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the agony and the ecstasy of the /r/soccer headline list

Football holds a concerningly large space in my life, if anything because of how constant it is. There’s always something ongoing within the sport to tug at your attention – be it the mother of a French player flipping shit, a shock equalizer in extra time, or it somehow coming Rome. To badly quote that one ‘Mitchell and Web’ skit, football means so much as there’s “everything to play for and forever to play it in” – there’ll never be any real resolution, meaning you can tune in and out at ease. The sport is always there in some form or guise, eating away at time, boredom, and the awkwardness of small talk in the barbers. It’s hard to understate how comforting endless highlight shows can become, especially at a time where any shred of normality has been stripped from our lives. As Sam Diss put it for ‘Mundial’, there’s “no better salve for a sore head or a tired body than to sit in front of the warming glow of the 13” laptop screen and quietly watch Spurs and Chelsea scrap it out for two-and-a-bit hours including the inane chit-chat”. This calming certainty is hard to understate – you almost know what exact emotions to expect, what players will get shouted about on Twitter, what talking points you’ll pad out inane chatter with. But what happens when these expectations get shattered?

I don’t remember exactly when I was first exposed to the /r/soccer headline list, in part as you can’t really seek it out. The post has no central location or author, with random members of the subreddit reposting it under cursed stories. This list compiles weird events in the sport without context or discretion – almost overwhelming the reader through sheer absurdity. These weird headlines cover all aspects of the sport (and life in general) – be it Leroy Fer accidentally buying a horse, Wayne Hennessy being ‘desperate’ to learn about the Nazis, or Zlatan calling France a shit country. In the six years following its first appearance, the list has grown to comical lengths – you always discover something new each time you revisit it, as if the punchlines are waiting to reveal themselves. On account of this, I’ve found myself showing the list to new acquaintances as a weird quasi-icebreaker, in one case reading it out to an (admittedly quite ambivalent) ex as I sat there in a McDonald’s. This collection of dumb football stories has taken on a significant role in my life, even if I can’t work out exactly why.

it was the saddest backflip of my career

From a literary standpoint, the /r/soccer headline list could make Hemingway blush. One of the most fascinating aspects of the collection is how much comedy can be squeezed from extremely brief sentences. “Dele Adebola: I do not have Ebola”, “Patrice Evra: ‘I Went Too Far When I Sucked The Toes Of The Chicken'”, “Balotelli is very nice, but he used to pee on our boots”. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton, these headlines are so comedic as they’re deathly serious – with the contrast between journalistic language and the farcical neatly jolting the reader. At times the collection reminds me of Paul Durcan’s poetry – with his surreal acceleration of the media landscape being eclipsed by what has actually occurred. Football being a constant, unceasing sport means that almost every possible outcome has come to pass – the sheer size of the thing inevitably opens the doors to freak events and even freakier participants. It’s a bit cliché to say that truth is stranger to fiction, but any sitcom that featured a sacking being delayed due to a kid’s birthday party occurring in the same room would be dunked on for being too far-fetched. The football is “officially going on forever”, meaning it can generate deeply surreal narrative arcs.

As fans of this sport, we often fall into forgoing the humanity of the athletes we watch each weekend. It’s scarily easy to end up viewing footballers as these distant, superhuman beings – any failure is fundamentally unacceptable, any possible source of banter is pursued, and any statistics are obsessed over in concerning detail. On some levels this assumption isn’t fully unfounded – professional players spend years of their youth perfecting their craft, slaving away in academies that are sheltered from the wider world. However, rather than making these men into Herculean gods it just makes them slightly weird – they’re the best in the world at doing a few specific things yet impressively imperfect at others. A decent chunk of the comedy derived from this list boils down to its deconstruction of our deification, as if finding out someone sprays fragrance on their kit to smell like strawberries makes them seem slightly more human.

