MIAMI — On the Wednesday I flew to Miami to see an exhibition of contemporary art on the theme of soccer, two of Europe’s great soccer clubs, AS Roma and Liverpool, were playing the second leg of their Champions League semifinal. I had forgotten about this. Big game. Shame to miss it . . .
But no matter. I had no horse in the race. And, anyway, Liverpool was a shoo-in to win: They’d won the first leg, 5-2.
The show at Pérez Art Museum Miami — I’ll make this brief — is very good (it runs through Sept. 2). Smart, lots of fun, timely (it overlaps with the World Cup), it hits all the right notes. You’d be surprised how many artists have made interesting work about soccer.
Andy Warhol’s portrait of Pelé is in it. So is Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of the Cameroonian striker Samuel Eto’o. (Wiley recently painted former president Barack Obama.) There are folksy dioramas of soccer stadiums and lots of sharp sociopolitical stuff. And for those who love to moan about all the “flopping” in soccer (I know you’re out there), there is Paul Pfeiffer’s “Caryatid”: three monitors showing looped footage of players diving melodramatically to the ground.
By 2:30 p.m., I was back on the street. Thinking I’d eat before heading back to the airport, I found myself loping along the streets in Little Havana. I passed a Cuban cigar shop and looked in. Through the gloom, I made out a TV screen showing . . . oh my word, the Liverpool-Roma game!
A little jet of dopamine crossed some unpoliced border in my brain. I checked the score. 1-0 Liverpool. Therefore: 6-2 over the two legs of the tie. Therefore: Game over. Poor Roma.
I was ready to move on. But at that moment, with my forehead pressed to the glass door, I saw an extraordinary thing.
Soccer is the beautiful game. The beautiful game is also the world game. Around the globe, soccer provides hundreds of millions of children with many of their earliest experiences of beauty.
With the World Cup about to open in Russia, it’s worth acknowledging this. What is everyone so excited about? Another dumb game? Certainly. The possibility of national glory? Sure. Absurd theatrics, repulsive sums of money, a stupendous capacity for distraction? All that, and more.
But also — and I’m an art critic, so I defend my right to say this — a hankering after beauty. A profound and terrible yearning for an excruciating, off-the-couch-and-on-your-knees moment of sheer aesthetic bliss.
Examples? Try Cristiano Ronaldo’s levitating bicycle kick goal for Real Madrid against Juventus. Or Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s ridiculous first goal for the Los Angeles Galaxy — the one that looped over the goalkeeper’s head and swerved into the net from just inside halfway. Better yet, Gareth Bale’s stupendous bicycle kick goal for Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
Anyone — even non-soccer fans — can admire the beauty of such moments. Each World Cup offers up a few more. And because the audience is so vast, these beautiful feats imprint themselves into a global memory bank. You remember where you were when you saw them. (The most recent World Cup, in 2014, boasted Robin van Persie’s flying header, James Rodriguez’s volley off his chest, and Tim Cahill’s gorgeous cross-goal volley.)
Still, true soccer fans know these rare, electrifying moments are but a small component of the game’s overall aesthetic appeal. As with anything deeply and satisfyingly artistic, it can take years to appreciate these other parts. Formations, tactics, match management, the choreographed ebb and flow of specific games, the particular style of certain teams, the temperaments of players — these are among the ingredients that make the beautiful game not just beautiful but artistic.
Art is about specificity. There is no point talking about it in the abstract. It’s the same with soccer. You have to watch a specific game unfold to grasp its unique aesthetic. And just as with art, you need to know a little about how that particular game intersects with the sport’s wider romance.
For instance? The game between Roma and Liverpool had romance written all over it.
Roma is one of those clubs — maybe a bit like the Boston Red Sox before their curse-cracking 2004 World Series victory — it’s hard not to have a soft spot for. The club’s history is so lavishly strewn with disappointments and near-misses. You can’t help but feel sorry for Roma.
Liverpool’s situation is similar. Once Britain’s greatest club, Liverpool has struggled for decades. But people love the Reds because they’re underdogs with a storied, sometimes tragic history. Lately, too, because they have a likable coach (the madly grinning Jürgen Klopp), a star player (Mohamed Salah) and a buccaneering style of play.
Two weeks before my trip to Miami, the mist of romance around Roma had thickened into a kind of euphoric fever dream. Somehow, they had come back from a 4-1 deficit against Barcelona to win and advance to the semifinals. It is hard to overstate how unlikely this was — or how much it meant. Barcelona is one of the most storied clubs in the world. In Lionel Messi, it boasts, as everyone knows, a magician, one of the greatest soccer players of all time. No one had beaten Barcelona in any competition all season.
So when Roma pulled off the upset of the decade and won, it was as if Anita Ekberg had reentered the waters of the Trevi Fountain — as if beauty itself had triumphed over the bitter treachery of history.
If beating Barcelona in such unlikely fashion was beautiful — and how could it not be? — the second leg of the semifinal against Liverpool — the game I glimpsed in Miami — was different. It was art.
Beauty arises from order — from a feeling, however illusory or short-lived, that you and the world are in perfect alignment. It happens in soccer, and in other sports, all the time. Every goal is fundamentally beautiful: The thing that is supposed to happen finally happens.
Beauty is nice. But in a great work of art, there has to be something else, something more. “Chaos in a work of art,” wrote the German Romanticist poet Novalis, “should always shimmer through the veil of order.”
Well, in the Roma-Liverpool game, the veil of order was ripped to shreds. Chaos reigned. Goal followed goal. But where was the logic?
When I peered in through the cigar shop window, the score, as I said, was 1-0 to Liverpool. Even if Liverpool failed to score again, Roma — given the deficit from the first leg — would have to score four times.
I watched now as a long, speculative cross floated across Liverpool’s goal mouth. A defender cleared the ball with his right foot. Easy. But, somehow, the ball smacked into the nearby head of a fellow defender. After a split-second delay, his whole body crumpled to one side. And in that exact fraction of a second, the ball ricocheted into his own goal. It was incredible — like something out of a Buster Keaton film.
All this I saw as I pressed my face to the glass. The score was 1-1. Still early in the first half. Could Roma possibly? Again?
I couldn’t bear it. I pushed against the door. Cigar smoke enveloped my head. Five older Cuban guys were playing dominoes.
“Hi,” I said to the owner. “Two cigars, please.” I gestured toward the TV. “Mind if I watch the game?”
“Sure,” he said. How had this happened? I had come to Miami to review an art show. And here I was in a fever dream of my own, watching European soccer in a smoky Cuban cigar shop.
Even if you watch the highlights, you won’t begin to grasp the weird genius of what unfolded in that game. (Can you reduce a great movie, a great book, to the highlights?) A second goal for Liverpool rendered Roma’s predicament completely hopeless. It was over, time to look away. But then, early in the second half, Roma scored two sublime goals out of nowhere.
The last 10 minutes were like the end of “Hamlet.” Bodies everywhere. Chaos. A fundamental lack of meaning. Overall, Liverpool won, by a goal — but that wasn’t the point. What was the point? Only that it was a great game. I knew it in the same way I know when I’ve been looking at great art. You walk out onto the street. The world seems richer, but also more baffling. You feel shaken, but somehow recharged. You’re ready to return to real life. But also — always — ready for more.
Bring on the World Cup!
The World’s Game: Fútbol and Contemporary Art is at Pérez Art Museum Miami through Sept. 2. For information, visit pamm.org.