As Liverpool embark on their Europa campaign tonight, I urge them not to whinge about the competition. Last season it was responsible for rekindling my love for the beautiful game.
Well, I wouldn’t say it made me fall back in love with her, if I can call it a she. The fact is football and me have always had an on-off relationship, ever since Paolo Rossi stuck three past the greatest team I’d ever seen in 1982 and the Germans somehow did for Platini and the brilliant French a few days later. Instead of a dream World Cup final featuring Zico, Socrates, Eder and le carré magique, we had Rossi the hitman duking it out with Schumacher the contract killer, football assassins going toe to toe. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Sod you, football!
There were times after that when we got along just fine, had our moments of passion even, our rolls in the hay. But they were getting less and less frequent as time went by. Whenever football and I made out, I always had the summer of 82 in the back of my head, that act of supreme faithlessness, that ultimate betrayal of everything I thought the game should stand for. Me, the gullible teenager believing that the best and the most beautiful always won. Spain 1982 disabused me of that notion and I couldn’t come to terms with it.
Perhaps it wasn’t football’s problem though. I’d read the history books after all, seen that the finest teams don’t always win, that justice hasn’t always prevailed, that football has never owed me or the billions of other fools who follow it absolutely anything.
And in the years that followed that horrible awakening, I came to see things her way. I accepted that the spoilers, the bus-parkers and the rule-benders have to come out on top sometimes, that it was just the way of the world.
Yet with acceptance came distance. I started to keep football at arm’s length, smiling when the good guys won and moving on quickly when it was the baddies who were left standing. The excitement waned. I started following events from home, too disinterested to venture out and watch a game in the flesh. The last time I did that was in 2009, and it took the combined talents of Xavi, Villa, Xabi Alonso and the rest of Spain’s magicians to convince me to park my a**e on a stadium seat. It was the best display of football I’ve ever seen, better than anything I’d ever witnessed at Filbert Street or Parkhead even. I haven’t been back since though.
Me, the gullible teenager believing that the best and the most beautiful always won. Spain 1982 disabused me of that notion and I couldn’t come to terms with it
Our estrangement had nothing to do with the rampant commercialism of the modern game, self-obsessed players, changing kits or the bull***t spun by the marketing men. And while I might yearn for TV coverage to return to days of Hugh Johns, Barry Davies and Brian Moore and for the heads of jabbering colour commentators to be stuck on pikes, the fact is the game is just as compelling to watch as it’s always been. Success might be concentrated in fewer hands these days, but standards on the pitch have never been higher.
No, maybe the problem was mine. Maybe I wasn’t that madly in love with the game in the first place, wasn’t the diehard I thought I was. Perhaps I’d only ever been a fair-weather fan, big-game hunter and armchair observer, all rolled into one.
Whatever I was, my sporadic interest finally fizzled out last year, when I decided I’d had enough of it all. I wanted no more to do with it, no more wall-to-wall coverage, no more dissections of Mourinho’s every word, no more mid-game cutaways to dugout mugshots. I’d had enough of the buzz, the banter, the badinage and the bull***t. I was switching off. Football offered me Spain, Barcelona and Messi, and there I was turning my back on her, bidding her another door-slamming “sod you” to go with the one I spat in her direction three decades ago.
My boycott involved one exception: Scotland’s failed attempt to qualify for EURO 2012. But then again, that doesn’t really count as football. Not 4-6-0 in Prague, that’s for sure.
I stayed away for nearly nine months and I swear I didn’t miss her. But when the pangs eventually returned it wasn’t the jinking Messi who lured me back, or Iniesta, but Athletic Bilbao, taking it to Manchester United in the Europa League, the most unloved of bastard creations.
I had a feeling the first leg might be a decent game, a throwback to the European nights of yesteryear, and was curious enough to can the boycott. And while I suspect United weren’t exactly busting a gut in a competition they never wanted to be in, that didn’t matter, not when their opponents were playing with such verve and vibrancy.
Bilbao’s first two goals, both beautifully worked, had already seduced me, but it was the third that was the real clincher: De Marcos’s thumping shot, De Gea’s superb save, then time and Rafael standing still as the ball ran loose, and a pint-sized opportunist by the name of Muniain steaming in from nowhere to ram it high into the net. Get in!
And while I suspect United weren’t exactly busting a gut in a competition they never wanted to be in, that didn’t matter, not when their opponents were playing with such verve and vibrancy.
I’ve stuck by football since then, cutting her some slack when things go wrong (Chelsea winning the Champions League) and showing her some love when they don’t (EURO 2012). I can’t honestly say how the season ahead will go. I think we should take things slowly, one game at a time maybe. But at least the recriminations are over.
In my middle-aged cynicism I’ve come to understand her, come to see that if anyone was at fault, then it was Brazil and France back in 82. If only they’d sat on what they had, stopped going for goals they didn’t need to score and shown a little pragmatism, then we would have had that dream final and I’d never have held that grudge against her.
So you see football, it wasn’t me and it wasn’t you after all. It was them, the hopeless romantics of more innocent days.
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