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Posts Tagged ‘manchester’

 

I will never curse black clouds on the horizon again.  If not for rainfall, Chelsea, and not United, are champions of Europe today.  If not for a sodden pitch and an unplanted plant foot, and I’m writing a very different column today.  A penalty shootout is the worst possible way to end a long Champions League season, but I will say the drama of the finale kept my heart thudding like the kick pedal on my Rock Band drum kit.  Rivalry aside, my sympathy goes out to John Terry, a great captain and a class player who doesn’t deserve to live the rest of his life wondering if longer cleats or a slower approach could have made him a European champion. 

     United was outplayed for the majority of the match.  Consider they could easily have been up 3-0 at the half.  Ronaldo’s precision header found the net, but United missed opportunities on Rooney’s dead-on pass into the box that skidded by Carlos Tevez, and Cech’s brilliant double stop of a Tevez header and Carrick’s follow-up. Tevez, playing a head game of anticipatory football, had come off stride, expecting his defender to reach the ball before him on Rooney’s cross, but he fooled himself and came up short.  Running on to that ball, it’s a near guarantee that Tevez slides it into the back of the net.  Of course, only a fortuitous bounce off of Rio Ferdinand’s turned back allows Lampard a tap-in goal just before the whistle, but that’s the nature of the beautiful game. 

     In the second half and extra time, Chelsea were clearly the better side.  Outshooting United nearly two to one, they deserved to be in the lead at the end of regulation.  John Terry in particular was huge in this game, making a number of plays in the first half and a game-saving body-moving-one-way-head-moving-another save on Ryan Giggs left-footed extra time shot.  Chelsea’s defenders can be proud today.  They held Rooney and Tevez in check admirably, and aside from Ronaldo’s headed goal, managed to continually frustrate the best player in the world.  Offensively, only two shots that clanged off the post prevented Manchester United from failing in their quest for the double.

     Penalty shootouts are desperately un-American.  Even the rest of the world can agree they are no way to conclude a grueling season or tournament.  How ironic that the last World Cup in America was decided on kicks!  After playing an entire season, to have the competition come down to what is largely a matter of luck—guessing correctly—undersells the athletes and the competition itself.  I don’t care if it was one-thirty in the morning.  It’s the last game of the season.  Play until someone scores a legitimate goal!  I also don’t understand why so many tournaments eschew the golden goal.  Nothing is more infuriating than having a team go ahead in extra time and for there to be an equalizer, and then the game goes to penalties anyway.  Golden goal should always be in effect, with the referee’s discretion to determine adequate possession.  As far as I’m concerned, if both sides touch the ball in extra time, a golden goal stands up, and the tourney ends.  The inherent drama in that and the instant celebration that would ensue are just as dramatic as a penalty kick finale.  As far as player fatigue and substitutions, allow an additional sub for every fifteen minutes of extra time, and if the game goes deep enough—here’s a revolutionary idea—allow now-rested players to retake the field.  Every football pundit I read writes the same thing about penalties deciding a final—it’s always the least desirable way to end a match.

     Un-American or not, the penalty shootout did contain a great deal of drama, from Cristiano Ronaldo’s stutter-step miss to Terry’s unfortunate hydroplane.  That’s the nature of the PK—the tide turns in a matter of moments, and the horns of the goat grow freshly on a new forehead.  As much as I hate Chelsea, it’s hard to despise a competitor like John Terry, who kept Chelsea in the game in the first half with several interceptions of dangerous crosses, and outright saved Chelsea’s hash with his outrageously athletic header to deflect Giggs’ open net finisher.  At the end of the match, the poignant scene between Terry and his manager, Avram Grant, was enough to soften even the most staunch United supporter’s rancor.  Terry, looking the very definition of the horse in the joke (Aside—A horse walks into a bar.  The bartender says, “Why the long face?”), was comforted not only by his own teammates, but by classy rivals like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, veterans who surely recognize the cruelty of fate, the assiduous dedication needed to win silver, and the pain of watching limited opportunities pass by.  Equally moving was the empathetic shows from members of the same national team.  Ronaldo and Nani went out of their ways to offer a pat on the back to Carvalho, and the audience can surely recognize that no player wished for this ending to the season.  Cruelty, thy name is penalties.    
    
