What We Miss
386 · 20 June 02
For the last few weeks leading up to our graduation from college, most of my classmates threw themselves enthusiastically into the task of getting and staying as drunk as humanly possible. Ostensibly this was in celebration of our completion of a rigorous and elite liberal arts education, but in reality I think it was more a chemical attempt to mask the gnawing terror that what was ending was not so much a trial as the last period of our lives during which we would ever be cut such prodigious lengths of slack.
I, however, do not and did not drink, so I had to find some other way to amuse myself. I decided to get into a fight with my department. As amusements go, I can't really recommend this one. The root of the conflict was the fact, undisputed by either side, that I had completed the second half of my year-long senior thesis project without a supervisor. It was my position, at the time, that the soul of completing a senior thesis project composed of two original music videos, which was what we agreed I was supposed to be doing, was completing two original music videos. My department took the alternative stance that the soul of my completing a senior thesis project of any sort was doing so under the sage and helpful guidance of an accredited faculty member. I have a little more sympathy for their position now than I did at the time, given that I was intended to be involved in an education, but in my defense I will note that if you'd experienced what passed for "sage and helpful guidance" from my erstwhile advisor during the first half of the project, you might also have a little more sympathy for my neglecting to secure a replacement. And we could have a long and not very interesting argument about whether it's more incredible that I kept at this project for a semester without supervision, or that the department, despite knowing both that my first advisor had quit and that I was still working, didn't put the two facts together until I showed up with a finished project wondering who wanted to grade it.
I lost the fight. It was my own fault, of course. Harvard was the agent of my misfortune, but I was its cause. I failed, and this is a lesson many Italians should spend the next four years pondering, to keep myself out of harm's way. I gave something a chance to go wrong. But the terms of my surrender, in the end, were not particularly severe. Thesis projects were optional in my department, anyway, so some sage and helpful representatives were deputized to take a look at what I'd done, and when they reported that I'd done an interesting job (I don't recall the word "good" coming up much, but "intriguing" and "unusual" both made appearances), the department relabeled it "individual study", giving me one semester's credit for what would have been a two-semester thesis-doing course. This left me one credit short of the total required for graduation, however, necessitating that I finish up in summer school and get my degree a few months late. At the time, I was traumatized. As it turns out, I didn't need my degree for anything during the months during which it was delayed, and in fact I don't believe I've ever been asked to produce it in the thirteen years since they coughed it up, and could not offhand tell you exactly where in my house it currently resides.
Also, I'd completed all my specific course requirements, so it made absolutely no different what course I took, as long as I could contrive not to fail it. The one I picked, ironically, turned out to be one of the more interesting and useful pieces of my Harvard education. It was a survey of historical futurism, which might sound either arcane or spurious, depending on whether you realize that it mostly entailed reading old science fiction and flipping through old World's Fair catalogs. But for a stark reminder, just before embarking on a career as a technologist (not that I realized that's what I was doing yet), of the deep and enduring chasm between our social expectations for technology and its actual effects, it was quite remarkable. You can get the ultra-compressed version, if you don't have time for summer school, by reading Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, renting some Space: 1999 DVDs, and riding on the DC subway at least once. The point, made early and often, is that our dreams about the possibilities of the future are approximately 93% cursory redecorations of the frustrations and fixations of the present. We think about new technology by imagining inserting it into our current lives, but of course it's our future lives, changed by new technology, in which the new technology will actually operate. So we looked at cars and speculated that they would free chauffeurs from the burdens of animal care. We looked at radios and imagined families gathered in their dens in their good clothes to be acculturated by the symphony. And we got teenage boys with woofers the size of filing cabinets blasting Mos Def out of the backs of tricked-out Civics.
It's hard to say what technology we most egregiously misjudged, and maybe my vote is still for the automobile, but TV is close. TV was to be the great unifier. Even more than the previous great unifiers (the telegraph, the telephone, radio, the railroad, cars, airplanes, talking greeting cards, the internet), television would let us share the experiences of strangers, and after that how could we imagine war?
TV has, of course, effected a great unification, but it is in disappointingly large measure a unification of advertisers and the advertised-to, not you and anybody you would be improved by learning not to distrust. It has become a redistribution mechanism for movies, a medium for lower-order storytelling, and a way to gauge your own minor misfortunes against a constantly-updated ranking of who in the world is currently the most worse off than you. Up until Tuesday morning, I believed there had been exactly two things I've ever seen on non-fiction television that significantly and durably enriched me as a person. One was, as a very small child, seeing Neil Armstrong step down onto the surface of the moon (although, given how small I was when Apollo 11 landed, there's some question about whether it wasn't actually Conrad, Shepard or Irwin I saw, not Armstrong, but the effect was the same in any case). The second was a nearly-transmigratory Rebecca Sealfon shouting out the letters of "euonym" to win the 1997 National Spelling Bee. TV brings us so many pictures of other people's horrors and demises; these two are lodged in my mind as sigils of our capacity for inexplicable greatness.