One of the most fascinating part of the list is how unstandardised it is – random users repost and add articles at will, meaning there’s no set versions. Headlines get added and removed at random, something that makes the list feel almost like a living document. If I were even more of a hack I’d compare the collection to digital folklore – with the headlines being passed on imperfectly by those with a mutual obsession. I’ve spent a lot of time ribbing on the negative aspects of online fandom – the constant urge towards smugness, the impressively petty discourse, the conflation of consumption with identity. However, there’s something undeniably wholesome about the headline list – even if that’s a bit silly to admit. The internet may have melted our brains and tolerance, but at least we can all come together to laugh at Alex Sanchez being cursed with a tortoise.

no clue what’s going on in this image but it’s comedic to me

every kick massively mattering to someone presumably

Something I’ve recently tried writing about on here is the disconnect between myself and my non-football watching friends – events I view as earth shattering rarely (if ever) cross their radar. This disconnect was felt most blatantly during the last few months of my time in school, news I got overly excited about with classmates confounded those I talk to online. It’s hard to understate how monumental stories within the game can feel as a fan, especially when you’re chatting to someone at risk of calling it ‘sportsball’. In order to explain away this gap I find myself returning to the same few anecdotes – getting concerningly emotional about the flaws of VAR, endlessly pillaring a friend following Villa’s 7-1 victory over Liverpool, having the news of Mourinho’s retirement filter in during an exam as if it was JFK’s assassination. I find myself talking about the deep meaning and emotion that arrives from something (relatively) inconsequential.

In an interview with ‘The Athletic’, musician David Balfe talked about how inebriating football can feel. “There’s this channel to drive everything into a Friday. Something special about being able to let rip, and feel heard. It’s a very collective heartbeat that happens in the terraces”. I first felt that beat as a vaguely detached sixteen year old, using the sport as an excuse to weasel my way into a friend group I had no real right to enter. As lads, football served as one of the few spaces where our emotions could be displayed, where the filters we all adopt could be lifted. The guaranteed drama and catharsis provided by the sport allowed me to slowly reveal myself, to express a fixation without the ambient shame inherent to my inner voice. By blowing things out of all proportion I was provided with the headroom necessary to exist, something that meant a lot during a year defined by the raw unease following each awkward anxiety attack.

One of my favourite football memories is admittedly quite menial – being sat there in an Italian hotel room trying to fix our television’s shite signal in early May. I was stuck there alone with only one of my friends, the rest of our roommates having wandered off in a vain attempt to catch that night’s Champions League match between Liverpool and Barcelona. In the hours prior to that game I had finally scheduled my own mortality, giving up on any improvements materialising and viewing that month as my last. With all the audacity of a depressed teenager that trip was viewed as a benchmark for the rest of my life – a bad time here meant no point in continuing once back there. But that all felt irrelevant now, as I tried balancing the coax cable over an empty can of Pringles. We suddenly caught a glimpse of the Nou Camp, calmly sitting in silence as Liverpool got hammered 3-0.

remember this specific shot being endlessly discussed that week, then promptly forgotten after

the stories we tell ourselves are all falling apart

The predictions of the future I made that Thursday night were deeply inaccurate. Things got slightly better, my suicidal thoughts stopped being so intense, and Liverpool scored four times during the game’s second leg. However, I still find myself harking back to that stuffy hotel room, if anything for what it once stood. As the sport vanished during those early months of the pandemic a weird sense of nostalgia started to emerge – sure I was miserable back then but at least the crowd noise could drown it out. We were suddenly thrust into a world without the mass opiates we overanalysed, a world where we couldn’t even hide our emotions face-to-face. The morning the schools abruptly closed I made awkward small talk to a sixth year about the headline list, never getting to see him again. I found myself returning to these deeply dumb stories, mostly just in search for something that seemed certain.

Once again I’m sat here, looking back at the list during a time that feels deeply fluctuant. In the forty-three days since school ended I’ve been struck with a prevailing sense of unease – the constant barage of study and exams sucked but at least they prevented me from overthinking. Something that rarely gets mentioned when talking about education is the weird schedule it provides – life bends around it, giving you something to consistently complain about. I’m suddenly free and that sensation is odd – there’s no physical difference when shifting from quasi-NEEThood to actual NEEThood, but the mental one is screwing me over. Within my circle of friends it feels as if the stories we tell ourselves are all falling apart, with our futures suddenly shrouded in new forms of uncertainty. It’s quite unlikely that this rut will last much longer (after all I’ll get my second jab in the next month), but until then I’m back to absorbing dumb Ferland Mendy anecdotes at half twelve in the morning. I don’t know whether I’ll ever see all the lads again, but I have the perfect headline prepared to fill the silence just in case; “Soccer Star Antoine Griezmann Will No Longer Be Konami’s Yu-Gi-Oh! Ambassador After Alleged Racism”.