Football giveth, football taketh away

Football giveth, football taketh away. It is high irony that the sport so many of us extensively follow, exclusively write about and, above all, fully commit ourselves to as a source of joy and euphoria has the ability to rupture our emotional status quo within an instant. It could be the award of a penalty which appears unjust. The red card issued by a referee wishing to stamp his authority. The goal scored on a counter attack by a side that have had to withstand an attacking barrage for the last half an hour. Whatever the source, football has the power to rupture.

And that rupture can be devastating. Events both within a particular match and outside of it have the ability to initiate an uncontrollable and rather complicated mixture of emotions that appear almost uncontrollably. Anger, jealousy, fear, sadness, disbelief. It goes on. Ask Barcelona fans to sum up Neymar’s transfer to PSG with one emotion. Equally, ask Juventus fans to sum up their recent Champions League final loss to Real Madrid in one word. It’s reductionist, and, frankly, it doesn’t make sense. One word just simply isn’t enough. When football turns on you, it turns on you with a full head of steam.

You might be thinking, two paragraphs down into this article, that I am being very dramatic. At the end of the day, football is just a sport. It is not something that should rule our days, weeks, months or entire lives, since it is only a game. A game that is played for fun. To some extent, that is true. But football, for many, is also reality. It is their life. For fans, for players, and for everyone else connected to the sport.

Much is spoken about fans’ dizzying commitment to their team. We often hear about “ultras” travelling the length and breadth of their club’s nation to follow their team both home and away in an unrivalled display of commitment. Some fans risk more than you may realise for the club they adore – their dwindling finances for example, and perhaps their personal relationships too. Fan commitment to the cause is omnipresent in the modern world – teenagers the world over spend their birthday money on new football kits, and even more spend their Sundays glued to the television in anticipation of the next biggest fixture. A ceremony of sorts. For many, football is really everything, and nothing less.

Much less is spoken of the commitment of the players themselves to the game we love and, in the process, all those that are emotionally connected to the career of the player, though. This is where I want to bring in Abdelhak Nouri, a young and highly gifted playmaker from De Toekomst with, seemingly, the world at his feet. In case you are not aware, Abdelhak Nouri, suffering from cardiac arrythmia, collapsed in a pre-season game whilst playing for Ajax and has suffered severe and permanent brain damage as a result. In an instant, his life has changed through his commitment to football.

The assortment of emotions associated to the incident were outpoured on Wednesday night. In a crucial second leg Champions League qualifier against a talented OGC Nice side, the situation regarding Nouri was impossible to ignore. The game, with all its associated importance, took a backseat. It was Ajax’s first home game of the new season, and the first since Nouri’s hospitalisation occurred. A huge tifo emerged in the ArenA at the start of the game, and the 34th minute, concurrent with Appie’s shirt number at Ajax, saw a rapturous applause from both sets of fans in recognition of the tragedy which overhung the stadium like a thundercloud.

Ajax’s performance on Wednesday night was underwhelming. I could go into great detail examining defensive frailties, poor use of substitutions and tactical inaccuracies. But it doesn’t feel appropriate. On Wednesday night, football, theoretically just a game, was clearly not just “a game”. The club and its entire fanbase have been left reeling by the Nouri situation. Me included. It’s very difficult to digest. And it’s an entirely different level of pain for those most closely associated with Appie – notably, his teammates and his family, for whom football is an everyday feature. You could see the raw emotion in Donny van de Beek’s celebrations for his goals both home and away to OGC Nice. Football’s ability to impact lives has not just stopped at Appie – clearly, it extends further, with those closely associated suffering the most.

This is, of course, where the twisted irony of football comes in. Football has the ability to build relationships, and shatter them. Football has the ability to build up our emotions in a wash of expectation, and then shatter them. And football ultimately has the ability to build careers, and also shatter them. Ultimately, football is an unpredictable juggernaut with a frightening and frankly uncontrollable inner power. At times, this makes football glorious. At times, it is the stark opposite.