And now I have seen a third. I bought a new television to watch the World Cup on (actually, I bought a new television to watch wide-screen DVDs on, but I bought it when I did so I'd have it for the Cup), and on Tuesday morning I staggered out of bed after another in a debilitating series of three-hour naps and turned the thing on in order to watch my fifty-sixth international soccer match in nineteen straight days without real sleep. My personal Cup had peaked twice already, once when Sergio Conceicao's eighty-ninth-minute shot hit the near Korean goalpost and rolled behind the goalie across the face of the goal without anybody managing to kick it in, allowing the Koreans to hold on for a 1-0 win over Portugal and the US to squeak into the second round, and a second time when Landon Donovan cheerfully buried an Eddie Lewis cross and I realized the US was going to defeat Mexico in the only game we've ever played against them that nobody could claim didn't matter. These two moments were enough to justify the entire vigil, for me, paired reminders of the powers of tiny differences and good planning. It doesn't matter what happens against Germany on Friday, the US has reached the final eight (Eight! I had to stop in the middle of writing this sentence and go count them again to be sure. Twice.) in the global sporting event of record, and I am doing my best to feel proud enough to compensate for everybody in America who isn't paying attention. (Although circumstantial evidence suggests that more people are paying attention than we might have thought.)
But not only does it not matter what happens when the US plays Germany, it isn't even the game I'm now agonizingly waiting for. I'll be there, screaming at my new television while Eddie Pope chases Miroslav Klose around the box before every corner kick, but if the US wins it will merely be incomprehensible. Better than incomprehensible is glorious, and the third thing I've ever seen on live television that I expect to remember with a chill for the rest of my life was a moment of transcendent glory well beyond anything Bruce Arena's cleverest game plans and Brad Friedel's most adroit saves have produced. If you haven't been watching, highlights won't do it. If they re-play Korea-Italy on ESPN Classic they'll probably edit it down to two hours, and that won't do it, either. In fact, it doesn't matter, now that you know the result you can't have the experience no matter how faithfully it's rebroadcast. You had to be watching. What were you doing from 7:30am to about 10:15am, EDT, on 18 June 2002? Unless you were involved in a medical procedure to save a life or create one, if it wasn't watching a soccer game you did the wrong thing.
At 7:30am, you would have seen the South Korean national team take the field in Daejon World Cup Stadium to play against Italy. Italy is a three-time former champion, and entered the tournament ranked sixth in the world by FIFA. Those rankings, always controversial, will be taking a beating after this Cup, with only four of the top ten teams making the round of sixteen and only two making the round of eight, but Italy is still Italy, sixth or not, and South Korea is still South Korea, who never won a single game in the finals before this year, and entered the thirty-two-team tournament ranked fortieth. You would have seen eleven nervous Korean soccer players, eleven demidivine Italians, one disarmingly cuddly Ecuadorian referee, and 38,576 singing, screaming, disconcertingly well-organized red-clad Korean fans. And twelve other people presumably claiming to be the victims of horrible laundry disasters.
From 7:30am to about 7:47am, you would have watched a reenactment of the moments of grogginess before the malevolent giant, just awoken, clears its encrusted head enough to look down around its ankles, spot the pest nipping at them, and decide which foot to squash it with. As in the Japan-Turkey game a few hours earlier, it would have taken only a few minutes of observation for you to notice that the Europeans are seasoned professional soccer players to a man, and the Asians are the charming but hopelessly outclassed local minor-league heroes. During these opening minutes there was actually a penalty-kick awarded to Korea, and in theory they might have taken the lead, but striker Ahn Jung Hwan (who looks like the hero of a Korean knock-off of Saved by the Bell) conclusively lost his battle of nerves with Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (who looks like an abandoned Rocky & Bullwinkle villain), and nothing came of it.
At 7:48am you would have seen Italy score its first goal. Francesco Totti (who is so beautiful I swear I'd sleep with his brother) pinged in a routine corner kick, and Christian Vieri (who better have sisters) calmly headed it into the net.
