Football fading

I feel myself sadly falling out of love with football.  It’s only a fleeting, vague sensation for now; one which comes and goes, but one which persists nonetheless.

It began with Chelsea’s Champions League victory a little over a month ago.  Not only did they stifle their broadly accepted superior opponents in Bayern Munich, defensively strangling the match to a penalty shoot-out win, they also denied my team a place in next season’s Champions League competition.

Tottenham finished fourth in the league.  They would have finished third were it not for a terrible run of results in March and April, or a terrible West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper on the final day of the season.  Responsible for two howling errors, Marton Fulop was so incompetent you wondered whether it was genetic and his parents failed to spell his name correctly on the birth certificate.  Had West Brom drawn or beaten Arsenal, rather than lost 3-2, Tottenham would have achieved third and Champions League qualification.

Given the points’ gap in February, it felt like Tottenham lost third position rather than Arsenal won it – although you must credit their resurgence, I suppose.  Our manager paid for the slump and failure with his job, which wasn’t altogether surprising.  The club chairman Daniel Levy was said to be dismayed by how we fell away towards the end of the season.  Him and lots of other people.  It was obvious by our failure that we were slapped back to square one as a club.  Our best Champions League-hungry players would get the exits they pined for and we wouldn’t be able to secure adequate replacements.

Every footballing bone hurt after Chelsea won that match.  A whole season in which we’d played some truly outstanding, mesmerising football: for nought.  Denied by a defensive miserly display like that, the kind of tactics the new England Manager would be compelled to employ for want of other options.  Why was football bowing to this?  Now our best players would go.   We may hire a relatively unproved foreign manager, which has had disastrous results before.  It all equals shit.

Still, there was England to look forward to, wasn’t there?  No, they were bound to be shit.  Although early results against mid-ranking nations suggested not, when they came up against a glaringly superior team in the form of Italy they cowered in their well-drilled defensive lines, concentrating on primary school tactics of kicking the ball away, failing to make simple passes, failing to retain possession – which isn’t everything but is a lot of things.  It’s only possible to appreciate a certain amount of defensive organisation and basic luck in the face of poor finishing.

The quarter final match was embarrassing, compounded by Joe Hart’s excruciating attempts to put off Italians with stupid facial expressions and noises during the penalty shoot-out.  Ungentlemanly, schoolboy, unnecessary.  When the exquisite Pirlo derisively dinked his penalty down the middle, leaving Hart flailing, I smiled.  I imagined lots of people smiled, plenty of Englishmen like me too.  It would have been awful if we’d won.  I didn’t want us to win; not after a performance like that, not with Joe Hart – a fantastic goalkeeper – reduced to making silly faces, genuinely believing himself “the big man” for doing so.  Pirlo showed him who was.

Together with supporting failing teams, there’s the rank dishonesty which still pervades and irks, the diving and deception.  As a football fan I defend against this when non-football fans broach the subject, but my counterarguments are sounding weaker and weaker, even to myself.  It’s horrible, depressing, boring.

Of course I’ll still avidly watch the rest of Euro 2012.  The best four teams at the start of the tournament still remain, which should make for high quality, entertaining matches.

Beyond that?  Next season will I still figuratively block-book my calendar for every televised Tottenham match?  Right now it’s difficult to say.  I’m exhausted, spent, might even watch some tennis, archery, volleyball, and I also appear to currently have a girlfriend – not that she minds my probably lifelong affair with this ridiculous sport.

Obviously it’s quite possible that after a week without watching a football match I’ll be missing it again.

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football first

“If it’s going well, do you think you might sack off the football match?”

A friend asked this before a date and I blanched.  No!  Of course not you idiot, I replied in my head.  The football match was the main reason for my being in London.

It was a fair question, I suppose.  Although I never entertained it as a realistic possibility – because I wanted to go to the game, I’d paid a substantial amount of money, was looking forward to the game and don’t go to matches much – it was indeed possible.  I could have sacked it off.  And who knows?

