There is a frenzied vibe across England this weekend. Red and white flags bearing St. George's Cross can be seen flying on cars, outside houses, decorating town squares and village streets. An expectant country hoping for a rebirth 55 years in the making. Whether you're a football follower or not, it's undeniable the impact the sport has on this country. The euphoric highs every time a goal is scored and the sinking lows when a game is lost. There is a collective experience that unifies people regardless of colour and background. My husband describes it as more powerful than religion. Or more accurately, it is religion. For him, Old Trafford in Manchester is his temple. Every week (during football season), he attends service (albeit virtually) praying to the League Lords to deliver them a blessing in the form of a mighty win. For my husband, in football, in his team, there is a sense of togetherness, community, home.
I have always loved watching sports documentaries and reading autobiographies written by athletes. For in sport, we witness the triumphs and repeated trials of men and women determined to make their dreams come true. In so many ways, their wins are our wins. Their losses are our losses. They are a mirror to our highest aspirations and our deepest fears. Every athlete takes a piece of our hopes with them, our sense of what we could be. Wright Thompson, a brilliant journalist who wrote for ESPN said in his book The Cost of These Dreams, "...the point of studying other people, whether through a sports story or a novel or a song or a movie, is to organise our thoughts and construct a framework that might help us better understand ourselves." He wrote the book as a way to understand his desperate search for that something that takes us out of our every day selves, a place that feels bigger inspire of the costs. Thompson felt there was so much to learn from these human beings with that seemingly magic within. In the book Thompson writes, "...from Tiger Woods we learn the dangers of living both a private and public life at the same time, as one almost inevitably consumes the other. Over and over we learn the value of a selfless father and the dangers of a selfish one. From Michael Jordan we learn the benefits and toll of man constructing himself into the perfect machine to manage the first 40 years of his life while creating a version himself completely unsuited for the next 40. That's a universal truth: The tools required to gain greatness often prevent someone from enjoying it."
It was through sport that I bonded with my father. Not playing it. Watching it. My father has always loved watching tennis on tv. Every time there is a grand slam being televised, he's there, on his coach rooting for his favourites. As a child, I remember learning the names Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, and as an adult watching the rise of Roger Federer. My dad loved them all. The ones he admired were the ones who kept their cool, who played the sport like determined gentlemen--men who respected the court, their opponents, and who were not ruled by outbursts of emotion. Perhaps they were the people he wished he could have been; people who channeled their feelings into their swings, people who had control over their shots and themselves. People who were somebodys. I remember sitting next to him as he watched the matches. At first I thought I was doing it to keep him company because my mother and brother weren't interested. Then I realised by learning the rules of the game through him and the screen, I was learning about the kinds of people he respected, those who let their work, not their emotions, do the talking. And that's what I learned to believe too, rightly or wrongly. I believed I needed to keep my head down, do the work, and let that work speak for itself.
It was perhaps one of my proudest moments in my entire career when after interviewing Roger Federer, he invited my father to watch him play at the Canadian Open in Toronto. Federer, who is known for his humility and generosity, made the time after his match to meet and chat (for almost an hour) with my Dad who, in one moment, came face to face with two of his favourite players--Federer and Stefan Edberg (who was coaching Federer at the time). In one moment, my Dad was face-to-face with the champions he had only ever seen on tv. In one moment, my Dad breathed the same air as them and he felt special. That's what sport can do. Make someone feel as though they belong in this world, a world that can often beat the hope and happiness out of us. It can give us a glimpse into a version of ourselves so far reaching but one that exists nonetheless.
Sport, after all, is never just about the athletics. It's about humanity playing out on a pitch, a course, rink, track, field, court, mat, pool, stadium. That's why I love sports stories. I have a profound interest in understanding the mentality it takes to be laser focused and determined to win and keep winning; to understand what it means to lose and how losing can either propel us or block us. After all, that's what life is, isn't it? A giant sport where we dream, learn, work, practice, hope, achieve, compete, fail, and keep going no matter what. It's as Raheem Sterling said when he was asked at the start of the Euro2020 tournament if he had justified his place in the squad by scoring a gaol for his country's team. Despite his surprise, his disbelief at being asked that question after having achieved so much already in his life, the Manchester City footballer playing for England replied, “I’m trying, trying.”
Sterling epitomises that dream realised, that journey of greatness that began with a glimmer of hope despite the realities that surrounded him, a journey that took him from Kingston, Jamaica to Wembley, north London. A journey of struggle but one with a whole lot of love. He said, "I grew up in the shadow of my dream. Literally. I watched the new Wembley stadium go up from my back garden. One day, I walked outside and I saw this massive arch in the sky. It was rising up over the top of the housing estates like a mountain. I used to kick about in this green right by my house, and I could take a shot on goal and then turn round to celebrate and the Wembley arch would literally be right above my head. It was like you were there. I was really like, I can play there. I can do it."
That's what we hold on to when we watch these games no matter what country or sport. The team is a microcosm of who we are as a collective. How things play out reflect the dynamics the players have with each other, with themselves, and even with us. We are invested in them because for that 90 minutes, 2 hours, or whatever it is, they hold our dreams in their hands. And when they win, we do too. When they lose, as crushing as it can feel, it's not a failure we internalise. We have each other with whom to commiserate. We have the person next to us who understands how we feel. We have that person on the screen who feels it viscerally, just like we do. And through it all, the highs and lows, the ups and downs, we are reminded we are not alone.