     For there to be any doubt of Avram Grant’s future at Chelsea is wretched. Surely the gentleman deserves a shot at bringing this team back to contending for the top spot in the Premier League.  Surely he has proven himself in European play.  There is absolutely no shame in losing a Champions League final on penalties, especially when he was within a few slippery blades of grass of winning!  There is a holdover of European anti-Semitism at work, especially with the Eastern European Roman Abramovich sitting in the owner’s box.  It’s hard to call any anti-Semitism a “holdover”, especially when it occurs in that area of the world, where hating Jews has such a long and bloody history.  I might be being unfair, but given Chelsea’s history of incidents involving Chelsea supporters, I suspect that Grant’s lack of favor is at least partly related to his Judaism.  I have been extremely impressed by the man since he took over for Jose Mourinho.  He took out of form/out of favor players like Michael Ballack and got the most out of them late in the season.  Didier Drogba, too, after missing much of the season with injuries and the African Cup of Nations, found the better side of his mercurial nature and contributed in making the Premiership title race more than just a formality.  If Grant does not return, another club would be wise to snap him up quickly.
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      For years, come April break, my wife Audra and I have arranged a dogsitter for Daisy, packed up our beach clothes and sandals, and sojourned to sunny Florida.  It’s a welcome break from the New England weather, which at that point in the year is a mix of chilly and rainy, following a winter characterized by short, snowy, bleak, frigid days.

     Next April will be different.  Next April the plan is to travel to England and attend at least two football matches.  For many years, my sporting dream has been to attend a match at Old Trafford, and it looks like next year it will finally happen.  Still, there are potential pitfalls: the schedule, money, travel arrangements, tickets, my wife’s tolerance, and the EPL standings. 

     First is the schedule, which won’t be released until mid-June.  If it turns out that United’s schedule won’t align correctly with my own school break, then the trip is off.  I’m not going to see United play an away game, and while going to see Arsenal at their new stadium is a secondary goal, I won’t be satisfied by that moving into the main position.  No, it must be United and it must be at home.  If the schedule cooperates, then the plan is to fly into London on a Saturday and attend a Sunday match at either Stamford Bridge or Emirates, but if those teams had played on Saturday, seeing West Ham or Fulham will suffice.  We’ll follow that with a few days enjoying London, seeing the sights, taking in a show, or generally doing things that my wife wants to do, since I will be dragging her there primarily to watch football.

     Again, depending on the Premier League schedule, the next step is to catch a midweek game at another Premier League city, hopefully on the way to Manchester.   Aston Villa might be a nice midlands stop to make for a night.  After the rare Wednesday night game, it’s on to spend the rest of our visit in Manchester and Liverpool.  I’ve been to Liverpool before, as a twelve year old, and I’m looking forward to going back, this time with my wife, who is a huge Beatles fan.  We’ll do the touristy thing (the Cavern, Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, Magical Mystery Tour, etc.) just like I did in 1984.  I also want to see the cathedral in Manchester, and take in some local history there, of course.  Being a Stone Roses/Smiths/Happy Mondays fan, I’m eager to get to know Manchester, the capital of the North.  Old Trafford tours are available on non-gamedays, and I’ll have to go on that.  The whole trip has been building to this concluding event, and the final weekend will finally give me a chance to see United play on their home field. 

     How much will this cost me?  Let me put it this way.  I am writing this as I sit in the detention room of my school, monitoring miscreants and perenially tardy students as they serve their debt to our institution.  I took this (profoundly negative) job to help raise a few extra bucks for this trip.  I figure the two of us will spend between four and six thousand dollars for this trip, given the state of the American dollar and the significant cost of tickets.  Once the schedule is published, and I contact travel agencies that specialize in these types of packages, I’ll have a better estimate.  This summer I plan to contact Manchester United’s affiliated travel agency–Travelcare–and find out more about how to do this affordably. 

