With a looping back-post header well into stoppage time, Branislav Ivanovic turned Benfica goalkeeper Artur into a statued spectator and gave Chelsea FC a 2-1 win in the Europa League final. The easy explanation for Americans not well versed in the various continental soccer competitions is to call it Europe's NIT. It's a lesser tournament that nobody really cares about until someone else wins it.
But even that analogy is not really accurate. When Kansas inevitably gets bounced from the NCAA basketball tournament in the Sweet 16, there isn't a consolation spot waiting for them in the NIT. That's effectively how Chelsea won a trophy Wednesday.
Ferguson. Moyes. Mancini. Scholes. Barbara Walters. The greats say good-bye and heads roll at season's end. Michael Davies and Roger Bennett dissect the decapitations and even find time to debate the origins of pie with special guest and Manchester City lover Marc Stein.
During what would be a doomed FA Cup final performance at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, Manchester City fans sang for their doomed manager, Roberto Mancini. The divisive Italian still had a place in the hearts of the club's supporters, even if he had fallen out of favor with City's relatively new front office regime (the transplanted Barcelona duo of Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain) and, most important, the club's chief executive, Khaldoon Al Mubarak. When Wigan's Ben Watson headed in a 90th-minute goal to give the undersupported, underfunded underdogs an FA Cup victory that pretty much justified all the "romance of the Cup" propaganda that goes along with the competition, the world (at least the football-watching world on Twitter) rejoiced.
Seemingly the only people cheering for "the people's club" (as City is known) were the people who had always been doing so — the fans who had been born or bred into fandom. Manchester City will finish second in the Premier League this season. They won the league last season, and finished third the season before that. Yet there is still a sense that, despite truly outrageous amounts of money spent by City's owners, outside of their core fan base this club isn't loved. Or perhaps better put, they are not admired.
This wasn't how things were supposed to go. There were blueprints in place to build Manchester City into a global football giant, equal in stature, if not quite historical significance, to Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and their neighbors, Manchester United. After bombing out of the Champions League and losing the Premier League some time around Valentine's Day, the FA Cup was a last chance for City to put a silver lining on an underwhelming season. Considering how well-documented Manchester City's attention to detail is (they famously have 30-page color-coded documents about 15-year-old prospects), things had gone quite off the rails.
Regard the Rooney. Here he is, above, in a photograph taken last January, in the act of kissing, or grabbing, his Manchester United badge on his Manchester United jersey, in front of some Manchester United fans, at Manchester City's stadium, the Etihad, in an act that probably made Manchester United fans delirious, and Manchester City fans want to go full Filomena on him. He's Wayne Rooney. He's here to score goals and make people crazy. And he's all out of goals.
I left Manchester 10 years ago, after 14 years of living in the city. Through that entire time, Sir Alex Ferguson has been the manager of Manchester United. And in a few weeks' time, he won’t be.
Perhaps it's that final symbolic severing of a particular connection to a city I didn't stick with that's the reason I’m sitting in my office in Brooklyn feeling surprisingly maudlin this morning. When I moved to Manchester in the late 1980s, Ferguson, along with Factory Records founder Tony Wilson, was already one of the iconic faces of the city, and for me that iconography has grown more distinct with time and distance.
There are casual Manc acquaintances from my time there who I haven’t seen in years, except in the odd pixelated glimpse of filled-out faces or shots of their children (filtered by Facebook and my own squinted puzzlement as to who they are and where I know them from). But cutaway shots of Ferguson "reacting" have been a continual part of the texture of my life, wherever I’ve been in the world. The loss of that saddens me, regardless of how I, a non-United fan, might feel about the phenomena he reacted to. Over time, I came to experience watching Ferguson at an affective level, somehow distinct from the narrative of games. Knowing he'd be animated on the touchline was like knowing the color green existed.
As any Liverpool fan with a good memory will be happy to tell you, English football did not start with the Premier League's 1992 formation. It can sometimes feel that way; the league is rather proficient at self-mythology, so much so you'd think an achievement like, say, Tottenham's double-winning 1960-61 side played football in another dimension. But there are decades of legendary players, dynasties (yes, Liverpool), and shocking anomalies (Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, for instance) that came before Sky Sports and the Illuminati conspired to create the sports-entertainment juggernaut that is widely regarded by people who don't watch La Liga and the Bundesliga as the best football league in the world.
