Thursday, March 08, 2012

5-0, 7-1, 10-2

by Dick Mac

As most soccer (football) detractors will tell you, soccer is boring because so few goals are scored. It is hard to argue that point. If my interest is in seeing points scored, then soccer is not the sport for me. I could follow a much more engaging sport, where the criminals . . . er, I mean the players, score lots of points and cheat and act like bigger asses than all soccer players combined: I could watch the NBA.

I was a detractor because I had never been to a top-flight soccer match. I had seen the Boston Beacons play in the late 1960s, and I had attempted to watch matches on television; and it just wasn't engaging for me. I hated soccer and loved the Boston Celtics. I used to say: "Soccer is so boring that you have to stab your neighbor for excitement." Hearty American guffaws all around, because we all know that soccer fans are hooligans, and may actually be worse criminals than NBA players (although that is unlikely).

It was in the Autumn of 2000, when we were living in London, that my wife's colleague insisted I attend a soccer match at Highbury, in North London. I clicked my tongue and sighed: "Soccer?!?!?!?"

He insisted that we attend, he had tickets for four of us, and he promised that I would have a good time.

I was a stranger in a strange land, with a group of friends that could be counted on one hand, and one of them was offering to spend a couple hundred quid on tickets to entertain me. So, I went.

Our seats were very good, and I settled in to the old stadium to watch Arsenal host Manchester City. The stadium was old, it was small and cramped like Fenway Park, in Boston (where I had watched the Boston Beacons).

The first thing I noticed was a very tall black man in the middle of the field who reminded me of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, not because of his looks, but because he wasn't running up and down the field with his teammates. He seemed to always be lagging behind, only becoming engaged when it was opportune for him. He was proving the point that soccer was boring, that nothing happens.

A goal was scored, but I didn't really see it because I was not really paying close attention. I was fixated on this guy wearing #4, who my program explained was midfielder Patrick Viera, a Frechnman born in Senegal. I began to notice that every time he touched the ball (with his feet, of course) he passed it directly on to the foot of a teammate who was 3 feet or 30 feet away. I noticed that when he got the ball, no opponent could get it from him, that he deftly dribbled the ball in the midfield. No, he did not run up and down the field, out-pacing opponents and rushing toward the goal. He was a general, overlooking the battle, moving the action in his team's favor.

Unfortunately, there was no scoring.

The most interesting thing that caught my attention was a section of fans dressed in light blue shirts, the visiting fans, singing Blue Moon. Thousands of voices, singing Blue Moon. I had no idea what that was all about, but it was friggin' impressive.

It was almost half-time before defender Ashley Cole put a ball in the net to great cheers, and the teams wnet into the break with Arsenal leading 1-0.

Except for Patrick Viera's talent and the visiting fans singing Blue Moon, I was afraid that soccer was living-up to its reputation in my mind as a low-scoring, boring sport.

During half-time, we made our way down to the concession stands. I had coffee and some kind of pie, the others had beer and something to eat. Our host was very excited by the match and asked how I was liking it. Not wanting to be as big a bore as I can be, I said it was great, that the atmosphere was amazing.

"What do you think of Ohnree?" He asked.

"Who is that?"

"He's the striker for Arsenal wearing number fourteen. You should really watch him, he's amazing."

"I've been watching number four."

"Ahh, Patrick Viera! He might be the best midfielder in English soccer right now."

Whatever that meant! Whooppee! You're the best at being boring, I thought.

We went back to our seats for the second half and the match was a little more engaging. I looked for Ohnree. Oddly, #14 was a guy named Henry. He was French (another Frenchman), and it was pronounced with a "french" accent: nasal passages closed and the "on" coming from the back of the throat.

I watched him, but my attention continued to go to Viera. He was now an amazing athlete in my eyes. He was remarkably agile, fast, and accurate. His opponents were seemingly baffled by his every move.

The Denis Bergkamp, A Dutchman, scored pretty early in the second half. 2-0 Arsenal. The score was already double what I expected.

