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Chasing the Dragon

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I've heard it said the human brain doesn't remember emotions well. You remember that, on a given day, you were happy, but you won't be able to conjure up the feeling of that happiness, to relive the actual sensation of joy and delight. On a certain evolutionary level, this makes sense. If we could vividly recall the great feelings we'd already had, why would we go out and seek new ones? And if every time we closed our eyes some horrible trauma was viscerally imposing itself into our consciousness, it would be hard to get up and go catch a bison.

There's no denying, though, that it makes live tough for the sports fan. On the contrary, it's probably the number one reason idiots like me spend our limited resources flying the length of the universe to watch a team that will probably lose.

Examples abound from the lowest and meanest levels of the game. Last night, FC Edmonton played the Victoria Highlanders in a rematch of Sunday's affair; this one took place in Edmonton, Alberta. FC Edmonton wound up winning 7-1, which would be to the relief of one prominent Edmonton supporter who, in spite of the fact that it was a friendly for a team that has played so few games you can count them on your fingers, flew down from Fort McMurray and hastened from the airport at great expense so he could stand in the mediocre bleachers of Foote Field and cheer his boys on. Edmonton had just drawn that very team, lost to Portsmouth, and lost to Colo-Colo. There was no reason to believe FC Edmonton was going to win, let alone win big, and yet there he was just in case they did. His faithfulness was rewarded.

On the other hand in every sense, two years ago a young man from Nova Scotia decided he wanted to see Canada take on Honduras at Stade Saputo in Montreal as part of World Cup qualifying. This young man had his girlfriend with him, as he and her had been making plans for a lovely romantic interlude that was unfortunately dashed by the fact that, well, World Cup qualifying is important. The young lady in question was quite nice and polite when I exchanged three words with her but was clearly thinking about all the things she'd rather be doing, having been dragged through Atlantic Canada by car driven by someone so desperate to cheer on his Nats that he was willing to jeopardize his very relationship. And for his trouble, this young man got to see one of the most heart-breaking defeats in modern Canadian history.

Why do people contort themselves into such pretzels with so little hope of reward? Because when it feels good, it feels so good, and the most important thing is to feel it again.

I've never bought the drivel of writers with high opinions of themselves and even higher word counts; the sorts of guys who rattle on inanely about the love of the game and how pure, how magical a sport football can be (they always call it football even if they're from bloody Mississauga), and the connection between the fans and the players and the magical atmosphere and all that bollocks. There's nothing handsome or romantic about it. It's essentially a drug addict going after his next fix, except in Canada most drugs are a lot less expensive.

The aspect of soccer most mocked by its hatedom, the low-event nature of the game and the scanty scoring, are part of what contributes to the mad emotional rollercoaster. One minute can be despair and the other triumph, and it can happen in the blink of an eye. In hockey there's usually one more goal, in football one more touchdown, in soccer a lot of the time there's no scoring left. Which makes it all the more wrenching when that one-goal lead doesn't hold up.

Now I'm at risk of swinging to the other end on the "awful maudlin soccer writer" scale: the guy who rambles on and on about What Makes Soccer So Special and how People Just Don't Get It. But in this case I like a little risk, because as a fan of a lot of sports I've never found any of them as emotionally jarring as soccer can be. When there's a moment of joy, I find myself reflecting on it for months afterwards. Checking travel websites to see if there's some way I can irresponsibly go to Buenos Aires for an away Canadian friendly, just in case. Sure, the Whitecaps are all but certain to lose the 2010 Voyageurs Cup after drawing their first two games at home, but why not fly to Montreal and Toronto because if against all odds the Whitecaps did win and I missed it I'd be really brassed off.

Similarly, when there's a negative experience I'm torn between the urge to exorcise it and the urge to avoid anything that can remind me of it. Canada's playing Honduras, again, in Montreal, again, come September. And I can't decide whether I want to go to that friendly most of all so I can banish the demons of 2008, or whether I want to avoid it like the plague to keep away those awful reminders of that awful, awful game.

(You would be astonished how little I'm exaggerating when I say that.)

Yet if I did go to Montreal, and if Canada did lose another heartbreaker, well, even that is chance to relive some sort of emotion. Canada losing at soccer isn't a tragedy except in a very metaphorical sense. There's a certain relief inherent in feeling sad - devastated, even - over something that doesn't actually matter. When Vancouver drew Montreal at Stade Saputo back in June to officially blow the Voyageurs Cup, I was disconsolate. I met up with a fellow Southsider, we in turn met out with U-Sector, we went for a few beers and had a lovely evening. The experience had been horrible, but it had also been excellent.

And that's what I mean by "chasing the dragon". That's why I think supporters can cheer on perennial hard-luck cases and also-rans but cheer just as hard when those also-rans turn into real contenders. It's an opportunity to exercise yourself emotionally in a situation that is as far from life and death as can exist. Even when you're feeling awful, you're feeling something.