Sunday, May 04, 2003


Anyone who saw Manchester United v Real Madrid had to be impressed by the fluidity and skill on show. Two of the world’s best sides playing it like a Playstation game, all immaculate passing, flawless tackling and perfectly executed goals.

If football is theatre, this was pure Andrew Lloyd Webber; glossy, skilful, entertaining, and totally anodyne. A minute after Ronaldo equalised you could see United fans smiling broadly enjoying their evening with the family, sharing their drinks and reading the programme. When Ronaldo went off having embarrassed United’s ‘world class defence’ Old Trafford applauded politely. All very lovely.

This is fine, and it’s just the kind of harmless light entertainment that ITV wants for Tuesday night viewing. But if you think that’s what makes football the biggest sport in the world, you’re wrong.

Football is mostly gut poppingly frustrating, a total waste of time, and often a complete waste of money. As a form of entertainment it registers just below heart surgery. But the elevation from these regular frustrations to the preciously rare joy that comes from a success is what makes it the greatest sport on the planet. In a fortnight Southampton will be in the FA Cup final for the first time since they won it in 1976. Their fans have watched their team for the intervening 27 years with little reward, but they still go every week in the hope that they’ll do it again. If they lose to Arsenal, which they probably will, they may have to wait another 27 years for another go. On that basis you’re looking at perhaps three moments of tangible joy in a football supporters lifetime. And Southampton are one of the more successful teams in the country.

Yesterday Oxford were on the verge of a rare moment of joy, if Lincoln lost to Torquay and we won, Oxford would be in the play-offs. From the play-offs we could be promoted from the cloggers and animals in Division 3, to the cloggers and animals in Division 2.

Oxford scored after two minutes and never looked like losing, near half time the place erupted even though the ball wasn’t on the pitch. Lincoln were losing. We were winning. We were in the play-offs and chasing promotion.

The second half came, somebody leapt up shouting “Torquay have got a penalty!” There was a pregnant pause, if you can imagine the pregnant pause of six thousand Oxford fans waiting to hear the news of a Torquay player taking a penalty in Lincoln. A moment later stadium was jumping, Torquay were 2-0 up. As the concrete stands cracked under the cacophony the bloke in front of me tuned into his radio, he turned to me perplexed; “They had a penalty, but they missed it”. It was the biggest game of Chinese whispers Oxford had ever seen. Somebody shouts they’ve got a penalty, somebody else translates that as they’ve scored a penalty. Somewhere in Lincoln, a Torquay striker holds his head in his hands as the ball nestles comfortably in the arms of the grateful Lincoln keeper.

Lincoln were still losing though, we were winning, that was enough. The tension rose, which made reading the quietening crowd more difficult, each text message beep that went off, each ripple of the crowd, the occasional bloke who jumped up shouting “It’s 2-0!” which caused another surge of delight, but turned out to be another reference to the penalty they scored but missed. What would it sound like if Lincoln scored and doomed us to another year of Division 3 football? With four minutes left we found out, yelping, swearing but overall a ghostly silence drifted across the stadium.

And that is what football is about. In a season you watch 69 hours of frustrating, largely un-entertaining football, and despite this investment you may miss out with four minutes of those 69 hours left. Your next opportunity will only come after 69 hours more of football. It’s like reading the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, only to find out that when Frodo gets to the Mount Doom he left the ring on the mantelpiece back in the Shire, and the Mount Doom have been turned into a Hungry Horse restaurant with child’s ball pool and play area.

If you don’t follow football but see David Beckham on Pepsi adverts and think that’s what it’s about. It’s not, it’s all the kicking and screaming under the media sheen that makes football what it is. Football isn’t really about the top teams and players; it’s about Vietnamese second division promotion race, the Mongolia Vs Greenland international friendly, the Peruvian cup quarter-final second replay. People forget that.


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