I AM ABOUT to write about Association Football, as it is played in England. Yesterday, the domestic season reached its climax (copyright all scene-setters/headline and caption writers everywhere), with numerous possible outcomes still in play. On the very final day, on which all matches are played at precisely the same time, the following were still to be decided: the winning team and the runners-up; the third and fourth spot, which determine the team that will automatically qualify for the European Champions League and which one will have to endure arduous qualification rounds; and which team would be the third of the three teams to be relegated. Confused? You will be. Although not as confused as I was.
A quick note for American readers: your roster is our squad; your schedule is our fixture list; your field is our pitch. You have uniform, we have kit. We don’t have a draft. You don’t have promotion or relegation. Cleats become studs. Coaches become managers. None of this is actually important. The real difference between the two best eleven-a-side games in the world is that American football is a high-speed science, while soccer is barely north of chaos. Every one of its magnificently remunerated auxiliary staff – tacticians, specialist coaches, analysts, commentators, pundits – is in cahoots to obscure this fact. Bizarrely, the most hyperbolically remunerated of all – the players themselves – seem less concerned with that.
In football, the unit of scoring is so rare and so difficult to come by that inferior teams can record unpredictable victories against those with more money, better players and more professional organisation. It doesn’t happen that often, or with enough consistency to make a vast difference to what Americans would call the standings and what British people would call the league table. But it does happen. And, on the final day of the most exciting season in Premier League history (copyright et cetera), it is no less likely to happen than usual.
How? How did I ever allow this to happen?
I am watching the final game of the season with a man. He is the man with whom I also share my life. He supports a team called Tottenham Hotspur (“Spurs”). I support a team called Arsenal (“the Arse”). The teams are bitter rivals, occupying grounds a couple of miles distant from one another in North London; local derbies are fraught affairs. Once, in the relatively recent past (OK, it was on October 29th, 2008), I watched Arsenal throw away a 4-2 lead to Spurs by conceding two goals in the final minutes of the match, and that night I refused to go home. (“I can’t face you,” I said, on the telephone. This was not greeted as attention-seeking melodrama, but as a perfectly reasonable response to a very difficult situation.)
But that occasion – and one other, I now remember, which involved a Mexican restaurant in Greenwich and a rainstorm of angry tears – is not the norm; usually, we are much more civilized. I am tempted to write “and normally Arsenal win anyway”, but apparently anybody can read anything on the internet. This afternoon, however, will be a test. At 2.59pm, a minute before kick-off, Arsenal lie in third position, and Spurs, with one point fewer, in fourth. Both could be overtaken by a team that currently occupies the fifth place. The crucial information you need to absorb is this: the team that finishes third will waltz into next year’s European tournament, with all the razzmatazz, revenue and continued presence of star players that that entails. The team that finishes fourth will be invited to qualify for that tournament. This in itself is no great nightmare. Except for one thing: this year, that fourth place may disappear altogether, if a team called Chelsea wins next week’s Champions League final. Don’t understand a word of that? Don’t worry. Let’s just say it’s tense.
The afternoon before the last day I went down with a dreadful, dreadful cold and, whereas normally we might occupy the same couch, I now take up residence in another part of the sitting room. A wall of detritus – balls of Kleenex, Sunday newspapers, a computer, sweets, paperbacks, menthol rub, Arsenal socks, spare Arsenal socks, reading glasses, glucose tablets – creates an efficient barrier between us. Anxiety does the rest.
To make matters more comical, neither of us can watch the matches with which we are most fervently preoccupied; the TV channels are showing the matches that involve Manchester United and Manchester City, the two teams contesting the top slot (you’ve got it: they are based in the same city). Developments affecting Spurs or Arsenal will be relayed to us via a little pop-up box in the corner of the screen. We are both also glued to the internet via mobile devices. A tense silence yields to early jubilation when Spurs score a goal. A minute later Arsenal also take the lead, against a team called West Bromwich Albion, for whose manager this is the last game in charge. Afterwards, he will become manager of the national football team, a position that it had been assumed until very recently would go to Harry Redknapp, the manager of Spurs. Spurs fans, including the one sitting near me, partly blame the distraction of will-he-won’t-he furore around the England managership on the fact that Spurs were home and hosed in third place weeks ago. I told you it was complicated.
Some time later, Arsenal are losing 2-1. Later they equalise. It remains 1-0 to Spurs. Meanwhile, Manchester United lead, putting pressure on the favourites Manchester City. Then Manchester City score. I suffer another emotional entanglement. I have no brief for either of the Manchester teams, but my friends Kevin and Jonathan are passionate City fans. But if City win, then their opponents, Queens Park Rangers, might be relegated! Not only do QPR boast the coolest of musically famous fans (Mick Jones from The Clash, Glen Matlock of The Sex Pistols, Robert Smith of The Cure, Michael Nyman, Pete Doherty), but I also recently interviewed one of their players for a national newspaper, a controversial midfielder by the name of Joey Barton and, because I liked him, I don’t want him to lose. This is bad.
On Twitter, I’m incredulous that people in my timeline are tweeting about other matters; it seems almost rude. And, also, pointless: who on earth do they imagine will want to read about an art gallery, or a charity, or a policy document? As I understand the young say, Bore Off.
At half-time (hey! The terms are the same! Hands across the Ocean!), I make a honey and lemon drink and wonder where I could get some Valium. As the second half begins, it looks like this: City first, United second, Spurs third, Arse fourth, QPR relegated. About fifteen minutes later, Arse have scored and leap-frogged into third, and Joey Barton has been dismissed from the field of play for violent conduct. I temporarily forget about how angry I am with Arsenal to worry about Joey, briefly tweeting my rage that the television station will not replay the incident that led to his sending off so that I can determine to my satisfaction that he has been fairly treated.
While I am not worrying about Arsenal, they take the lead. I have not looked at the other person in the room for about an hour. We are pretending that everything is fine.
Essentially, I have found my limits as a writer or, indeed as a human being, because I have failed to describe the lunacy of the last five minutes of play, during which last-minute goals were scored, the destination of the championship trophy changed less than ninety seconds before the final whistle. My friends Kevin and Jonathan are, I suspect, very happy. Everyone is talking about naughty Joey Barton (on the phone, my father notes that the experience of being interviewed by me has not, apparently, led to an end to all his problems, and I am touched by his faith in my power as a journalist). But one thing we cannot alter. Arse are third. Spurs are fourth. And we must now turn the television off, shake hands, and make dinner. And reflect that, although we are also different nationalities and different religions, this is the hardest chasm to bridge.