Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Big game today!!

On the eve of the crucial Champion's League semifinal second-leg, I found myself wondering last night about how much professional sporting events actually matter, for me personally, and for others more generally. Perhaps because it's an interesting question. Perhaps because my anxiety about the game today is extremely high! Will my life be awesome if Barcelona beat Chelsea? Will it really be terrible if they lose?

After all, who cares? My team wins, my team loses, life goes on, right? Right?! Does it really make a difference to my day-to-day existence whether Barcelona win the Champions League, at all? Or to anyone's, besides the players and managers, people close to them, and the people who live in the actual cities involved?

A lot of research in positive psychology suggests that people are pretty terrible at predicting what will bring them happiness in the future. Sure, I think the game today is important, but will I really care tomorrow, the next week, or the next month, if the result goes my way? Or will it be like buying an expensive car or winning the lottery, where the resultant happiness might diminish quickly and never really live up to my expectations at all?

The question calls for a bit of reflection about how past sporting events. Have they really provided any lasting happiness, or even, somewhat scarily, become a real part of my identity? My initial inclination is to answer with an emphatic yes, both for single events (Iniesta's goal in 2009, anyone?) and the longer arcs of team performances, like DC United in the late 90's or US national team in 2002. And the disappointments are salient as well, like the 1998 World Cup. How can they really feel so important, so many years later?

The answers have serious implications for human psychology and biology. Loyalties to sports teams are evidence of our clear desire to segment into groups and reinforce the differences between groups. This is most obvious in our support for national sports teams, where supporting one's country is a secondary manifestation of national identity. Support for local sports teams makes sense for similar reasons. But in the era of globalization, more and more people identify with teams on the other side of the globe, and that's where the real puzzle lies. Sometimes the choice of loyalties is arbitrary, sometimes it's not. But once we've chosen sides, we rarely change, and we seek evidence to confirm our choice in moral terms, however tenuous or dubious.

One time one of the players on my own team took this sentiment a bit too far, urging me and our fellow-teammates to focus on and intensify our dislike for the individual members of the opposing team for extra motivation. In context, this seemed reasonable: the other team really did seem like an unpleasant bunch of people. But, any one of us could have easily been on the other team (they weren't much different in background from us, and even if they were, would that make it any different?), and if we had been, we would have been saying the same thing about the players who we were, in fact, playing with and liked. Our sentiments weren't completely arbitrary in this case. It made sense to be loyal to the teammates we knew well and had forged strong bonds with; but at the same time, the circumstances for forming separate teams was largely arbitrary, a mere consequence of where we decided to go to school.

As I've argued before, outcomes in soccer games also contribute to my personal narrative about the game itself, and I'm sure this is true for many other players and fans as well, even neutrals. I really, really want Barcelona to win because their winning helps reduce cognitive dissonance I feel about the game of soccer itself. It makes the game seem relevant not only as a competition but as an art, and helps fuel my hope that it will continue to be a worthwhile artistic endeavor. For me, this is often the most important factor, and Barcelona may be the team, throughout its history, that contributes most to this narrative of soccer as a sport with artistic meaning.

But luckily, the game of soccer is unlikely to change significantly as a result of today's match. When all is said and done, Barcelona will still four of the best attacking players on the planet in Fabregas, Iniesta, Xavi, and of course, Messi. Three of them are younger than 28, and they seem unlikely to leave Barca anytime soon. Whatever happens today, they'll be back next year!!