of the court with ease. LeBron James can throw down a ferocious dunk on one end, only to chase down a fool on the other end and send his layup to Mars faster than Elon Musk can say, “I built a hyperloop.” Soccer obviously doesn’t work this way. More players, more space. Of course a player can have a box-to-box effect on a game, but the amount of space and participants mitigates individual impact significantly.
  3. There are fewer scoring chances in soccer, which makes it a more “unfair” sport. There is a larger theme here that I hope to expand on in another piece, but the short version is that a team can play really, really well for an entire game, and just not convert any of the (few) chances they created. In basketball there are 95-100 possessions per game per team, most of which end with a shot (i.e. a scoring chance). In essence, the experiment is repeated many times over compared to a soccer game. The higher number of experiments repeated, the more accurate and reliable the data. This why most leagues use the point system rather than playoffs, because the repetition of the point system offsets (to some degree; but still: Leicester) the individual games. Take a look at the 2016 MLS final: Seattle beat Toronto, despite the fact that Toronto had more shots (19 to 3), more shots on target (7 to 0), and more corners (10 to 5). Basically, soccer is more unfair. I think that’s a good thing. It’s harder to predict than many of the major sports because of the considerably fewer scoring chances.

That’s a truncated version of my soccer manifesto, but the more I watch the game — I still very much consider myself new to soccer — the more each of those elements stand out, and the more I’m convinced in these moral-philosophical elements of sport, and the more I want more.

Only in sport does the spectator have a complete, utter lack of control. In virtually every other form of entertainment, there’s assurance of experience. You go into a movie very aware of the genre and accompanying tropes. You’re quite comfortable, when you walk into the theater, of what you’re getting yourself into. And the degree to which a movie can surprise you — either in disappointment or serendipity — is relatively small; it surprises you in the details only, in the variations. And that can be good and beautiful, but it’s still generally true.

Of course, there are exceptions. I can think of many movies or books that kicked my ass in a way I wasn’t in the least expecting. But if I survey all the entertainment I consume, or experience, the vast, vast majority of it is more or less an echo chamber; i.e. the preconceived idea of an experience is subsequently fulfilled by the experience itself. I watch a suspense-thriller wanting to be thrilled by suspense. I watch a romantic comedy because I want to feel good with a happy ending after the couple goes through some difficult things. It’s only in the details and variations that the degree of surprise is found.

(I don’t want to get sidetracked by qualifiers, but this observation of the echo chamber-ness of entertainment is not written as a moral indictment of the entertainment industry. Just an observation.)

But holy mackerel sport is unpredictable. There is no burden of proof, really. Things happen all the time in sport that amaze us, macro things — like Leicester — and micro things — a Leo Messi free kick. Individual athletes amaze us. Teams amaze us. Different sports amaze us in different ways, and I think there’s something amazing and graceful to find about every sport, some admirable skill, some expression of grace under pressure.

Soccer is a microcosm of life itself, not only of life’s most wondrous and beautiful elements — grace, the reconciliation between mind and body (another David Foster Wallace idea from the Federer piece), a flawless dance between tactics and unpredictability, the thrill of victory — but also its shittiest elements — painful loss, unfair loss, loss when everything pointed to winning; in an instant, when everything had been going right, when every moment and little battle had pointed to victory, when every break broke your way, the game’s gone.

Both the beauty and the loss. A Paulo Dybala faint and watching my alma mater decimated in a bowl game. It reminds me there’s something else going on, something at which the center is not me. And that’s good.