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Save your work.  I say it so many times it’s lost all meaning (but not really).  To make a lo sto sho, I already wrote this entry, last Wednesday when my freshmen were taking a test on Of Mice and Men.  I wrote my Greatest Ever, Part 3 post directly into the blog entry box on my homepage, but didn’t realize there was a time-out feature, and when I hit “SAVE” I had to re-enter my password.  By doing so, I lost every single word I’d written.  Ouch.  ‘Twas like a punch to the, er, gut.  From now on, I’m writing in Microsoft Word and pasting over when I’m finished, and only after I’ve saved, of course.

 

The Greatest Ever, part 3

 

    Having the World Cup in America was an amazing opportunity, and I’m sorry to say I did not have tickets to attend a game.  Being twenty-one years old, fresh out of college, with no job prospects, and an English degree, I had no money for a ticket.  I didn’t have money for rent or food, so a World Cup ticket was not high on my priority list.  However, I did manage to watch every game I could, even with the problem of my brother’s wedding in Chicago intruding mid-event.  Never again will I drive to Chicago!  I’ll sell a kidney for a coach ticket before I make that hellish journey again.  Despite the fact that the 1994 World Cup featured the most disappointing final (Brazil vs. Italy) ever, a lackluster, play-not-to-lose nil-nil tie that went to penalties, the rest of the tournament was riveting.  Roberto Baggio, Italy’s star goal-scorer, carried them to the final, and was clearly the best player in the tournament, though he sailed a penalty kick over the crossbar when he had a chance to keep Italy alive against Brazil.  Baggio’s failure at the last was when I decided that a World Cup final should never be decided by penalties, and I’ll even expand that to any final of a major tournament.  The managers should be allowed an extra three substitutions at the end of every thirty minutes of extra time, and the players should play until a legitimate goal is scored.  For Baggio to go down as the goat of that tournament for missing a penalty still bothers me.  I’m not exactly a fan of Italian football, with their conservative, defensive style and tendency for one-nil victories, but Baggio is too often remembered for missing that kick in the final, and not for his sublime play in the games leading to it.  It’s shameful, really.

    In any case, 1994’s World Cup hooked me.  In the time since, I’ve watched all US coverage of major tournaments, mainly the World Cups of ’98, ’02, and ’06, and the European Cups of ’00 and ’04.  I’ve watched quite a bit of club football as well.  As an American, there are many disadvantages to following the world’s most popular sport, but one advantage is that you get to pick your team to follow, since Americans are not limited by geographical boundaries.  I have to root for the Sox, Bruins, Pats, and Celtics, or I’d be removed from the family and cast out by my friends.  But when I went to pick a club team, it was wide open.  First, I’d decide on a league.  No problem—it had to be the English Premier League.  The players and managers spoke English, and there were actually some games shown on American television.  Serie A was at the time considered the best league in the world, but I’d never seen AC Milan, Roma, Lazio, or Inter on television, so even if they sported skilled players the likes of Maradona, Baggio and Maldini, Italian teams were tough to find and tedious to follow.  Remember that the Internet was in its infancy in 1994, and research was more difficult and expensive then. 

    Once I decided that it would be the English League, it was time to decide on a team.  The English Premier League is really three leagues at once.  You’ve got the top four—Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United.  They play against the other sixteen teams, but at the end of a season, it’s rare that the top four teams are not some order of those four.  Then there are the ever-rotating bottom teams of the league.  They have a mini-league to decide who gets to “stay up”, instead of being relegated to the Championship, which is the next division down.  Dropping a division is a major demotion in terms of respect, and more importantly, money.  In between are the teams that are perennial middlers—too good to be relegated, but not good or rich enough to compete with the big four.  These are the Tottenhams, Manchester Cities, West Hams, Blackburns, Middlesbroughs, and Newcastles of the league.  In looking at these three distinct sub-divisions, I wanted to support a team that got some coverage on American TV, but I also wanted to support a team that WON every once in a while.