From about 7:48am to 7:48:43am, you would have seen and heard 38,576 people in the stands quietly trying to avoid blacking out, and twelve people in the stands quietly trying to avoid betraying themselves as Italians. This is exactly what Ergun Penbe and Umit Davala did to Japan five hours and six minutes earlier, and Japan never recovered. Losing at the end is horrible, of course, but that's like swift and honorable decapitation. Giving up a goal in the eighteenth minute and then watching the Italians sit on the lead for the next seventy-two would be like bleeding to death through one ear.
At 7:48:44am you would have seen and heard 38,576 people rediscover their faith, and twelve people start to worry. For the next seventy minutes, you would have seen Providence repeatedly deferred. The Italians may be demigods, but they are lazy demigods, unwilling to expend a gram of energy the situation doesn't absolutely require. 1-0 is enough to win, so they set out to simply keep it that way. After an hour Giovanni Trapattoni pulled striker Alessandro Del Piero for midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, and few minutes later replaced midfielder Gianluca Zambrotta with midfielder Sean Penn. The Koreans, on the other hand, may not be great soccer players, but they know how to run towards the opponent's goal, and they are willing to do it over and over again until the heat death of the universe. For seventy minutes you would have listened to the crowd's ceaseless roar and thought to yourself, "If the Koreans somehow manage to tie and win this, how will we ever rationally counter the argument that their nation willed it?" After Del Piero came out, Guus Hiddink replaced a Korean defender with a forward. Later he did it again.
At about 9:15am, with less than three minutes left on the clock, you would have seen the first crack. Christian Panucci bobbled a clearance for once bounce too many, and Seol Ki Hyeon knocked it past a surprised Buffon. Suddenly it was 1-1, the Italians looked concerned, and 38,576 people knew they could get anything they wanted by wanting it passionately enough. The Italians retrieved the ball, zipped down the field, and Damiano Tommasi arched a textbook cross over a dazed defense into the stride of Christian Vieri.
Christian Vieri is a very famous soccer player. In 1999 his services were purchased from the Italian club Lazio by the giant Inter Milan for what was then a world-record fee of whatever forty-eight and a half million dollars comes to in Italian money. He had five goals in the 1998 World Cup, and four more in this one. If you are playing Italy, and it's tied, and there are only seconds left, you very, very, very much do not want anybody to loft a perfect assist over your misplaced defenders to where Christian Vieri is standing with nothing between him and your goal but about ten feet of clear Korean air. It is very difficult to think of anything you could want less. Your defender is stranded, your goalie will never get there. There is absolutely nothing to do but pray.
And 38,576 people prayed, and Christian Vieri kicked the ball to one of them.
Around 9:35, maybe, except you would long since have ceased caring about any time-keeping device not on the wrist of referee Byron Moreno, you would have seen the first overtime period start. Ties in round-of-sixteen games are resolved by two fifteen-minute periods of sudden-death overtime, followed if necessary by penalty kicks. You would think that the Italians would not want the match to come down to penalty kicks. At least, you'd think that if you were a soccer fan, and had seen the replay of Roberto Baggio botching the ball over the bar to lose the 1994 final approximately seven thousand times. But apparently the other Italians have blocked that memory out, because you would have seen them playing to just survive another thirty minutes.
At minute 103, whatever that comes to in people years, you would have seen Byron Moreno waive his right to ever visit the supposedly-attractive country of Italy. Totti was darting into the box on one of the Italians' rare purposeful forward forays. There was a sudden tangle of people, Totti went clattering to the ground, and Moreno blew his whistle and ran towards the scene, reaching into a pocket.
When people who don't like soccer complain about soccer, they complain about stupid things. They complain about low scores, as if the game would be exciting if only goals counted for ten points and getting a corner kick counted for a couple. They complain about anything they think Americans aren't good at, although it's hard to see how they'll do that any more. They betray closed minds and unexamined xenophobia. When people who love soccer complain about soccer, they complain about referees. There aren't instant replays in soccer, and there aren't officiating gangs. There are two people running up and down the sidelines watching for things you need to be at a right angle to, and there is one person in the middle of the field with a whistle. The one with the whistle watches the players, and blows it whenever he thinks he sees a rule violated. He will, of course, make mistakes. Over the course of the game, the players will make dozens, if not hundreds, of mistakes. The coach will chip in a few more, and often even the fans will get involved. And the referee will make some. Humans are fairly error-prone, especially under pressure, and a World Cup game certainly constitutes pressure. But that's how soccer works. Everybody understands it, and it's up to you to compensate as best you can. The referee may make one of his errors at what is, for you, a really bad time. The error might even lead, directly or indirectly, to a goal for your opponents. If you don't want that to ruin your day, you better lead by two. Three would be safer. Otherwise you are risking everything. A clod of dirt, a flash in the corner of the referee's eye -- things happen in soccer, and about half the time they'll happen to you.