But was there English football before Sir Alex Ferguson? That's actually hard to recall. The Manchester United manager retired today with 13 Premier League titles, two Champions League trophies, five FA Cups, and four League Cups. He is, unscientifically, the greatest manager or coach in modern sports history. No other leader has been so successful for so long, and been so adaptive while seeming, at least on the surface, to be so unchanging. When football players were carb-ing up with pies before matches, sneaking halftime cigarettes in toilet stalls, and putting together a decent lager buzz almost before the final whistle of a match, Ferguson was there. And when players started having their every movement monitored by Prozone, ate nothing but whitefish and green veggies, and tactical chalkboards started looking like a prop from the set of A Beautiful Mind, Ferguson was there. He's won on cold, rainy nights in Wigan and on "that night in Barcelona." In 27 years at Old Trafford, he has managed some of the greatest players in the history of football, including Roy Keane, Bryan Robson, Cristiano Ronaldo, Peter Schmeichel, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, and Paul Scholes. He also managed Bebe.
It hasn't been the finest vintage, this Premier League season. But most football fans agree, they will drink anything if the price is right. Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham all got what they needed over the weekend, even if there were a string of rather uninspiring 1-0 victories. In this week's podcast, the Blazers consider them all, with Michael taking particular glee in Chelsea's late win at Old Trafford.
The pod then takes a somber tone as ESPN's Sir Ian Darke joins from the road to reflect on his past three years as the voice of English football in America, while Roger offers a couple of ideas for his farewell sign-off. Until next week. Dominate.
The Battle for Third and Fourth is now officially under way. On Monday, Manchester United and their ragtag ensemble wrapped up their 20th league title in impressive fashion (move over, Don Nelson, the mad scientist officially resides at Old Trafford). Still, few headlines were devoted to Sir Alex & Co.'s accomplishment. Earlier in the weekend, Liverpool's Luis Suarez once again proved there was still plenty of crazy left in England's top flight when he gnawed on Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic in the course of a 2-2 draw. In this week's pod, Michael and Roger review the implications for Liverpool and their American owners as well as what's in store for Suarez's 72 pearly whites.
The Men in Blazers revel, as always, in their weekly telegrams from GFOPs across these fine lands, inquiring about footballers' peculiar sweating habits and how to best consume a midgame pint or five, and end the pod with breaking news about the Men in Blazers National Team. Courage.
Old-school fan violence reared its ugly head this weekend, from the hallowed terraces of Wembley to the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne. Even hardened criminals from the depths of Her Majesty's Prison Service were in disbelief over the audacity of one horse-punching Magpie supporter.
Somewhere amid this nonsense, football was played, and in this week's suboptimal podcast the Men in Blazers consider it all — from the Chelsea–Man City FA Cup semifinal to Everton's continued late-season form, courtesy of a win against relegation-threatened QPR that sent Harry Redknapp into his ritual comical rage. Now, with just a month left in this Premier League season, Michael and Roger handicap the race for Arsene Wenger's coveted "fourth-place trophy."
Brett Koremenos: The Arsenal-Everton showdown today has massive implications for the Champions League. Bottom line, if my Toffees can't even manage a draw, you can kindly wave good-bye as they fade into your rearview mirror. Should they win, however, both our clubs are going to be part of a crazy, four-team chase for the final two spots in the top four. How are you feeling about your club's chances heading into this match? Or have you not been able to think about it because you're still mourning the fact that the Andrei Arshavin era is ending this summer?
netw3rk: Rooting for Arsenal has amply prepared me for crazy late-season jockeying for Champions League spots. Or, as I like to call it, “The Arsenal Cup.” So I’m feeling pretty good; Arsenal sits third, one point above Chelsea and Spurs, and four points clear of Everton, entering Tuesday. Still, it is Arsenal, and I’m just as ready for a collapse as I am for a Champions League place.
Kevin Sampson is a writer shaped by his experiences on the "island state" of Liverpool, England, where he is also a longtime season-ticket holder for the celebrated soccer team. His novels and nonfiction writing explore the recent past and present of a city that has been transformed, for better or worse, in the age of globalization. On the eve of the publication of his new novel, The Killing Pool, I talked to Sampson about his lifelong obsession with Liverpool Football Club; his exploration of football violence in his debut novel, Awaydays; the lead-up to the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died; and the influence of the legendary Liverpool fanzine The End on supporter culture.
