There’s nothing quite like the feeling of going to the game…
Football has played a central role in my life since I was six years old, but since I started watching the game for a living a change has taken place.
In a year I probably watch around 100 matches live in stadiums, but as the frequency of games goes up my understanding and enjoyment of the matchday experience – not in relation to ‘brand awareness’ or delivering value for money or any of that nonsense, but in the very real sense of enjoying the day of the game, feeling that excitement and hope on the way to the stadium and as kick-off approaches – has become incredibly dulled.
When I played back in England the anticipation would start to build on Friday night as I looked ahead to who we were playing the next day, while the next morning was an inconvenience which I wanted out of the way as quickly as possible so I could get out on the pitch.
Back then the start of the match, that first shrill whistle which gets things underway, was the point upon which all the nerves, anticipation, and concentration had been focused. It was, in a sense, the high point. From then on energy and adrenaline would be expelled and even the euphoria of winning was a different sensation to that experienced in the build up to the game.
Now, however, the beginning of the match signifies the start of work for me and a new target several hours down the line is where my unconscious is focused. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy matches anymore, or that I don’t get a buzz from being involved (however fleetingly) with the protagonists out on the pitch, but my matchday experience has changed drastically.
I was recently reminded of my previous life, however, when I helped an English documentary maker with a project about Japanese football. We spent a match day with Montedio Yamagata fan Syu Oba, meeting for lunch several hours ahead of kick-off, travelling to the stadium together via landmarks in the town linked to his club – including the team’s old ground (“my theatre of dreams”) and the supporters’ bar – watching the game from the stands, and then travelling back after the final whistle together.
Speaking with Oba-san and seeing how much he invested in every game day took me back to a time when the match was the centerpiece of the week. When speaking about the role football played in helping people recover after the tragedy of March 11th, 2011, for instance, Oba-san made a very salient point.
“Football is important because it happens every week,” he said. “We needed something that could restore a kind of normality, to help people get back to their everyday lives again.”
That comment reminded me of a similar observation made by English director Douglas Hurcombe (who was not involved with this project, but is currently making a film about Vegalta Sendai, ‘Football Take Me Home”), when I interviewed him at the start of this year.
“There’s this wonderful anonymity that exists, so you can leave [your worries] behind,” he said of the experience of going to a football match. “For all the good that it does you when you go out with your mates and you start moaning about the mortgage and the kids there’s this ultimate joy that for those few hours none of that exists. It’s all gone, it’s all away from you, it’s all somewhere else, it’s in a different world.”
On the way back after the game – which Montedio lost 1-0 to a late goal – Oba-san was already looking ahead to next week’s match, and lamenting the fact that he couldn’t make it to every away game. As well as reminding me of the time I lived in that cycle, the experience of spending a day with a supporter was also interesting in the light of the J.League’s switch to a two-stage season.
Whether you are anti, pro, or indifferent one thing should be remembered: football will not disappear. Games will still happen every weekend and how much you take from the experience of going to matches is largely dependent on what you put into it. Football will always be there next week, whatever happens today.