But to me, soccer's approach to officiating is one of the things that makes it so beautiful and so quintessentially human. Sure, we've got the technology now to freeze a physical event and step through it a nucleus-decay at a time, and we can thus determine, in a scientific sense, the exact sequence of what transpired. But that is not what happens during a soccer game. Objects collide, and opinions differ about the significance. The physics is a matter for machines; the decision is a matter for a human being. Byron Moreno saw two people come together, and one fall dramatically to the ground, and made a decision. He ran to the spot, pulled a yellow card out of his pocket, and showed it to Francesco Totti. Moreno is a little short, and a little stout. Totti is idealized. Moreno had showed that same yellow card to Totti earlier in the match, and if you see two yellow cards during a soccer game, you immediately thereafter see a red one, and you have to leave the game and your team is not allowed to replace you. It was Moreno's belief, from watching, that Totti's fall came at his own initiation. FIFA stated very clearly, at the beginning of this Cup, that its referees had been instructed to have no tolerance for faking fouls, and that yellow cards should be given to any player who tried. Totti knew he was playing with a card, and knew what the consequences would be for another. So did he jump or was he pushed? If you'd been watching, you couldn't have told. There was a Korean player near him, there were feet near his feet. You could certainly tell, though, what Totti wanted you to think. He went down hard, arms flailing. We have the burden and luxury of replay, and it is my belief that the video evidence shows, clearly and unambiguously, that Totti began to fall before he was touched. His toes point, his legs stop making the running motion and start making the falling motion. In mid-fall, a Korean defender's foot grazes one of his legs. Even after this contact, his sprawl is disproportionate. How clearly could Moreno see that, or could he see it at all? I don't know. He was closer than we were, maybe he saw everything. At any rate, he thought he saw enough. And as he blew his whistle and reached into his pocket, he gave the Italians a focus for grievous sportsmanship. No need to be gracious or respectful when you've got something to complain about. We will hear them complain about this call for at least four years, maybe eight, maybe twelve.
In fact, you will hear about this call even if you know and care nothing about soccer. If you know any Italians, you will probably hear so much about it that eventually you will come to doubt what little you thought you knew about soccer, and assume that this call resulted not only in Totti's expulsion, but in a goal being awarded to Korea, and the match thus ended. It will be difficult, otherwise, to explain the violence of the Italians' rage. They were forced to play the remainder of the game with ten players against Korea's eleven, but since everybody agrees that the Italian players are far more than eleventh tenths better than the Korean players, it shouldn't have made much difference. The Koreans had a chance to win it in the 111th; the Italians had one in the 113th. The minutes after Totti left didn't have an appreciably different character than the ones immediately before.
And the game went on without him. If you'd been watching your television, like you should have, you would have seen and heard the clock running insensitively out, seen and heard 38,576 people, as proxy for forty-eight million more, wanting a goal in a soccer game to validate their entire nation.
In minute 117, three minutes before penalty kicks, you would have seen Lee Young Pyo float in a long cross. You would have seen Ahn Jung Hwan, still playing almost two hours after he blew that penalty kick, out-jump Italian captain Paolo Maldini, veteran of four World Cups. From top to bottom, there is the ball, Ahn's head, Maldini's head. Then, from Ahn towards nirvana, there is Ahn's head, the ball, a diving Buffon, the corner of the goal. Then, from birth towards death, there is the ball in the goal, and the game is over. South Korea has defeated Italy 2-1. You would have seen this. After Senegal beat France in the opener, we thought we'd seen the upset of our time. After the US beat Portugal, we changed our mind. After South Korea beat Portugal, and France and Argentina were eliminated, and the US beat Mexico, we stopped hoping to understand. But this? We know, and you would have heard, what 38,576 thought it meant.
But that's not the thing. South Korea's victory, in itself, is not the moment I'm saying you would have been enriched by. Here's what happens next. Ahn sees that he's scored, and runs over to the corner flag. Players do this, nobody really knows why. He has a slight head start on his teammates. He slides onto the ground by the flag. He is lying on his back, his arms upraised and spread. His teammates fall into his embrace. They are inches from the photographers; the Korean papers probably have pictures of their eyelashes. This is still not the thing.
