by Ian Plenderleith @PlenderleithIan

It's almost 20 years since I wrote an absurdist short story called The Man Who Forgot What Football Results Meant. A distressed woman calls her doctor because her soccer-loving husband can no longer process the information in scorelines such as Leyton Orient 2 Torquay United 1.
"What on earth are they trying to say here?" the agitated man shouts while sitting in front of his TV.

I feel like I'm becoming the man in my own story. Since professional soccer started excluding fans from stadiums, I find the majority of games almost impossible to watch, and the results without meaning. I fall asleep, I start scrolling through my phone, or I turn off to observe my wife's cacti grow instead. Anything to avoid the atmospheric vacuum of the stadium or the inane talking points trying to pretend that soccer is something of significance at a time of varying global crises.

I did sit down and watch a game in the English League Cup a few weeks back -- Lincoln City was at home to Liverpool. Ordinarily, this would have been the sporting event of the decade for me and my fellow Lincoln fans, even allowing for the fact that Liverpool would send a second string lineup in a competition that's no longer worth the risk to their high-earning stars. We were outclassed by Liverpool's reserves and lost 7-2, the worst home result in the club's 136-year history. My only reaction was a shrug. It was a mildly curious scrimmage, at best.

A couple of weeks later when the English champions lost 7-2 to Aston Villa in the Premier League, I texted a friend who's a Liverpool supporter. Was his team becoming addicted to the 7-2 scoreline, I wanted to know. He responded in good spirit. So maybe that's what results are good for now -- goading a mate for a half minute of light entertainment

One of my favorite twitter feeds comes from The League Magazine (@Theleaguemag), which reproduces pages of English and Scottish soccer results from old and sometimes ancient newspapers. It's not just the scores, the scorers and the league tables that fascinate me, though. It's the attendance figures. That, for example, when Luton Town played Bradford City in the English fourth division on April 26th, 1968, there were 14,147 people who made the effort to go along and pay to watch.

Now we're getting somewhere with the meaning of soccer results. If a game takes place in a stadium but there's no one there, did it really happen? Of course it did, but when I look at the list of results on Saturday evening, it no longer feels like it. They're just a series of random numbers. So what if Aston Villa, somewhat surprisingly, beat mighty Liverpool by seven goals to two? In years to come, there will be no Villa fans to tell the story to gog-eyed grandchildren that concludes with the four magnificent words, "And I was there!"

I understand that soccer is being played so that the game can survive, and also so that its biggest stars can continue to draw salaries of several hundred thousand dollars per week. And so that Sky Sports in the UK can charge its customers almost $20 to watch certain standalone games, even though they already have a subscription. Ah, so that's the meaning of those results. To produce other results, in quarterly and annual spread sheets, while pretending to care about the game as a whole.

I'm still not feeling it. As expected, Bundesliga stadiums are closing to fans again thanks to the dramatic resurgence in European COVID-19 cases. The brief weeks of perspective about soccer's importance at the pandemic's start have been usurped again by the old entitlements taking sport back out of context, and treating it once more like the world should revolve around its particular needs. At least, until governments re-impose a suspension of play.

In The Man Who Forgot What Football Results Meant, the doctor determines that his patient "has suddenly and dramatically discovered that football results are inherently meaningless. Which would not be a problem if he had not spent the past forty years engaged in little or nothing else." There's no cure, but he prescribes some pills to keep the patient calm and docile. Perhaps because once you've been granted this insight, there's just no going back.

['The Man Who Forgot What Football Results Meant' is included in the short story collection "For Whom The Ball Rolls," currently shaking up the amazon rankings at 6,537,709, a number whose meaning is more than clear.]

5 comments about "When you forget the meaning of soccer results".
frank schoon, October 20, 2020 at 12:47 p.m.
You know I never got the appreciation for stats. The use of statistics in sports is a disease a virus that is so overused in American sports. I remember in the 80's reading in Dutch mags how the American love for stats is beginning to influence Dutch soccer. Similarly to the Hall of Fame which is so American for you won't find that in Europe.

A long time ago, I remember having lunch with a couple of basketball coaches who were talking stats. With my dutch way of directness, although not meant to be offensive, I made the comment, ,"why do you need stats, to see what's going on wrong with your team, for I don't need stats see what my team is doing wrong." The comment wasn't taking in appreciation but that is how I look at the game.

I find that the more you rely on stats the less you understand the intricacies of the game and the English fans are a perfect example for they let the more intricate things of the game go right over their head. But this is why England is not known for great tactical geniuses or thinkers of the game ,thus stats, loyalty ,geography is part of that makes up their support for the team. I remember, Dimitar Berbatov, a Bulgarian player with a velvet touch on the ball playing for ManUtd. In a game he trapped a ball that came high out of the air on his shoe with such grace that even if he placed an egg on his shoe it would not have broken. Meanwhile the English fans had no clue or feel or appreciation what he just did....that's English soccer for you.

Stats have perhaps some use, obviously but it goes way too far. For example, Cruyff once mentioned if Ajax went according to the computer player stats he would never have made Ajax today, or Dennis Bergkamp would never have been the player if he learned in Germany...