“Actually, you know what?  Hell, it’s cold, my back hurts.  Let’s just stay here in the warm.”

It would have enabled a longer time together, more conversation, a shared experience of something – a gallery or film – perhaps the added relaxant of an alcoholic drink or two, which could help boozy goggles; more stuff.  And who knows?  Probably not, of course..

But no.  I went to the football, which was half-ruined as a result of the previous two hours.

You ideally want to arrive a while before the match, get into the zone for a game, find out the team news, absorb the atmosphere, grow nervously excited.

You don’t want to travel up painfully overanalysing a date, be irritated that she’d done that defensive girl thing of shoving a cheek in your face at the end.  *Kiss Me Nowhere Except Here On My Cheek Then Fuck Off*.  You don’t want to be very cold and overchew a piece of gum as you walk to the stadium and only find your seat as the players exit the tunnel onto the pitch, and have half a mind on your mobile as the game kicks-off and barely be able to stop shivering and have serious back-pain each time you stand up to watch an attack over a few thousand heads.  You don’t want to feel disappointingly little as your team plays remarkably well and race into a commanding 4-0 lead, professionally strangling the life and drama out of a game.

Even far back in the distant midst of a serious relationship I instinctively put Tottenham first.  A Sunday afternoon in bed was curtailed by a text from a friend reminding me about a televised cup tie against Chelsea which I’d forgotten was kicking off in 15 minutes.  Virtually mid-coitus, I had unapologetically leapt from the bed, collected strewn items of clothing, got dressed and headed to the pub.

We lost 4-0.  Eidur Gudjohnsen scored a hat-trick.

I guess my long term relationship with football and Tottenham, while often rife with angst and heartbreak, has been longer, more constant and more reliable than any relationship with a woman.  Barring one or two horrible summer months, football is always there.  Football always makes me feel something, it always gives, even if it gives shit, even if gives Jason bloody Dozzell.

In trying to explain football to non-football fans I say it’s a story which you’re part of.  It could be a dull story or an exciting story, but it will be a story of some kind, and each match is an isolated narrative of its own, part of something broader and longer: a competition, a season, a career.  You invest in the characters of players, or your perception of their characters.

It helps if there’s some instinctive appreciation of the artistry of ball-play, team movement, the skill involved, the ballet of a beautiful diving header or a perfectly executed bicycle kick.  That makes a story memorable.

This is heightened when you’re playing the game, when you’re living the story, even if there are no spectators at all, even if you’re being embarrassed by the skill of an adolescent half your age or intimidated by the aggression of a maniac more intent on doing harm than playing fotball; it’s enlivening if not always enjoyable.  It makes you feel.

Above anything sport can give out outlet for displaced emotions which you might like to express in other parts of your life but can’t, because right here right now there’s nothing as important as winning.

I like to think I’d be capable of prioritising a woman above football, in the right circumstances, but it would demand a reciprocal certainty I’ve rarely experienced.  Maybe if she could pull off a slick Cruyff turn..

what you can hope to achieve

Stuff in this next post or two is backdated from, like, ages ago, so if any of it was remotely true it wouldn’t  even slightly chafe anymore.

The score was level at two all, one minute into stoppage time at the end of the match.  Manchester City’s hapless centre-back lost the ball in midfield and Gareth Bale was released to attack down the left wing.  Spurs had men over on them.  We could win it here.  As Bale collected the ball and ran, you edged forward on your armchair, alone in your flat.

Could we win it?!  It could change everything.  Turn us into real title contenders.  If we beat Manchester City there could be a great chance of winning the league.  This season Spurs looked so strong but it all felt so transient too; a team at their pinnacle, a good blend of experience and youth, a manager who might easily not be there next season if offered the England job, a sense of now or never about everything.

Bale galloped around the defender and whipped the ball across goal towards Jermain Defoe, who charged hungrily into the middle of the penalty area.

