For a long time, I thought the proof of a well-lived life was in the stories you could tell. I collected experiences the way other people collect rocks or stamps: Each was more evidence that I was rich in one strange currency at least.
That’s how I approached the World Cup with ESPN FC. I covered two from the opening whistle to the raising of the trophy: 2010 in South Africa and 2014 in Brazil. Those tournaments were experiences in the truest possible sense.
In some ways, the World Cup is the most difficult sports assignment I can imagine. People who write about games for a living know that we will never get sympathy for our trials, but the World Cup is hard work. We’re away from our families and friends and the familiarities of home for more than a month. Writing on deadline is stressful, especially when the games are close. The travel is exhausting, the constant crush is draining, and the hotels are often comically bad. I cried into my hands when, after a week of floods and no sleep in Recife, Brazil, I ordered what I thought was a cheeseburger and fries from room service and lifted up the silver lid to find an entire roasted pineapple. That was better, though, than the room that didn’t have a bed.
But the stories. I watched Nelson Mandela appear in an electrified stadium and that memory still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I was there when Luis Suarez stuck out his hand in the last minute against Ghana and felt that crowd turn inside out. I watched Andrea Pirlo execute a dummy so sublime against England that it made me think differently about the world. I sat in an opera box in the jungle with a friend, mourning his recently lost father, and listened to a rehearsal that closed my throat. I’ve seen elephants charge through trees, climbed a mountain to the feet of Christ, and watched Messi and Ronaldo play football in the flesh.
In exchange, I missed my older son’s autism diagnosis.
I missed the 30th month of my younger son’s life.
I missed weeks of summer holidays; I missed birthdays; I missed last days of school; I missed everyone and everything I love other than football.
This year, I couldn’t make the trip to Russia. For a host of reasons, I couldn’t cut a month out of my life again. It was not an easy decision. There have been times, watching a game on TV that I would have covered live, when I’ve felt sick to my stomach. While I write this, Belgium and Japan are playing one of the great games and I’m wishing I was there. There is no better feeling than a World Cup crowd rising to its feet in anticipation, your heart rising with it.
No better feeling but one. My younger son, the one who was a toddler when I was in South Africa, and 6 years old when I left for Brazil, is today a 10-year-old football fanatic. Our shared love for the game is one of our principal connections. He plays, and I coach him, and when he isn’t playing and I’m not coaching, we watch.
This summer’s opener, Russia against Saudi Arabia, was at 11 o’clock in the morning here, in the middle of a school day. We had never watched a World Cup game together. I made the easiest judgment call I’ll ever make. I walked into his school and went into the office and signed him out. Under “Reason for absence” I wrote “World Cup,” and nearly lost it when I realized that for once the game would mean that he was the one missing, not me. I brought him home and we leaned into each other on the couch and I turned on the TV.
I might have been in Moscow in a crowd of thousands, hearing a sound like the ocean roar over my shoulders while Russia scored goal after goal. Instead, I was in my living room with my beautiful little boy, listening to him dream out loud about playing in that kind of game one day.
Now that was an experience. That will be a story to tell.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He’s on Twitter @EnswellJones.