Football as Opera, tears all round
By Tim Charlesworth
Last weekend provided us with the moment that posterity might deem to be the iconic moment of the season. Leicester’s triumph is remarkable in so many ways, but its not easy to pick an on-pitch moment that sums it all up. There have been a few last minute dramatic goals, and some lovely moments of skill.
The most memorable goal, however is probably Eden Hazard’s goal against Tottenham that sealed the title for Leicester. Given that no Leicester players were on the pitch, this probably won’t cut it as posterity’s special moment in the season. Leicester’s win was a special achievement in a special season. It needs a magic moment to define the spirit of it all, something like Michael Thomas’ goal or Sergio Aguero’s goal for City in 2012.
On Saturday, Leicester gave us that defining moment. It was Leicester’s final home game of the season. The flag-waving crowd was in party mood. The stadium was packed long before kick-off, on a perfect sunny day, the like of which only an English spring can produce. Football is characterised by disappointment and failure. Most fans don’t win the league, or any other trophy. In most seasons, three (maximum) sets of fans will experience the joy of a trophy, and three more will experience the crushing pain or relegation. For the rest, it’s the purgatory of midtabledom. We all understand disappointment, and we can all relate to teams like Leicester, whose fans are doomed to mostly expect disappointment with very little prospect of the joy side of the equation.
The Leicester fans’ happiness was all the greater for its unexpected nature, and it would be churlish not to share a little of it. Not only had they won, but they had been spared the nerve-shredding experience of a close finish. The heroism of it all was personified by 64 year-old Claudio Ranieri, the man who openly wept on the day that Leicester qualified for the Champions League.
Its worth pausing a little to reflect on Claudio’s story. A second rate player, he started to make his mark on the game managing lower league teams in Italy in the late 80s, 30 years ago. He has managed in Spain, Italy, France and England, but never won a league title. And its not as if he has never managed teams with a chance of winning league titles. The clubs he has managed include: post-Abramovitch Chelsea; Valencia; Roma; Inter Milan; Juventus and Monaco (during its silly money phase). After being sacked by Monaco in the summer of 2014, he entered the ‘semi-retirement lounge’ of international football with lowly Greece. They sacked him a few months later, after losing to the Faroe Islands! It was at this moment that Leicester, having had to sack their manager amidst a minor scandal, turned to Ranieri. It was clearly a temporary ‘safe hands’ appointment, but it attracted widespread ridicule (mainly thanks to the Faroe Islands incident).
Expectations were low back in August, when Ranieri began the season as bookies favourite to be the first manager sacked, with his team 5,000-1 outsiders for the title. It is worth stepping back a moment and considering what 5,000-1 means. Arsenal were 32-1 to beat Liverpool by two goals in 1989. That victory was roughly 156 times more likely than Leicester’s. Greece were 150-1 to win Euro 2004 and Buster Douglas was 42-1 to beat Mike Tyson in 1990.
Ever since Jose Mourinho took over from Ranieri at Chelsea Mourinho has levelled a barrage of insults in Ranieri’s direction, apparently designed to ensure that Ranieri got no credit for the title that Chelsea won in 2004-5, less than a year after Ranieri left. The situation was worsened when Ranieri made a bit of a hash of taking over Mourinho’s European Champion team at Inter. Mourinho laid in again. His verbal assaults have been characterised by the kind of bullying, hectoring tone that only Mourinho can really perfect. Ranieri has maintained a dignified silence in response. In the 2015-16 season, it was Mourinho who got the sack and he was succeeded as champion manager by Ranieri. Some people are not sad at this twist of fate.
Ranieri behaved in a remarkably un-football-like, gentlemanly manner all season. He refused to criticise referees, even under the severest of provocation, and never had an unpleasant word to say about any of his rivals (even Mourinho). He also steadfastly refused to consider the possibility of winning the Premiership, long after such a denial became absurd. He finally relented after Leicester had qualified for the Champions League and accepted that they were aiming to win. He didn’t really have any choice. Because Leicester had already qualified for the Champions League, there was no point even playing their final fixtures unless they were trying to win the league!
On Saturday he stood beaming and besuited, silver hair glinting in the sunshine, hailed by his adoring crowd. Who could begrudge him this day? Next to him stood his friend, opera star, Andrea Bocelli, bedecked in a Leicester shirt. Ranieri gently raised one hand and the fomenting masses fell silent. Bocelli proceeded to belt out the Puccini aria, and football anthem, Nessun Dorma. I defy you to watch this scene without the hairs raising on the back of your neck.