“FINISH!” you wailed at the television screen, sinking theatrically to your knees.  Defoe lunged towards the ball, only managing weak contact with the studs of his boot.  The ball drifted impotently wide of the goal.  Your hands covered your face.

In their next attack Manchester City won a penalty through a player who should have been sent from the pitch for kicking one of our men in the head, twice – for which he was retrospectively punished the following week.  He calmly slotted in the penalty kick.  Manchester City 3, Tottenham Hotspur 2.

Title aspirations all but over.

That afternoon in a crushed beery haze, you exchanged messages with her for the first time.  She looked stunning, well out of your league, as much of a fantasy as Tottenham winning the Premiership.  But the messages snowballed.

Over the course of the following week, correspondence turned to emails, a telephone call and text messages.  This was ridiculous.  She was exceptionally attractive, arrestingly smart, laugh-out-loud funny, beautifully written.  She ruled your thoughts.

She’d seen one image of your face but still continued chatting.  Why?  The attention on her words?  She MUST have had loads of better looking, more successful blokes vying for her attention.  Maybe there was a wealthy, unpleasant married businessman who gave her functional sex and nice shiny things and put her up in hotels but wasn’t all that interested in her.  Maybe she had loads of blokes she played off against each other.

Who knew?

– Stop thinking about her anyway.  Don’t do this again.  She’s just one female, remember.  Nothing to get all sappy over.. Just one female.

..who is, you know, actually a really fucking incredible female.

STOP IT, BRAIN!

[It always pales in hindsight, how besotted you become for a period: a few weeks, a few months.  You look back several months to a year or so down the line and ask: can I really have been that fussed? It feels sort of distant now, like I couldn’t have possibly been that headfucked.  Well know this, Future Self: said female properly dominated your brain for a good number of weeks.]

STOP THINKING ABOUT HER!  Think about football instead.

Yes.  Come on, don’t get ahead of yourself.  Rein it in.  Be cool and casual.  Even if you did meet she’d quickly notice that you’re ordinary looking, forgettable, that you have a gaping harrowing bald spot; you’d inevitably leak weird stuff about your perpetual lonerdom and dreary void of ambition; her interest would understandably dwindle.  Then you’d get all moody and depressive for allowing yourself to hope.  You know that’s what happens.  While there’s the mystique of not quite knowing, you’re little more than an idly amusing Tamagotchi.

Whatever you do, try not to hope and try not to care.  Caring is, like.. SO uncool dude.  Nowadays everyone is flippant and casual and frivolous and throws their hands in the air like they just don’t care.  Caring too quickly makes you look desperate and needy and like you’re not still the 26 or 27 year old you hope to appear and imagine you are in your head.  So no, you mustn’t care or be impatient or honest or want everything immediately.

You knew how this worked.  It had all happened before, sort of.  You were building yourself up to fall.  And yet still, STILL you audaciously dared to hope..   You gigantic anus.

Gareth Bale had galloped beyond the defender once more, his left foot primed to whip the ball across the penalty area, as tantalisingly close to exhilarating glory as to agonising defeat.  You were both on the edge of your armchair and Jermain Defoe, charging into the penalty area; about to lunge for the ball in a stadium full of fifty thousand people, ready to sink to your knees alone in your flat, dagger to the heart.

*

Empty glumness is hard to shake off when hope fades, despite self-talking-tos. You told yourself not to do this and you’ve no right to miss something you never had. This is precisely why investing hope is so dangerous, you mug.  It’s possible to grieve for hope, although it feels considerably less respectable, more lame, this undignified permanent sense of embattled disappointment you haul around with you.

It’s involuntary though, which almost makes it excusable. Consciously choosing to invest hope is impossible.  “Yes, I will choose to hope about this thing”.  No.  Hope is more subtle, gradually sliding into you before you find you’re freakishly possessed.

It was worse after meeting and seeing that holy fucking shit yes, she IS that attractive.  Extremely attractive.  GOD you wanted to sleep with her so badly.  So what if you thought with your dick a bit.  What man in that position wouldn’t?  Your admiration extended further than that.

