Last week, as I watched a professional English soccer game on television, I felt a tightness in my throat that came from holding back tears. I felt an intense sense of pride. A man I have never met, who doesn’t know I exist, had signed on to coach a soccer team for a multi-million dollar salary, and it was an emotionally cathartic experience for me. Clearly, these feelings were ridiculous, without basis in reality. These events, in actuality, meant nothing at all to my lived experience. So why did I react this way?
In 2006, my wife and I got sucked into the World Cup. We watched numerous games with friends, cheering for the US and Germany. We loved the excitement, the passion of the fans, the unpredictability of the results. After the World Cup was over, we sought to experience those same things without waiting another four years. The German goalkeeper, Jens Lehman, played at that time for a club team in England named Arsenal. As Americans, we knew nothing about this team or its history, but we jumped into watching, both from home as well as from local soccer pubs. Since the games are live in the afternoon in England, they air in the US in the mornings, and we dragged ourselves out of bed as early as 6 AM on Saturdays to see the games. Such was our dedication to the team that we eventually travelled to see Arsenal play four times.
In 2011, in the midst of a particularly difficult spell for the team, a Spanish midfielder named Mikel Arteta joined. He was not the most gifted player ever to play for Arsenal, but we admired him for his tenacity, his persistence, and his dedication. He eventually became the team’s captain, the leader on the field, and our favorite player. The last time we saw Arsenal play in person was on New Year’s Eve 2011, with Arteta in the team.
When my wife became pregnant with our child, like most parents, we searched high and low for a name, considering and rejecting numerous candidates. Finally, we selected one inspired by Mikel Arteta’s name. Our daughter came into this world and changed our lives, in the best and most challenging ways. In May 2014, Arteta captained Arsenal to their first trophy in 9 years, an FA Cup. We watched with pride at a Chicago soccer pub, cheering the team on to victory with my wife wearing our daughter in a baby-carrier. Mikel Arteta led Arsenal for two more years and to one more trophy before retiring from his playing career in 2016. Again we watched with emotion — our daughter’s namesake leaving the team we love.
For the next three years, Arteta was an assistant manager of another English team, during which time Arsenal lost their own longtime manager and performed worse and worse each year. During this time, we watched fewer and fewer games as our enjoyment at seeing the team play dwindled, and we spent more of our Saturday mornings on other things. This year, the team had been performing abysmally and then, about one month ago, the club fired their current manager. Two weeks ago they announced that they had hired Mikel Arteta to manage Arsenal Football Club. We were both astonished and delighted!
Arteta did not win either of the first two games he managed — the team tied one and lost one. His third game was on New Year’s Day against Manchester United who, although they are not as formidable as they were in the past, are still an important rival for Arsenal. I baked scones and our daughter turned our living room “into the Arsenal Stadium” for the game. We watched, delighted, as the Arsenal team controlled the game and won 2-0. And although it is impossible to know what will come of Arteta’s time at Arsenal, it feels like there is hope in this team, hope for something special to happen. I have this feeling that Mikel Arteta, the namesake of our daughter, has come back to Arsenal to represent those values of tenacity, persistence, and dedication, and maybe, just maybe, to win a championship in the process.
Now, if you do not enjoy sports, or even if you enjoy American sports and don’t follow English soccer, much of what I just wrote may have seemed gibberish or nonsense to you. And for me to gather a sense of hope from a multimillionaire retired soccer star coming back to manage his former team may seem ridiculous. In a world where income inequality, white supremacy, and climate change stalk our every move, how could a bunch of rich young men kicking a ball or a slightly older rich white man telling them how to do it fill me with any positive emotions at all? Because in the end, these things mean nothing. They accomplish nothing. They make the world not one tangible iota better. And yet, isn’t that true of many of our traditions? We just celebrated the start of a new year, a festival based on a somewhat arbitrary designation created several thousand years ago only loosely coordinated with the seasonal changes of the planet. What does such a celebration mean? In the end, this also means nothing.
But maybe it is more fitting to say that in the beginning, it means nothing. Because we have lived meaning into these events, these traditions. By our living, our loving, our committing we have transformed the meaningless into the meaningful. Perhaps here I am describing a simple version of the existentialist’s philosophy. Counting from 10 to 1 on December 31st, a man kicking a ball into a net, throwing a party when our child has spent 13 years in school — by themselves, these things do mean nothing. But they are not by themselves. They are embedded in the context of my life, embedded in the context of our families’ and communities’ lives. And that context gives them meaning. This context means that my love for Arsenal Football Club, for their coach who is the namesake of my daughter, that love is ridiculous and sublime all in the same moment. I wish to embrace the contradictions and trivialities that we integrate into the meaning of our lives. Perhaps they are all we have. Perhaps they are enough.
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