When it came time to adapt Awaydays for the screen, the music was a really big part of the result. The soundtrack was pretty fantastic (there were even Manchester bands in there).
Awaydays is pretty much wedded to ... Liverpool's post-punk renaissance. The waterfront, the Ropewalks area, and the former trading hubs on either side of Victoria Street had so many disused warehouses and silos and underground storage cellars that, once the ships sailed for good, there were just so many wonderful, atmospheric bars and clubs springing up. Some of the most precious, for me, were Eric's (which spawned the Zoo Records and Eternal labels), Checkmate, the Swinging Apple, Michel Claire, the City Vaults, Maxwell's Plum, Oscar's. With Awaydays, we tried to use tracks that would have been recorded by the end of 1979, and which you would likely have heard in clubs like Eric's. So, yeah ... plenty of Bunnymen, Ultravox, Joy Division, Magazine, and a previously unreleased demo version of the Cure's "10.15, Saturday Night." Beautiful, heartbreaking stuff!
When this slipped out late last week, it barely picked up much traction because, well, it seemed weird. Plus it surfaced on Friday, and Friday is where news goes to die.
Manchester United has hired a sound engineer to improve the atmosphere at its home ground, Old Trafford. They want it to be louder. This is the stadium where fans were once famously dissed by Roy Keane for enjoying "prawn sandwiches" more than actual football.
The move is actually not that weird. It's smart. Or smarter; smarter in the way that Billy Beane was smarter. That's because relatively recent academic literature is littered with papers studying the impact of social pressure on outcomes in sports. And two conclusions are inescapable. First, economists really like studying soccer. But more importantly, home teams in front of large, hostile crowds have a distinct advantage. And it's not for the reasons you might suspect.
(That's assuming you suspect home teams win because visiting teams have trouble playing in front of large, hostile crowds. According to the data, that's not what's happening.)
So on Sunday night I get a text from Phil about fascists.
Phil is my designated friend for casual abuse around the sporting arena. We share text messages full of sarcasm and invective that may well act as a social service for those around us, by being a valve for expressions of frustration and negative emotional energy that would otherwise find its way into incidents on the subway. He supports a Premier League team that's not as successful as they used to be, but one that gets by on faded grandeur and the occasional cup win. I support a team whose name appears on the Wikipedia page for the phrase “Yo-Yo club” (since I started supporting Sunderland, they’ve been promoted eight times, relegated seven, and have been eliminated in the playoffs three times — suffice it to say, the season run-ins are usually lively one way or another).
Seen from the outside, my exchanges with Phil about the respective “fortunes” of our teams could be likened to the cast of Downton Abbey riding a small model train that’s going in sedate circles, with occasional breaks for ice cream, during which the oversize passengers exchange hurled rocks with waifs on an adjacent ceaseless roller coaster (waifs who’ve ceased throwing up and are now mostly in a troubled, fitful sleep except for the jolt of the tracks every time they pass “Go”).
The unpredictable predictably happened again over the weekend. Manchester United marched on ever closer to its 20th league title, Everton came back to life against Manchester City, and Liverpool's momentum came to a grinding halt thanks to surprising Southampton. Welcome to the Premier League. In this week's pod, Michael and Davies recap all the happenings, answer telegrams, and welcome U.S. forward and digital philosopher Herculez Gomez for an inclusive interview on the eve of two crucial World Cup qualifiers. The Las Vegas native opines on Twitter, team chemistry, and Mrs. Guzan blow-up dolls.
Viel Glück to the Von Trapps as they enter the uncompromising bear pit that is Azteca Stadium.
The English Premier League is down to one team in the Champions League. It has been more than 15 years since no English team made the Champions League quarterfinals, but that is the most likely scenario after Tuesday's matches. Reigning champion Manchester City crashed out of the so-called "group of death," Chelsea was unable to defend its title, and Manchester United received a very un–Manchester United dose of luck when Nani was given a questionable second-half red card in the second leg of their tie against Real Madrid, allowing the Madristas to storm back from a one-goal deficit and eliminate the Reds. So all that's left for England is Arsenal. And Arsenal, your Champions League underdog of the week, is in a world of trouble.