Unlike previous guest contributors to Sport Is A TV Show, Brian Phillips is neither a superhero nor a dubiously-credentialled academic nor an absinthe-soaked absurdist. Or is he? Hmmm. Anyway, you probably know him as the man responsible for the wonderful Run of Play, and the following is all his.
"Everything's the worst."
— Liz Lemon
These magnificent palaces of justice, these incontestable equations, these airless vaults of truth. I'm tired of the league season, with its Wagnerian storylines and its glacial, accumulating march. I'm tired of being told that what happens in the fifth minute in October is as important as what happens in the ninety-sixth minute in May. I want a moment of lyric intensity, where the stakes are known and where the outcome is undeferrable. I don't just want a knockout game. I want a penalty shootout.
Of course, everyone hates a penalty shootout. Football purists look at a penalty shootout the way leered-at señoritas and barrel-dunked preachers look at a gang of Old West outlaws: as the kind of disruption they'd rather not see on Main Street. Penalty shootouts are unfair ("a lottery"), they emphasize the individual rather than the group (even Sepp Blatter dislikes them), and as a result, they're a terrible way to judge the footballing abilities of two football teams. (You could counter that judging the footballing abilities of two football teams is so difficult that football itself is often a bad way to do it, which is why penalty shootouts are necessary. But that's beside the point.)
To see the appeal of the penalty shootout, all you have to do is consider the last few weeks in league football, which, bless their scabbed souls, have given us essentially the opposite of a penalty shootout. We've seen teams in two major European leagues win titles on days when they weren't playing. We've seen a third team, Manchester United, win a title in the style of a progress bar indicating that a large file is inexorably being downloaded. We should have watched the Bundesliga, but we didn't.
The season has been thorough, fair, unsentimental, and accurate. Its coal-powered machinery was asked to identify the best team over nine months, and, screeching like an iron Brian Johnson and emitting frequent globes of steam, it's done so. The process worked. It's just that process was so grueling and eventually so anticlimactic that it's left me longing for the climactic anti-process of a penalty shootout.
A penalty shootout never calls to mind the slow tick of sand through the neck of a strangled hourglass. A penalty shootout works by the law of catharsis rather than by the rule of analytic scrutiny. In a penalty shootout, the players stand across from the goalkeeper, one by one, and try to force an ending. The stakes are immediate and clear. Where a league season is decided by divergent strands of effort and consequence that collectively add up to something in a way that's hard to grasp, in the moment of the penalty kick, everything is present at once. It involves guesswork. It's insanely dramatic. It may be arbitrary from a footballing standpoint, but as a human situation, it's riveting.
Now, I realize that if you were carried to a temple on a mountain and given the power to legislate all of football, you would have to side with justice, would have to love the league season in its massive impartiality. And most of the time, I do love it, or at least regard it with an appreciative terror. But at the moment, encased in prose, I care less about justice than about the prospect of escape. I like Paul Doyle's argument that when 120 minutes of team play have failed to produce a winner, it makes sense to break the teams down and test their component parts; but my feeling isn't anywhere near that sagacious. I just want a moment when the context and the act, the event and the meaning of the event, are simultaneously apparent.
Barcelona scored dozens of beautiful goals in La Liga this season, but apart from maybe Messi's penalty against Espanyol in September, the only moment they've given us with that kind of significance was Iniesta's equalizer at Stamford Bridge, and that came out of nowhere and produced a feeling that was more surprise than anything. In a few years, I'll remember that Man Utd won the Premier League this season, but ask me how they won it and all I'll have is a hazy sense of defensive consistency. Whereas penalty shootouts — Italy-Spain in Euro 2008; Chelsea-Man Utd last year, with Terry's slip and Ronaldo weeping in the mud — occupy a disproportionately large place among moments I look back to with awe.
So before the machinery resets, before the engineer goes back to the clockwork mountain and starts pounding out more periodic tables, let's have one moment where we believe that anything could happen. This isn't a plea for a draw in the Champions League final, though I guess in some sense it has to be. All I know is that I've spent two months learning a lesson, and I'm ready to feel like the top of my head has been physically taken off.