Supporters of the United States Men’s National Soccer Team and the Los Angeles Lakers have a fair bit in common: both sets of fans are accustomed to success (the USA are powerhouses in a plethora of sports, but soccer isn’t one of them), yet both are cheering for a team that isn’t very likely to win the biggest prize in their sport in the near future.
It is this irrational belief, one shared loudly and proudly by the American Outlaws in their most popularized chant, that makes professional sport compelling, worthwhile and so gripping.
I believe that.
I believe that we.
I believe that we will win, I believe that we will win, I believe that we will win.”
Belief that Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and the 20 other players who travelled to Brazil, have a chance to hoist the World Cup on July 13, despite being given 251/1 odds by major gambling sites to do so.
Belief that they can qualify for the knockout stages, despite being drawn into the lauded Group of Death.
Belief that guided them past Ghana, despite being eliminated by the African side in the previous two World Cups.
Belief that they can get a result against Portugal, despite Cristiano Ronaldo.
Belief that they can cling on for dear life against Germany, despite their opposition being able to field 11 players who are better than America’s best player.
And ultimately belief that winning it all is a possibility despite their own coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, publicly stating it is not realistic that they can.
Eric Simons explores the psychology of sports fandom in his book The Secret Lives of Sports Fans.
One of the points he makes is the amount of satisfaction fans receive from a sporting event is directly linked to what our expectation of it is to begin with. Those who expect to see a win, and do, aren’t as overjoyed as the fan who has no expectation of his or her team winning, and they defy the odds.
The theory, researched by Simons, and conducted by Neuroscientists at Cambridge University, helps explains why the elation I felt after the Lakers downed the Orlando Magic in five games to win the championship in 2009 didn’t compare to the uncontainable euphoria I felt as Kobe knocked down the buzzer beater against the Phoenix Suns in Game 4 in 2006 to take a 3-1 series lead, despite the latter merely being a first round match up.
When viewed through this lens, whatever positive events occur in Brazil over this next month and throughout the final two seasons of Kobe Bryant’s career will be magnified joy, it’ll be like taking double shots of dopamine, if you will.
“This always happens in America. Kobe Bryant for example- why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?” -Klinsman
The modification of expectation is a gut-wrenching process as a sports fan, because we as fans often think with our hearts before our brains. Remember, it’s “I believe that we will win,” not “I hope that we will win.”
We expected Landon Donovan to receive a free pass on the plane to Brazil, because he’s the most decorated American soccer player of all-time. But the fact is, he came within oh-so-close of calling it quits on the game last year when he took a four month sabbatical in the midst of World Cup qualification. And he’s not exactly in the best of shape.
And we expect Kobe Bryant to be the Kobe Bryant we’ve seen in the first 17 of his first 18 seasons in the league. But as we saw through the six games he returned from the ruptured Achilles this past year, he struggled to get the elevation he needed to get off his patented fallaway jumper, and had difficulty with the speed of the game, racking up an uncomfortable amount of turnovers game after game.
(GIF courtesy of SB Nation)
Kobe’s performance over the next two years is unlikely to reflect the monetary amount the front office gave him. But his worth to the fans is much more than that.
Maybe one day, I’ll agree with Klinsmann over his decision to leave Donovan off the team and his rational perspective on Bryant’s extension, but I watch sport as my primary source of entertainment, and I have other outlets in my life to serve as intellectual stimulant.
So, logic be damned. I believe in Kobe Bryant. And I believe that we will win in Brazil.
Things got off to a dream start yesterday versus Ghana, with Captain Clint Dempsey scoring within 29 seconds of kick-off, recording the fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history. Ghana managed to equalize on 82 minutes after a fair bit of pressure, but a brilliant header from John Brooks off of a corner kick with four minutes left in the match secured a pivotal and dramatic three points for the Stars and Stripes.
Let’s hope we never have to wake up.