Pure joy is football’s crack cocaine

Date published: Monday 29th February 2016 10:19

Marcus Rashford Juan Mata

Joy is – like the taste of a strawberry – a hard thing to describe. It’s different to happiness, it’s a specific sort of pleasure that is a weird blend of cerebral and physical, an elevated sort of excited happiness – a mental orgasm, perhaps. And as if that wasn’t enough, it comes with brief connectivity to something higher and more spiritual as you share the joy of the joyous. It’s also hard to predict when you might feel it. Indeed, part of the nature of joy is that it is only occasionally available to us, so it is impossible to become replete with joy. It’s such a rich pudding, you can only take so much.

One of football’s most addictive qualities is those bursts of joy at moments of glory. And we all respond to it. It seems deep in our human psyche to feel joy at someone else’s joy. Be it the screaming of Marco Tardelli all those years ago or a huge wide Jurgen Klopp smile, it is impossible not to feel life is a little bit better for seeing it.

In the past few days, joyous pearls have uplifted the game, time and again. It’s been wonderful to see. Marcus Rashford’s completely unadorned, unfettered joy at scoring his goals this week was impossible not to embrace and empathise with. And likewise the scenes at Leicester after their winning goal was scored, not to mention the lovely sparkle in Claudio Ranieri’s eyes, Danny Rose’s sheer delight at scoring the winner at Spurs and Willy Cabellero being carried shoulder high, mouth open, arms out wide after winning the League Cup. Wonderful. Just big releases of joyous emotion. It’s worth pausing and allowing ourselves to wallow in these moments. They come and go all too quickly but they are football’s crack cocaine.

That being said, I do enjoy people who don’t celebrate at all, especially Rafa Benitez. Nothing could happen on the football pitch that’d make Rafa laugh and do a dance of joy, even though, God knows, we’d all love to see him do that, with his gravy-splattered shirt half-untucked. Similarly, the old school player who scored, took a handshake and trotted back to the halfway line without further ado had a certain dignified nobility.

But in so many ways it feels like we really need these regular injections of football joy, now more than ever. As viewing figures for the Champions League fall, the-one-with-the most-money-wins is becoming such a destructive, unromantic and soul-deadening state of affairs. The big money corporate culture of top-flight football has made us more inclined to view the football world through narrowed, cynical eyes, like an old man drinking whiskey at 2am might see two wealthy young lovers.

The top two in the Premier League this year are doing much to rejuvenate our football soul but those who celebrate a victory or a goal with sour-faced aggression, thumping themselves in the chest and generally looking like they want to punch someone, seem part of a very negative mindset. As much as I’ve loved watching Leicester, I noticed when Jamie Vardy scored that amazing 11th goal, his face was set in a hard-eyed glare, as he peeled away. He looked angry rather than happy, even though the fans were delighted. You see that quite a lot,  as though the player is in the middle of a flaming row, furiously yelling and screaming. There’s no joy in that.

The player who runs away scowling, face scrunched into a frown and pointing to himself, seems a very self-absorbed type. A genuine smile isn’t uncool, it’s the loveliest of things. Let yourself feel it.  There’s no joy in not letting yourself feel joy. Just let it out instead of trying to remember your pre-thought-out goal celebrations, be it the old rocking a baby thing (it still happens), lame dance moves (what are they doing?), the pretending you’re a DJ nonsense, or putting your thumb in your mouth (why?).

And you get the fans whose first thought is not to feel the joy at their team’s success, but to want to rub their rivals or perceived enemies’ noses in their success; that is very also unappealing, as though there is more pleasure in the negative than the positive. And that’s before we get to two more coin-throwing incidents at the weekend. This sort of stuff brings us all down.

It’s easy to feel sometimes as if no-one is enjoying themselves in modern football. The crowd feel alienated and bitter at players for earning so much for doing so little, but the players are tense due to being under huge pressure to live up to a hype that they have little control over, and the managers are sliced and diced by the media 24/7 and are always only a few months away from the sack. So everyone is suspicious of everyone else, no-one likes anyone, with some fans openly hostile even to their own players.

But this weekend was a lovely counterbalance to all of that. Real moments to treasure which leave you with a huge smile on your face. And in those moments you remember all over again why you fell in love with football and why, despite everything, you keep coming back for more.

John Nicholson

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