    Keep in mind that at the time I was choosing a team in 1994, we in Boston had been in a major championship drought.  The last title had come to the Celtics in 1986, and I wasn’t even a big basketball fan. Essentially, I’d never seen a Boston team I truly loved win a championship.  The closest I’d come was watching Bill Buckner let a World Series championship go between his legs on a fateful October’s eve.  I finally had a chance to choose a winning side.

    At first I figured I’d support Liverpool, because I was a huge Beatles fan, but their fans were notorious as the most hostile bunch of miscreants and hooligans in all of Europe, so I could hardly support the club whose fans were directly involved in the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters.  I realize that it’s simplistic to blame the deaths at those locations to the Liverpudlians, as many factors contributed to the tragedies, but Liverpool fans must shoulder at least some of the blame.  Their reputation is not entirely undeserved. 

    Chelsea also presented issues.  Their fans were given to reprehensible behavior, too.  They made apelike hooting sounds and threw bananas when black players touched the ball.  They even did this to their own players!  Without a second thought, Chelsea was out. 

    It was down to Arsenal and Manchester United.  I didn’t know much about Arsenal other than they had a cool name, and were known as the Gunners.  Being a Boston Irish kid, I knew the Irish star Roy Keane played for United.  Plus, I’d been into the Manchester music scene for years, and was a fan of bands like Happy Mondays, Joy Division, New Order,  The Stone Roses, and my favorite band ever, The Smiths.  While the guitarist of The Smiths, Johnny Marr, was a City fan, lead singer Morrissey was a fan of United.  Finally, I had heard of the Munich Air Disaster of 1958.  I was always scared of flying and fascinated by plane crashes, especially those that claimed celebrity lives.  Yeah, it sounds pretty creepy now, doesn’t it?  Anyhow, the crash suffered by United in 1958 was one the worst travel related disasters suffered by a sports team, right up there with the 1970 Marshall football team’s horrific crash.  The survivors of that crash went on to win the European Cup ten years later, and survivor Bobby Charlton, the team’s captain, was a member of the English 1966 World Cup championship team.  The story of United’s triumph over adversity and the way they chose to remember their fallen teammates touched me.  I had decided.  I would be a fan of Manchester United.

    Since 1994, I’ve followed a lot of club soccer.  I saw the coming and going of David Beckham, the triple in 1999, CANTONA, and I’ve come to understand the importance of a manager as gifted as Sir Alex Ferguson.  By following United, I’ve seen the best football in Europe, and England in particular.

    Do I need more qualifications to be taken seriously when I offer my assessment of the greatest footballer of all time, and the best one right now?  I also read about the game.  As a teacher and devoted nerd, I always believe that the best way to learn about something is to read about it.  I’ve read some fantastic books on football, my favorite being Soccer in Sun and Shadow, by the Uruguayan poet Eduardo Galeano.  It’s an account of a lifetime of following the game, written in a sparing, lyrical style.  How typical of a poet!  It’s brilliant, touching, and elegant.  Another great book is The Ball is Round, which offers a global history of the game.  The writing is more akin to a history text, but for sheer information, the voluminous tome has no peer.  For a look into the lives of the English yobs who somewhat follow the sport, but are really more interested in bashing teeth and inflicting property damage, check out Among the Thugs.  It’s the story of an American journalist who befriend these ruffians, sees their hidden humanity, understands their need to exceed, finds himself getting a thrill from being part of an unruly mob, gets pummeled by an Italian cop, and finally decides that hooliganism is for petty villains who have nothing else in their lives to make them feel empowered.  It’s a powerful book about getting wrapped up in lawlessness, only to utterly reject it in the end.  

    On top of my reading, I’ve seen the documentary The History of Football, which is a seven hour opus narrated by Terence Stamp, who most Americans will only recognize as General Zod from Superman 2.  The documentary does require a serious time commitment, but offers some rare footage and a worldwide look at the game.  It’s definitely worth checking out.

    I’m out of time for this entry, and I think I’ve accomplished my goal.  I am qualified to give my opinion on the best footballer of all time.  For next time then!

   

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