The beautiful pain of the playoffs
Shark's Paul Gallen tackled by the Storm. (AAP Image/Action Photographics/Brett Crockford)
Being a sports lover is a strange and paradoxical lifestyle. We take frivolous games more seriously than geopolitics.
We demand utmost professionalism from our sporting heroes, while expressing disgust if we suspect them of chasing more money. We worship at the altar of athletic perfection while sitting on couches stuffing our faces.
But the strangest quandary of all is that which befalls the football fan at finals time, when the best time of the year is, at the same time, the worst.
Don’t get me wrong – finals time is exciting and compelling and rich with dramatic possibility. It’s the time when, just as the sun starts to shine with a bit more conviction, football steps up a notch, gets a little harder, a little faster, a little more frenetic and desperate.
With stakes high, the game becomes top-quality theatre and we are riveted to the stories played out on the field, the thin line between euphoria and despair so starkly illustrated with every unlikely act of courage or tragically minor mistake. It is a wonderful time to be an aficionado of the kicking-and-running-into-each-other codes.
But it’s also just awful, at least for about half the fans. No, not the ones whose teams didn’t make the play-offs – their pain is over for six blessed months, and they can get on with living productive lives. They can be content, and drift away in a blissful football-less bubble.
The awful part is being a fan of a team that IS in the finals. I find myself in this unhappy situation myself most years – I am a supporter of Melbourne in the NRL and Sydney in the AFL, because I am naturally perverse – and 2012 is no different. It’s thrilling, and awful.
The reason, of course, is that in each competition, eight teams enter the finals, but only one can win the big prize. And that means that your team has a much better-than-even chance of finishing the season with a defeat. And not just a defeat, but a heart-breaking defeat, in a big important game.
Frequently it will be an agonising defeat in which the supporters are teased with the promise of glory, only to have it cruelly snatched away at the last moment. Believe me, as a Swans fan who remembers the 2006 grand final, I know.
And when the finish isn’t close, the defeat will just as likely take on an aspect of nightmare, humiliation burning deep at the thought that on the big stage, the side just fell apart when it was supposed to be putting its best foot forward. Believe me, as a Storm fan who remembers the 2008 grand final, I know.
What I’m saying is, the finals distil the exquisite pain of the sporting experience to its purest essence. There is no shrugging things off. There is no escape from the jackhammer-fretting that consumes the mind during this mad month.
When a victory comes, it produces a relief so profound it can bring you to your knees. When a defeat ends it all, it induces a sort of catatonia, a feeling much like that which one might experience immediately after a tractor drives through the bedroom wall.
And while you’re waiting to see which it will be, it’s all biting nails and pulling hair and nervy finger-drumming and yelling angrily at anyone who dares jinx things by talking.
It’s a horrible sickness, the finals. And we’re about to go through it again. I’m about to put myself through this awful ulcerating ordeal yet again, and I know there’s nothing I can do to stop myself.
I know there’s a chance I will experience again the joys of ’05, or those (subsequently revoked) celebrations of ’07 and ’09: but I know there’s a much greater chance of reliving last year, when all the hopes came to nought, or the agony of ’06 or the despair of ’08 or even the heartbreak of Balmain’s loss in 1989, the first time I cried over sport.
And I know I won’t be able to do anything but relive whatever I have to relive – I’m a moth to the flame and that’s all there is to it.
So what I’m asking is, be gentle, everyone. All those with no more than a passing interest in football, be nice to us for the next four weeks. Don’t judge us too harshly for our preoccupation and sudden bursts of anger and lengthy weeping fits.
Don’t provoke us by trying to discuss the big game that our team just went down in. Don’t interrupt crucial moments by asking us to put the bins out.
And most of all, for the love of all that is sacred and honourable in the world… don’t tell us it’s only a game.
Ben Pobjie is a writer and comedian writing weekly on The Age, New Matilda and The Roar, whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short the day he stopped playing rugby and had a pizza instead. The most he has ever cried was the day Balmain lost the 1989 grand final. Today he enjoys the frolics of Wallabies, Swans, baggy greens, and Storms. Ben is also the author of the books Surveying the Wreckage, Superchef, and his latest, The Book of Bloke, available from Momentum Books.
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