February 08, 2023

Plot twist: An ode to a year of football

Plot twist: An ode to a year of football

I fell in love this year.

As with most beautiful things, it was unexpected. While I always had an interest in her, it wasn’t that profound. But after years of casual admiration, I paid more attention this time. All I needed was a spark, apparently.

I don’t get to see her often but I feel her presence. She makes me lose sleep. She makes me want to go to her at 3 a.m. She makes me like things I don’t usually like. She makes me curse. She can be friendly but it’s better when she’s real. She makes me forget my problems—even for just a couple of hours. When there’s extra time, I stay with her. I still don’t understand her at times but I try to. I want to know more about her. I like noticing the little things about her. Her subtle idiosyncrasies, cute quirks, and muted gestures. Her depth. Her past. Her language is different. She's well-traveled. A free-spirit with a wild heart. She can get harsh. But I guess that’s also part of the charm. Her mysticism. Her unpredictability. At times intimidating but usually mesmerizing. She reminds me that there’s still a lot to discover. She’s a joy to be with. She exudes grace. She’s exhilarating. She’s beautiful.

Every time I’m with her, a certain anticipation crescendos—like a wave forming from afar. It could end either in a win or a whimper. Binary yet complex. It always leads to a tug-of-war of emotions. Celebration or cautiousness? Positivity or pragmatism? Trust or temperament? Deliriously happy or dejectedly wary?

But to say the least, the entire experience has been, for the lack of a better term—because love also makes us at a loss for words—memorable.

Those are the reasons—and perhaps including those that I have yet to realize—why I fell in love with football this year. Her. She. The Beautiful Game.

While I’ve always been generally aware of what’s happening in football (mostly because my job calls for it), it was merely a cursory thing. I couldn't dissect the rules. I couldn’t enumerate the last five winners of the Ballon d’Or. I couldn't name five players from Bayern Munich.

I still can’t. But I’ve learned to appreciate football more. I wouldn’t say madly obsessed but maybe mildly intoxicated.

Quite fittingly, it started in the very first month of the year. And of course, it's because of a girl. Or girls, to be exact. When I learned last January that the Philippine Women’s Football Team was just a win away in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup from giving the country a maiden ticket to the FIFA World Cup, I got butterflies in my stomach. I stayed up late to watch the match against Chinese-Taipei. When the Filipinas sealed the deal in a heart-racing penalty shootout, there was no looking back.

Since then, I followed the Filipinas. I watched all of their matches in the AFF Women’s Championship last July (and even their subsequent friendly matches). You could see their momentum building up after every battle. When they won against perennial powerhouse Vietnam in the semifinals—via a 4-0 masterpiece, no less—I truly felt that the crown was theirs. The team beat Thailand in the final and made history anew, giving the Philippines its first-ever football crown.

While the testosterone-filled histrionics of male athletes are usually entertaining, they can get old and quite frankly, annoying. All the chest-puffing, ego-brandishing, and ball-busting. That’s why it has been an absolute pleasure, a breath of fresh air, to watch the Filipinas—unassuming, grateful, and joyous. What’s not to love? 

Last October, I watched El Clasico for the first time. Yes, not just the highlights but the full 90 minutes. I learned from the broadcast that Real Madrid has trampled archrival Barcelona in recent years. I also learned, albeit scornfully, that I'm older than most of the players.

Then there’s also the FIFA World Cup. In the past, I only watched it—half-heartedly at that—during the semifinals or the final. But this year, I intently watched over a dozen matches, fighting off sleep for fear of missing out on a historic moment or a thrilling encounter. Just when I thought the semifinals were a treat, the final was, to sum it up deeply: ARHFHDGFURGFKSJDFH! A perfect coda to a symphonic experience.

Love makes us do things we don’t normally do. This is the third football story I got inspired to write this year. While that’s laughably scant, I’ve upped my grand total from previous years of zero. I also read a bunch of articles, learned technical stuff from YouTube, watched several documentaries, a movie (The Damn United is blimey smashing), and season 2 of Ted Lasso, followed football pages on Facebook (I get some of the memes now!), married Sara Eggesvik in my head (if you’re reading this, ILY!), reposted livestreams, attended watch parties, and tried cajoling other friends to get into football too. 

Because that’s what you do when you love. You make the effort. You find the time. You give what you can. You rage into that love while you breathe it in. Imbued with a stubbornness that could be simultaneously tender and tenacious. Illogical yet inescapable. As Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said, “If we knew how to find happiness, we’d go find it. We’d go straight there.”

My love affair with football started delightfully with the Philippine Women’s Football Team. Like holding the hand of someone you like for the first time. Also quite fittingly, in the very last month of the year, in what feels like a full circle, the Philippine Azkals got their turn on the spotlight in the AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup. Unfortunately, they’ve been struggling. It's hard to get into them. Like a sad love song. But I’ll try. Because that’s also what love is—keeping on even if it’s difficult.

Has it all been worth it? Has my emotional investment been adequately requited? Well, that's not the point. Because love and football are both a leap of faith. Discovering something. Surprising oneself. Tempting fate. For we never know, lightning could strike. No matter how fleeting. And make us write irritatingly cheesy stuff like this.