I've been thinking a lot lately about why people care about sports. More specifically, I've been wondering why people invest so much emotion and energy in proxy wars fought between teams in battles they have no real tangible stake in. (Gamblers, you are excused from the equation.) When Florida loses, I lose nothing material. When the Red Sox drop three games in a row, Bill Simmons' bank account takes no significant damage. Texas football losing eight games in a season isn't going to make Matthew McConaughey any less famous; nor will it make him wear a shirt no matter how many times you ask.
It's been a year since the Landon Donovan goal to beat Algeria 1-0 and take the United States to the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup. Algeria is not a historical rival of the United States. Neither team played especially compelling soccer, either. The loss to Ghana in the next round would ensure that the United States would not equal the their deepest run into the Cup, so the goal itself represented no new pinnacle in the development of US Soccer. The goal kept the United States from what would have been abject failure: an early exit from the Cup. It was a saving throw at the last second, and not a stereotypical moment of glory. On the face of things, it was an all-nighter and the passing grade that resulted, and nothing more.
You can tell me that all day long. And yet, this still happened 365 days ago, and still reduces me to misting tears each time I watch it.
I think sometimes all people want from sports is an indication, a sign, a hint that sometimes in life the calf gets away from the lion. They want one clear-cut moment of glory they can call their own, a home for thwarted hopes they pay for with years of investment, of concern sent abstractly into the ether through television sets, radios, laptops, and in person at the game itself. You make your payments, often for years on end, watching dramas with uncertain plotting and almost always a frustrated end.
Then one day, if you are very, very lucky, this happens, or this, or this, or this, or even something as random and glorious as Landon Donovan popping a stray ball into the back of the net to save the US from defeat and World Cup oblivion.
I didn't fully understand it then. I still don't fully understand it now. I watched the Gold Cup last night like it was the World Cup, though, waiting for a a moment of redemption that ultimately came off the foot of Clint Dempsey and ended in the back of Panama's net. And just like it was a year ago, that moment is more than enough to justify writing checks to a team and a sport I know may never return them in full. The promise of hope, even in the form of a sports team I literally have no control over, is enough.