The first Premiership match I ever saw was a dispiriting relegation battle (a “battle” in which both sides had apparently signed a non-aggression pact beforehand) between Wimbledon and Everton. It was bitterly cold and a biting wind was having its way with South London, especially within the brutal concrete confines of Selhurst Park, a soulless carbuncle of a stadium that somehow attached itself to the backside of British football and has resisted removal ever since.
The match’s sole highlight was a diving second half save by one of the goalkeepers (by this time I was so cold and miserable that I couldn’t be bothered remembering which), a photo of which ended up in the next morning’s Daily Mail, and which showed me in the stand, framed by the goalpost, my mouth hanging open in slack-jawed amazement. It was not the most flattering picture (of me, that is; the goalkeeper looked fine), but it did capture perfectly my mood at the moment, which had less to do with marveling at the goalkeeper’s agility than it did with my astonishment that people would pay good money to sit outdoors in bone-chilling temperatures and endure such a pointless display.
And when I say pointless, I mean literally: the game ended in a 0-0 draw, and while both teams ultimately escaped relegation that year, it was through no merit of their own. If you had told me then that in the years to come I would spend thousands of pounds and travel thousands of miles to watch God knows how many more football matches at every level of league play, I wouldn’t have believed you, and if I had, I’d have asked you to take me in forthwith and have me committed.
The Wimbledon-Everton affair wasn’t my very first football match; a few years earlier I’d watched a similarly frozen and unedifying spectacle featuring Third Division Leyton Orient and some other team whose name I’ve mercifully forgotten. I had exactly the same reaction. How could people find this sort of thing entertaining? You’d be lucky if there were any goals at all, and even when there were, chances are they’d be at the other end of the pitch and you wouldn’t even be able to see if, let alone how the ball had crossed the line. And, as a born-and-bred American, I took particular umbrage at the fact that, goals or no goals, as often as not the game would end in a draw. Like kissing your sister, as that all-American Casey Stengel had it. Nothing against anybody’s sister, but you know…
The frolicsome and sometimes downright malicious football gods must have had an especially good laugh when they decreed that I’d end up following Fulham, who’ve just now (what else?) tied the Premier League record for most draws in the first 17 games of a season, quite a few of them being of the particularly maddening 0-0 variety. Nonetheless, I’d still – against all sense and logic – say that the worst day spent watching football at Craven Cottage is generally as good as or better than the best day of doing, well, almost anything else.
Not everyone sees it that way. A few years ago I took my niece to a Fulham match, hoping to introduce her to the magic that had me in its thrall, and as it turned out, it was a pretty good game, too. Well, goals were scored and we won, always a good start. But when I asked her afterward what she’d thought of her introduction to top-flight English football, she said, “It just seemed like a bunch of men standing around drinking beer.”
Since migrating back to the United States, I’ve had to give up my season ticket, and where I used to see an average of 20-30 games a season, I’m now down to at most maybe 5 or so, depending on which matches coincide with my all too brief visits to the old country. Otherwise, I have to resort to parking myself in front of the TV or hunching over my laptop, which isn’t quite the same as the Riverside Stand on the banks of the Thames (before nearly every Fulham match you’ll hear the Clash singing, “London is drowning and I live by the river,” and it still gives me a chill).
Given the shoddy quality of most Fulham matches lately, and the not much better quality of the others that Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN have seen fit to broadcast, I was in danger of getting disillusioned with the whole business, but then along comes a match like today’s, between Tottenham and Chelsea, that displays the beautiful game in all its glory and reminds me all over why billions of people around the globe are united in their love for it.
Not only was it a contest between two longstanding London rivals jockeying for position in both the title race and the all-important Top Four, it was a clash between two ways of football life, with Harry Redknapp’s Spurs representing more of the old rough and tumble, running on raw spirit and energy approach one associates with England, and slick, smooth Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea making the case for the graceful, flowing Continental style.
It was also a facedown between the big money boys – well, let’s not get carried away; it’s not as though Spurs have assembled their team on the cheap, but compared with Chelsea they almost have – and employing craft and skill to make up for deficiencies of cash. Chelsea, like Manchester City, have operated on the theory that success is simply a matter of identifying the best players in the world and buying them; even if you can’t possibly use them all, it keeps them out of the hands of your opponents. Tottenham’s Redknapp has brought in stars, of course, but he’s also managed to get far more out of his existing players, and to inspire them to work together at a level that very nearly overpowered Chelsea’s arguably greater bank of talent.
What an inspiration it was to see players flying in at every juncture, unwilling to let a single change of possession go unchallenged. Where most teams will retreat and allow Chelsea to come forward, hoping to muster enough defenders in and around the box to cut out most shots or crosses, even the Tottenham forwards were harrying Chelsea attackers at every turn and making it difficult for them to get out of their own half without having to fight for every inch of ground. When even Peter Crouch, the human giraffe whose usual role is to roam around in hopes of being able to pounce on a well-placed ball, started tackling with the clinical fury of a John Terry, I knew I was getting the all too rare treat of seeing the game played at its very highest level.
And to their credit, Chelsea, unused to being bested by so thoroughly fired up a side, began to give as good as they were getting. Many highly paid superstars – the fragile prancing pony known as Cristiano Ronaldo comes to mind – throw fits and start diving for free kicks and penalties when they run up against passionately motivated opponents, but Chelsea’s own galacticos – Drogba and Essien in particular – fought back with equal passion, and though I think most neutrals would have preferred Tottenham to take all the spoils, it would be hard to argue that Chelsea didn’t deserve the draw that Drogba ultimately earned for them.
Yes, a draw. At one time I would have come away cursing, wanting in my American way for someone to WIN, because, after all that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? But time and watching a lot of football has taught me otherwise: does anybody necessarily “win” at art or literature or ballet? Isn’t the true winner in all such enterprises the human spirit itself, both that of the artist who creates as well as those of us who bear witness to creation?
“It’s only a game,” people loves to scoff, and worse than that, a game completely corrupted by big money and shameless corporate greed, but isn’t it similarly just “a game” when someone paints a picture or writes a novel and then endeavors (or, more precisely, has his agent endeavor) to turn it into fame and fortune? Some years ago I had the privilege to watch a truly outstanding revival of the musical West Side Story in which both the dancing and singing were breathtakingly sensational, right at the limit, if not slightly beyond it, of what the human body and imagination were capable of. Through much of the second act, I was literally in tears, not because of the somewhat schmaltzily sad story, but because I was awestruck, not just at what human beings were capable of when they put their mind to it, but that they were able to put their mind to it in the first place.
It was then that I hit upon the notion that the salient characteristic of being human is not just the ability, but the need to constantly transcend oneself. Whether it’s a ballerina straining to leap that extra millimeter to convince us that gravity itself is a mutable and temporal concept, or Didier Drogba or Gareth Bale throwing themselves one step beyond what any rational conception would have us believe is possible, the result is the same: we see both them and ourselves in ways that never were and never could be, and allow ourselves to wonder, why not?