Pangs of bitter regret recurred long after you realised there was nothing doing, her interest had died, the frequency of messages had dwindled, her replies grown shorter, questions apparently outlawed – inquisitive ‘did you’s clipped to rhetorical ‘hope you’s.  After pinning your colours to the mast, brave and unambiguous and punchdrunk, her gently subverted response of I’m Not Really Into You So Leave Me Alone Now appeared clear enough.  Perhaps there was different, newer attention.  Perhaps not.

What had previously been a busy junction of two-way traffic – meaty email marathons, semi-regular texts, quickfire instant message chats – was no longer.  It was a transient confection rapidly scaled down to a one-way street; little returning besides token tumbleweed acknowledgements. With it came a slow dawning realisation that now she sincerely gave not even the faintest of shits.

It was fine.  You got over it then lapsed into gloom, then got over it again and then lapsed again.

You angrily reprimanded yourself: WHAT WERE YOU THINKING OF ANYWAY!?  Someone like her: sure, some layer of pretence but still ostensibly an intimidating preening glamour-puss with expensive tastes and talent and drive. And you, who usually goes to work wearing slippers, doing something just about tolerable, albeit unchallenging and boring?  To entertain the notion of any kind of ‘match’ was tantamount to self-harm.  Although it demonstrated a level of perverse ambition too.

At least you could take comfort in its brevity, the small mercy that it wasn’t a protracted period.  Usually it’s only ever a short matter of time between discovering that Yes, oh no, oh shit, you suddenly hope – Bale galloping; and learning that you are of course once again doomed to fail – Defoe missing.  Hope then slips away once more, like a tidal swell dictated by a sadistic god.

brief befriending

The first floor function room of his preferred local pub regularly screened live football matches.  Large, airy and high-ceilinged, it was an elegant old room which overlooked the Thames.  More than this, it was perfect for watching football.  No active bar, seldom anyone in there who wasn’t concerned by the action on-screen, Barry felt less self conscious about sitting on his own watching football.  Several lone men often dotted the room, sitting like toddlers transfixed by CBeebies.

It was clear that there had been a function in the room before he arrived.  The far side of the room was populated by little over a dozen football fans.  All of them Arsenal, Barry suspected: a smattering of red, a couple of those retro yellow away tops.  Yuck.  The near side of the room, where Barry had entered, was populated by a mixture of glassy-eyed emotional people who hugged a lot and didn’t know if they were coming or going.  Tables were littered with bunches of expensive looking flowers.  None of them wore black, but this was presumably at the request of the deceased.

Barry stood between the two zones in no-man’s land, his eyes on the screen in the near-side, waiting for the emotional huggers to disperse or sit down, so he could pick a seat.

“Are they coming or going?” Barry asked a man around his age who had taken a stool in the near-side half of the room, and nodded towards the cluster of milling people.

“Going, I think,” he replied, cheerfully enough, and looked back at the screen.

“Kaboul’s playing?” Barry asked.

“Yeah, I know,” the bloke said, shaking his head.

“Krancjar suspended, or..?”

“No, injured.  You support Spurs too?” the bloke asked.

“Yeah,” Barry said.  “Are they all Arsenal over there?” Barry nodded to the other side of the room.

“Looks like it.”

Still, the whispy congregation in the near-side of the room showed no sign of going, kept hugging each other like it was an elaborate modification of pass the parcel.  Barry tired of standing like that and put his pint down next to the other bloke’s.  He took a stool from under the television screen on the other side of the room.

“Mind if I join you here?” Barry asked.

“No, help yourself,” he said.  Seemed like a decent bloke, Barry thought.

They sat and watched the football, exchanged disappointment about the recent semi final defeat and observed the congregation eventually settle.

On the screen, the football was punched clear from a crowded Arsenal penalty area.  Tottenham’s nineteen year-old debutant Danny Rose arrived to meet it, carefully watching it fall out of the air, thirty yards from goal, before carving his left foot through the ball.  The connection was perfect.  It arrowed between players and over the goalkeeper’s ineffectively clawing glove into the roof of the net.