Eventually they pile off him. It's considered bad form to crush your striker to death. After all, beating Italy means they have another game to play (against Spain on Saturday, and that now is the game I'm most eagerly awaiting). So they finally let him up. Actually, "let" is wrong. The last guy to get off him picks him up, drags him a little way into the field, and then runs off. Ahn stops and stands there.
Somebody else runs up and hugs him, and pulls him a few feet further. Then that guy, too, lets go and returns to the celebration. Ahn stops and stands there again. The cycle repeats. Maybe Ahn is just getting a few feet closer to the camera with each exhortation, or maybe the operator zooms just slightly, I didn't notice which. The celebrations out of the picture must have acquired gravity by now, because Ahn's left alone for a few beats longer. You would have seen him standing there. You would have seen his face.
And that's the third great thing I've ever seen on live television. It's worth whatever I paid for the new set to have seen it a few diagonal inches larger, a couple generations of screen technology clearer. Maybe you can find a picture of it, put the picture won't suffice. You have to have witnessed the previous two-and-three-quarter hours. You have to hear the crowd. You probably have to have seen the first three Korean games, and maybe all the games. Maybe you have to have followed an underdog team through their entire qualification cycle, twice, and shown up season after season to watch your terrible local pro team lose. I don't know what it would have taken. I know only how I got here. Standing there on the field in Daejon, victorious, Ahn Jung Hwan has no idea where or what he is. The Korean fans, many people have breathlessly said, are the team's twelfth player, a spirit that takes invisible but tangible form and joins them on the field. Maybe that spirit blocked Vieri's shot, and kept Conceicao's out against Portugal, and grabbed Totti's heel and whispered to the linesmen when the Italians might or might not have been offside. I'm less of an animist. I think Conceicao and Vieri missed, and Totti dove, and the Italians are whiners who made a bad strategic decision and don't want to accept the consequences, and the Koreans tried really hard and got lucky. But I don't know, and maybe I'm wrong, and that possibility is the spirit that takes possession of Ahn Jung Hwan for just a moment, and looks out at Daejon through his eyes. It is the single greatest look of awe I've ever seen. Waves of rapture are crashing down on him. How could any single human be the focus of so much joy and relief? For that matter, how can so much emotion come from a mere sporting event, a game in which you have to try to kick a ball with the same feet you're running on? Every night the news shows bomb victims and fires and survivors and killers; there are a dozen things an hour that ought to be more important than a soccer game. So how can time be arrested by this? Ahn doesn't know, either, and so steps aside, out of his own body, and lets the energy flow into what he represents. A nation has chosen a receptacle for their identity, has chosen an event to redeem them. Korea would have survived if their soccer team had lost. Italy will survive, even if they never quit grousing. Ahn scored the tying goal against the US, he would still have been a national hero no matter how this game ended. But in the moment that his header crossed the last inch over the line, the country leapt the last inch into the inconceivable possibility of victory. As he scored, he became their avatar. In one moment, on the new television you should have bought, if you'd had been watching like you should have, you would have seen the physical embodiment of the human ability to assign any cause to any effect. You would have seen, in the features of one Korean face, exactly what balance we strike between primitive ignorance and true knowledge, and maybe you would have been convinced, for just one moment, like even I, who hates this idea, felt myself supposing, that some amount of our ignorance is actually necessary. I want to believe that evolution is a unidirectional and inexorable movement from superstition to rationalism, and that thinking your life has been changed by seeing a soccer player briefly taken aback by the result of a game, like believing in gods and afterlives, is something we'd only do if we were the humans we're trying to no longer be. I don't want to be one of those people. I don't want to believe things I don't understand, that's why I don't drink. But I'm watching television, and I see this person's face, and my heart changes. I don't want to even be the kind of human who could say "my heart changes" and mean it, but what can I tell you? My heart changes, whether I meant to endorse the concept or not. My rationalism has been overrated. Maybe all rationalism has been overrated. Maybe there's a god, after all. At any rate, there's soccer. It's just a game, but it's the game that best defines us, and a game capable of eliciting the most intense emotion for which we are built. If you'd been watching, maybe your heart would have been changed, too. Most of the rest of the planet was watching, I wonder how many of them were changed. Evolution, some of us now think, proceeds in jumps and spasms, not just slow morphing over millennia. Meteorite strikes, we mean, natural cataclysms. But self-aware animals are defined by their beliefs as much as their physiology, and so our evolutionary leaps may come from causes the fossil record can't document. Our dreams of our future do create it, not by changing the future but by changing us. We create our next selves, and hand them the same power. We see something, in our eyes and through them, and while we're distracted, entranced by it, we miss and form the moments in which we improve.