Of course, those of us of a certain vintage can never forget Nessun Dorma as the theme for the operatic World Cup, Italia ‘90. It is the scenery for Paul Gascoigne’s tears, sadly prescient of the way that his talent would fritter away from that moment on. It summons the sadness on Stuart Pearce’s face after he missed his penalty. Pearce, a deadshot from the penalty spot, looked like a twelve year old boy ready to burst into tears, but desperately hanging on to his daddy’s advice that: ‘big boys don’t cry’. Diego Maradonna, the ultimate flawed genius, sobbed openly. Through injury, he had dragged his team almost single-handedly into the final, only to be defeated by a German penalty (something we can all relate to). Maradonna’s star would never shine again.
1990 represents a magical moment. Gazza’s tears caught the attention of women and children. Football was bounding back into the mainstream, after the dark violence-ridden 70s and 80s. The tragedies of Hillsborough and Valley Parade were behind us. The past was full of hooligans and quagmire pitches, the future full of all-seater stadia and the shiny Premiership era. It was the new spring, which led to the summertime in which English football is now basking. Initially, the choice of Nessun Dorma as a theme tune had seemed to be a crass attempt to overlay football with a touch of culture. As the tournament unfolded, it seemed the like perfect backdrop to the beautiful game.
But even if you are too young to remember Italia 90, the pure elegance of the music is undeniable. Nessun Dorma (None shall sleep) is a triumphant and defiant love aria from the Puccini Opera, Turandot. It is sung by the love-struck Prince who believes his love will conquer all, including the outright hostility of his heart’s desire, Princess Turandot. It is a curiously good analogy for Leicester’s season.
And all this reminded me of a truism. Football is opera. Its full of drama and triumph, rags to riches, triumphs against the odds and fallen giants. This season has even reminded us of Hillsborough, a genuine tragedy. It’s a game of rich prima donnas, preening peacocks, Olivier Giroud’s beard and Carlos Valderama’s hair. The ever changing costumes are full of vibrancy and colour, designed to accentuate the elegant physiques of the ‘players’. Only in football could the 1991-3 Arsenal away strip be revered for its artistic merit. Above all it’s a game of song.
The game’s unofficial anthem, Abide With Me, celebrates the working class origins of the professional game. Up and down the land, football fans sing their hearts out, remembering fallen heroes like Rocky, the 96 and the victims of the Munch air disaster. We sing with wit, of Freddie’s red hair, of ‘boring Arsenal’ and Patrick Viera’s country of birth. Above all, clubs throughout the nation proclaim their side as the ‘greatest team, the world has ever seen’, when only one of them, at best, can be right. Football is truly operatic, and many thanks to Leicester and Ranieri for reminding us all of that fact.
My own abiding memory of the season will be our home game against Leicester. This was a cruel game for Leicester. It was game 26, and people were just beginning to wonder if top of the table Leicester, really could do the impossible. Third placed Arsenal were the bookies favourites for the title, and the biggest threat to the Leicester dream. We were emerging from a mid-season trough, caused largely by a string of injuries. If we could beat Leicester, we would close to within just two points, and Leicester would clearly crumble.
I watched the game, on a big screen, in a local pub with my seven year old twins. We sat next to a young couple in Leicester shirts. The whole thing was an emotional roller coaster. Leicester led through a dubious goal, and seemed to be closing the match out in the professional and efficient manner of champions, when they were the victims of a harsh red card. We grabbed the bull by the horns and inexorably pulled ourselves back into it.
Just when it looked like time would run out, Danny Welbeck scored that fabulous last-gasp winner. The pub (mostly Arsenal fans) erupted in joy. It was clearly the turning point. We were on the way to our first league title in 12 years. Oh the joy of it! Only it wasn’t joy for everyone. My daughter, who is a far superior human being to me, grabbed hold of her leaping father and pointed towards the crestfallen young woman in the Leicester shirt whom she had befriended during the match. ‘Why is she sad daddy?’ she asked.
The look on the Leicester fan’s face told me everything. I had seen Michael Thomas and Alan Sunderland score their goals. I had watched Liam Brady, Mesut Ozil, Dennis Bergkamp and Rocky play. I had seen Arsene Wenger’s teams in their pomp, I had seen the Invincibles. I really wanted Arsenal to be champions, but I didn’t need to see Arsenal win the title in 2015/16. She deserved to see Leicester win. She had the grace to smile at my daughter, and to resist the urge to punch me in the face in return for my insincere commiserations, before she trudged forlornly away from the scene of raucous celebrations.
Its been a terrible season for us in many ways, with the frustration of the last decade threatening to bubble over, but I can’t help smiling when I think how Leicester’s triumph has banished the inconsolable look she wore that day.
- Afterthoughts on Chelsea – Tottenham. What would have happened to Arsenal, if they’d played like this?
- Special referee review: Chelsea – Tottenham
- Arsenal U21s v Aston Villa U21s – Division 2 Play-off Final
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- Arsenal: the long sleep 1953 – 1970; a view from the terrace. By John Sowman with an introduction by Bob Wilson.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football. By Tony Attwood, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews.
- Making the Arsenal: a novel by Tony Attwood.
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal by Mark Andrews.
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