Barry and his new friend were instantly on their feet, freed to cheer loudly in a pub largely containing Arsenal fans, because they’d found each other.  All jubilant fists and almost embarrassed wide smiles.  Fuck em.  Strength in numbers, even if that number was only two and their voices were the only ones that sounded.  Men in the other half of the room glowered.  It was an important match for their team too.

A searingly brilliant goal meant Spurs were beating their arch rivals Arsenal, a usually superior team, 1-0 in a crucial game.  Barry didn’t stop smiling for several minutes.

Over the following seventy minutes of the match, the room’s population of Arsenal fans grew: more appeared in the near side of the room, meaning they were hemmed in.  It didn’t feel bad.  Barry chatted with his new friend easily.  They exchanged names and occupations during the half time break, offered to buy each other beers – although their drinking paces were mismatched on each occasion.  He was a solicitor for one of the large firms in town (rich bastard then, Barry surmised), newly married, about to buy a house out in Kingston after five years renting in this area further up river.

Barry envied but liked him, and volunteered information about himself.

He always found meeting and conversing with men much easier than meeting and conversing with women.  Part of it was the neutered threat, the lack of any ulterior motive for innocent discourse.  Being relaxed.  He imagined he came across as a fairly ordinary bloke, happy to have a blokey conversation about football or business.  He was comfortable in this domain; no pressure, no relentless paranoia about how he was being perceived and judged.

It sounded obvious from the outline he gave of himself that there was no female or significant other, but he always wondered if he should qualify his sexuality more deliberately than saying I Play Football (and therefore I must be straight?)  If instead, he should say: “So you know, in case there was any faint doubt in your mind: I am single and straight.  Just useless with women,. Ok?”  Or if he should create a girlfriend to seem more regular and reliable.

Early in the second half Gareth Bale calmly sidefooted Spurs into a two-goal lead.  Again they leapt from their seats, clinched this time and amidst the heady euphoria, even came close to hugging.  It was a struggle to believe their two goal advantage.  The rest of the room hated them, their disdain palpable.  They giggled, still fixed on the screen.  God, this was fun.

Both men wondered aloud about doing this again, mentioned the remaining Spurs fixtures and whether they were on television, if they would come here to watch it.  Both said they probably would.  Barry wondered about swapping numbers, regretting again that he still hadn’t replenished his wallet with business cards.  Much easier to pass off a card with contact details, Barry thought, than go through that whole mobile device tapping game, which does feel a bit gay.  Even asking for a number in that situation, it was a bit much, awkward, and a declaration of Having No Friends.

Heurelho Gomes contorted himself impossibly to keep Arsenal at bay once again.  Barry exhaled, sipped his pint and shivered off the phone number idea, glad that he hadn’t done any such thing and compromised himself like that.

Arsenal scored, making the final ten minutes of the game a terrifying horror film.  Gomes continued to make a string of fine saves.  Arsenal fans in the room cheered louder and louder, evermore animated and anguished with each spurned chance, increasingly bitter towards Spurs and their fans as they revelled in the slender lead.  “Yeah yeah, well done Spurs, you’ll still come 5th!” one growled at the screen, revolted by what he was seeing.

“I Just Love The Fact We’re BEATING ARSENAL!  That’s all I really care about!” Barry said quite loudly to his companion but not really to his companion, eyes concentrated on the screen.  He was more drunk on the football than on the one and a half pints he’d consumed since kick off.  It looked possible now, they could hold on.  They really could do this!  His grin was spreading, he afforded himself the moment of being a dick.

The final whistle sounded, relief and joy were absorbed.  A final celebratory, congratulatory clinch.  It would be remembered, this game, by all the fans who’d witnessed it.  They did it.  Final dregs downed, no numbers swapped.  Barry needed to visit the Gents, his new friend had to get back to his wife.  “Maybe see you in here again then.”

It being London, they didn’t.