The great Irish playwright, Eugene O’Neil once wrote, “There is no present or future—only the past, happening over and over again, now.”
There is no official credo for Georgia sports, but if anyone were to ever ask for one, I’d put O’Neil’s quote at the top of the shortlist.
For sports fans from the Peach State, history has been one long, continual nightmare of disappointment, underachievement, and unfulfilled hope. We are and have been a fanbase whose only consolation is a myth we made up. The myth says that there is a dignity in the way that we do things; and other cities, who have tasted the so-called glory, cannot comprehend the quiet and pure satisfaction of the Georgia way. They have become decadent in their success. We have been taught a lesson in the truth of life and are better for it.
This story reveals its true nature almost as soon as it is out of our mouths.
We don’t believe it. Not really.
We have seen enough of the world to know that glory often goes to those who do not deserve it, but that does not make defeat taste any better. Even worse, we are always struck by the sinking suspicion that for every undeserving troll who gets up in our mentions about their championship winning team, there are a hundred more that are mostly like us—regular people who just want their team to win. We can’t hate them for that. After all, how would we respond if we were in their shoes? Not celebrate a championship? I don’t think so.
But still, there remains in our hearts a deep-seeded faith. Not a faith in God (though that could be there) or a faith in humanity (fine), but a faith in the curse.
For so many of us Georgians, we know how the story ends before it even begins. That football team between the hedges? Can’t win a big game. That football team downtown? Can’t even beat their rivals most of the time. That team from the Dome? Traded Brett Favre. That baseball team? They don’t even play in Atlanta anymore. That basketball team? Will always be a little brother. That hockey team? Wait…what hockey team?
This state of affairs breeds a peculiar spiritual situation amongst Georgia sports fans. Not to get too religious on you, but it is a very similar feeling to waiting for a Messiah. If one ever got here, it might be like a dog chasing a car—what the hell would you ever do with something for which you’ve been waiting your entire life?
There is a suffering and a pleasure in the waiting. The waiting becomes almost like a discipline. It can feel—after so many trials—as if it has a deeper purpose, as if your soul needs this waiting in order to learn a wisdom that most of the world continually forgets: that life is built on the foundation of dreams deferred.
I think that’s why Georgia sports creates two distinct types of fans—the pessimists, like me, who find great joy in something very close to hating their team and, second, the enteral optimists, who refuse to see the gallows humor in the phrase “next year is our year.” Both are wrong in their own ways, but what other option is there?
And then we come to what is going to happen tonight.
Amongst all the great American sports, soccer was never supposed to survive.
We Americans love the tradition of baseball, the conquest of football, and the familiar repetition of basketball.
We did not, so they said, have room in our collective imagination for a game like soccer.
Soccer is the free flow of human creativity played on the only surface upon which human beings have ever created anything. Soccer is, not to get too spiritual on you, a holy art of improvisation.
Soccer is jazz written on the Earth.
And a goal is not contrived in some mechanistic play, nor is it reducible to a pre-arranged schematization. A goal is not boxed-in by outs or innings or the pitcher taking time. A goal is, in so many ways, miraculous—an inbreaking of something utterly surprising in the midst of the slow, inevitable, unending tick of the clock.
Tonight, Atlanta will be gifted with just this sort of surprise. A new team. One that is not caught in the same narrative that seems to wrap every other Georgia franchise or institution in its tendrils until, struggling against their grip, those teams choke themselves to death on their own ambition.
Atlanta United seem to have gone from non-existent to not only a well-built team but a team prepared to play the beautiful game on the beautiful earth for a city desperate for anything other than ugliness, in a time that seems incapable of anything else. If history is an unwaking nightmare, a dark tunnel from which there is no exit, we are not supposed to get anything new.
And yet, here is Atlanta United.
It is a marvelous and perfect thing that they will play in Bobby Dodd stadium wearing Red and Black. For all the things that have divided a city that needed no further division, somehow we will all find ourselves sitting in the home of Georgia Tech rooting for the team in red and black. Or, conversely, we will find ourselves in Bobby Dodd, wearing red and black, but rooting for the home team.
The world has turned upside down.
Now, this is not to say that Atlanta United is any big change in the political or social structures that cause Atlanta, like so many cities across the country, to turn a blind eye or even cause great suffering. There will still be so many people in pain within the crown jewel of the 13th Colony, and a soccer team will do very little to ease that.
But something really will happen tonight that is not to be passed over. In a time in which so much of what happens feels either utterly chaotic or inevitable, and often both at the same time, something good will happen.
A lot of people who have very little in common, who have very little that binds them, and who, if they were to start talking politics or religion, would probably agree on just about nothing, will suddenly arrive at Bobby Dodd stadium and love each other.
Love each other for no reason other than that they love soccer, they love Atlanta, and have come to celebrate the beauty of human diversity and contingency.
There will be a great deal to fix in the world before the match begins. There will be a great deal to fix in the world after the match ends. But it is not to be ignored and should be celebrated that for a brief moment in Atlanta, before the first second of ATLUTD vs. NYRB kicks off, a Georgia team will exist outside of the historical inertia of Georgia sports.
And for a city that has had so much taken from it, for a fanbase grown cold to the warmth of hope, and for a cynical writer who speaks to you now, it feels in that moment as if some bad things of the world will have come untrue.
They will not have, obviously. That’s not how the world works.
But that moment will be a reminder to all of us that we want that to be true. That we want the bad things of this world to be stupidly and gloriously reversed. Sports can’t make that happen, obviously, but they tell us that we do indeed want that, together. And that is a remarkable thing to consider.
Atlanta United may not be an actual force for the good.
They may be nothing more than a profit-generating machine. They may lose more than they win. They may fold up shop after a few years once the fan interest and money dries up. Or worse, they could find themselves pulled down to the depths by the historical riptide that is Georgia sports malaise. They could get to the highest stage in American soccer and blow it. Or make us constantly think they should be there but fail anyway.
We know this could happen, and we are ready for it.
But before that whistle blows, before the ball is kicked off the halfway line, before the first second comes off the clock, Atlanta United will be something profoundly more than that.
Atlanta United will be our miracle.
And no matter what happens, I am glad to have been alive to see the Five Stripes take the pitch.
Give em hell, boys.