My attention went between Viera and Henry. I began to notice that there were always two defenders on Henry, and he more often than not got away from them with the ball seemingly attache4d to his foot, or collecting an amazingly accurate pass from Viera.

I hardly noticed the passage of time when Sylvan Wiltord (yet another Frenchman) scored to make it 3-0. I then looked to see if the first goal-scorer, Ashley Cole, was also French, but he is English.

The game seemed to get faster as time went on. I had expected the pace to slow as the match moved into its final fifteen minutes, but that was hardly the case.

Henry seemed to be running faster, busting through more defenders than before, collecting even more accurate passes from Viera. I was starting to like this Henry guy. Then he scored. The place erupted. Erupted with cheers. It was as if 30-odd thousand spectators had been waiting for Thierry Henry to score a goal. When he delivered the set shot from outside the box, it flew right past the goalkeeper into the net. The shot was a thing of beauty. I had never seen anyone kick a ball like that, making it curve and twist and bend as it raced through the air. It appeared that the Manchester City goalkeeper had never seen it either.

What seemed like moments later, Henry scored again! The score was now 5-0! The crowd was raucous, and I was sold.

I left Highbury filled with a new-found respect for soccer. I bought an Arsenal pin from a street vendor, and began following the team in the papers and on the Internet. I now had a favorite athlete: Thierry Henry.

A team scoring five goals in one match was not my idea of a soccer match, and come to find out, it is out-of-the-ordinary. My wife and I joke that she almost always guess the final score of a match, because it is usually 2-1.

When we moved back to New York, I learned that there was a professional soccer league here in America: Major League Soccer. I had no idea. My local team, the MetroStars, played at Giants Stadium. I bought season tickets and began establishing my access to English soccer with pay-per-view and internet subscriptions.

I started following the Italian Serie A and the Spanish La Liga. I fell in love with Internazionale, in Milan, and Barcelona.

Eventually, Thierry Henry left Arsenal and joined Barcelona, where he played with Lionel Messi (today, perhaps, the best player in the world). Barcelona, like Arsenal, is one of the biggest clubs in the world. Like the other top clubs, the squad is usually so packed with stars, that bench players would be starters for any other team. I was lucky enough to have Barca come to New York and play an exhibition against my tea, and I got to see Henry and Messi play together. No amount of money is too much for that show!

I learned about the Champions League, where the top clubs (Champions and some runners-up) from all the Eurpoean leagues participate in a tournament to decide the champion of Europe. Arsneal, Barcelona and Inter are almost always represented.

Last night, Barcelona played the second leg of a home-and-away quarter final match against German side Bayern Leverkuesen. The first match had been at Bayern and Barcelona won 3-0. In order for Bayern to make it through to the next round, they were going to have to beat Barca by 3 goals. The winner is determined by aggregate goals scored. Beating Barca at home by 3 goals or more is a tall order for the best clubs in the world. Bayern was going to have to play well beyond their talents to pull this off.

They did not.

Not only did Bayern not win by three goals, Barca score 7 (yes, SEVEN) goals to win by an aggregate of 10-2.

Lionel Messi scored 5 goals. An amazing feat against a champions league team.

The final was 7-1, but the match wasn't anywhere near as close as the score makes it sound.

Yes, the average soccer match ends 2-1; but that doesn't mean that some games are not higher-scoring.

I am lucky to have found top-flight soccer, I am lucky to hold season tickets for my team, I am lucky to afford premium television channels that show international matches, and I am lucky to love players like Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi.

Oh, and the stroke of luck with which I will close: two years ago, Thierry Henry joined my New York team, and I get to see him play every home match.

It is like being in heaven.

I was fortunate enough to meet Henry after a match one night.

I was like a little boy. I was flabbergasted and couldn't think of a thing to say. I even forgot to have him sign my jersey. I forgot to tell him he was the reason I watch soccer, and that he changed my life that October day in 2000.

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