1. WE ARE THE WORLD
In 1994, when the soccer World Cup was about to be played across the length and breadth of a largely indifferent America, perhaps the main concern of those few U.S. citizens who knew it was happening was that the alien phenomenon of soccer hooliganism might be about to arrive in the States. Fortunately the England team failed to make the finals, and so the feared English hooligans stayed home. Fortunately for the hooligans, I suspect, for, as I heard an American comedian explaining on British television, the World Cup matches were to be played in some of the toughest neighborhoods of some of the toughest cities in the world. “I tell you what,” he suggested. “Why don’t you bring your hooligans, and we’ll bring ours.”
Four years later, the 1998 World Cup was staged in and won by France, and as it happened I watched the entire tournament in America, on ESPN and Univision. The dullness of the ESPN coverage, with its commentators desperately misapplying the terminology of America’s ball games to soccer, suggested that America’s lack of interest in the rest of the world’s favorite game was as great as ever. Even when the USA n was defeated by Iran—Iran!—there was no more than a brief blip of attention before the Yankees, McGwire, and Sosa regained center stage.
Over on the Spanish-language Univision channel, however “Góóóóóóóóól!!!!!!”—things were very different. Here was all excitement and color missing from the ESPN commentary. And was on television, so it was also in real life; for wherever in polyglot America you stumbled over clumps of French men and women, Brazilians, Colombians, Mexicans, Croatians, Germans, even Brits for example in the many-nationed bars of Queens, the tournament and its passions were to be found there also, blazing as fiercely as anywhere else on earth.
The poor performances of the USA team were no doubt due, in part. to the crushing uninterest of the American mainstream but could also, I thought, be ascribed to the fact that the team seemed to be made up of college kids. For while college teams successfully supply fresh talent, year after year, to the NFL and NBA, soccer is not a college sport. Soccer is the people’s game, played with empty tin cans in the back streets of Brazilian cities. Soccer is working-class self-expression. If the United States is to have a first-rate soccer team, its administrators must look away from the colleges and into the heart of the minority communities who could be found crowding around their televisions in those summer weeks, sharing in the world’s excitement over the world championship of o jogo bonito, the Beautiful Game.
How to convey to America the idea of beauty as applied to a ball game it knows and cares so little about? How to explain the links that exist between soccer teams and national character? For all soccer fans know what it means to play like Brazilians (that is, with flair, flamboyance, and intoxicating rhythm), or like Germans (with great discipline, unwearying physical strength, and iron determination) or Italians (defensively, but with devastating bursts of counterattacking play).
This essay seeks to answer such questions by avoiding them. It seeks to find common ground between those who, like me, love soccer, and those to whom it feels like an alien irrelevance. It sets out not to describe the arcana of the game itself but to explore a related condition that crosses all sporting boundaries: that of being a fan.
A fan doesn’t just tune in once every four years to cheer his country’s team at the time of the World Cup. The true soccer fan is the club fan, for whom continuity is everything, and so is loyalty in times of adversity, and small gratifications offer great emotional rewards. Which is why, one rainy Sunday afternoon in March, I set out for Wembley Stadium, London, to watch my favorite club, Tottenham Hotspur, take on Leicester City in the final of the Worthington Cup.
There are three major competitions in English soccer each season, one played in leagues—the elite Premiership and the three lower division the Football League—and two on a knockout basis (ie., who loses is eliminated): the ancient and glamorous Football Association Challenge Cup (the “FA Cup”), and the johnny-come-lately, cheap-and-cheerful League Cup, which has metamorphosed, in this era of sponsorship, into the Milk Cup, the Coca-Cola Cup, and now the Worthington Cup. (At least milk, Coke, and Worthington beer are all things you can pour into cups. Cricket, also a much-sponsored sport, has had its Cups sponsored by the manufacturers of cigarettes and razor blades.)
In spite of the third-out-of-three status of the Worthington Cup, the chance to watch one’s team play at Wembley lifts the heart and quickens the pulse. Wembley is the hallowed heart of the English game, the turf on which the England team won its only World Cup way back in 1966. I’ve been a Spurs fan since the early 1960s, but I’ve never made it to Wembley to watch them in a final until now.
What’s more, the nineties have been lean years for this once-great soccer club. But now, here we are in a cup final again. A win may herald the beginning of a new golden era. I make my way to the great stadium, full of hope.
2. FIRST LOVE
I came to London in January 1961 as a boy of thirteen and a half, on I my way to boarding school and accompanied by my father. It was a cold month, with blue skies by day and green fogs by night. We stayed at a huge barracks of a hotel, the Cumberland at Marble Arch, and soon after we settled in, my father asked if I would like to see a professional soccer game.
In Bombay, where I had grown up, there was no soccer to speak of; the local sports were cricket and field hockey. The only part of India where soccer was taken seriously was Bengal, and although the fame of the Mohun Bagan team of Calcutta had reached my ears, I had never seen the game played.
The first game my father took me to see was a friendly match between the North London club, Arsenal, and the Spanish champions, Real Madrid. I did not then know that the visitors were rated as perhaps the greatest club side ever seen anywhere. Or that they had won the European Cup, the annual tournament held to determin, champion of all Europe’s national champions, five years running achievement that nobody before or since has matched). Or that among their players were two of the game’s all-time immortals, the Hungar Ferenc Puskas, “the little general” who masterminded his national side’s humiliating drubbings of the England team, and the Argentinian center-forward Alfredo di Stefano. Other Real players—the flying winger Gento, the defensive colossus Santamaria—were rated almost as highly as the two superstars.
This is the way I remember the game:* in the first half, Real Madrid tore the Arsenal apart. The London club was and is renowned for its tough defensive style of play—“Boring Arsenal” is a label they were stuck with for years—but Real went through them almost at will, and at the halftime break led 3-0. Then, because this was after all just a friendly game with nothing riding on it, Real took off their star players and replaced them for the second half with a bunch of kids. Arsenal stubbornly kept all their first-team players on the field and the game ended up tied, 3-3; but not even the most die-hard Arsenal fans at the game could pretend that the result accurately reflected the quality of the two teams. On the way back to the hotel my father asked me for my views. “I didn’t think much of that English team,” I told him, but I liked that Spanish side. Can you find out if there’s an English team that plays like Real Madrid?” Unknown to me, I had asked for the near impossible; as if, in Michael Jordan’s airborne heyday, I had asked, “Can you find out if there’s a team that plays like the Chicago Bulls?” My father, almost as much an innocent in these matters as myself, said, “I’ll ask at the front desk.” What he learned from that long-forgotten hotel clerk changed my life, because a few days later we went to watch the other famous club of North London, Tottenham Hotspur, and I lost my heart.
There were still many things I didn’t know. I didn’t know that between Tottenham and Arsenal, the Spurs and the Gunners, there was a long rivalry and a deep mutual loathing. I didn’t know that the Spurs tradition was of cavalier attacking play, and that if Arsenal were jeered for their negativity (it was said that their fans would sing in celebration of a scoreless draw), then the leaky Spurs defense was also a traditional butt of ridicule for soccer fans everywhere. I didn’t even know the words to the Spurs’ version of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.” (“Poor old Arsenal lies a-moldering in the grave / while the Spurs go marching on! on! on!”)
Most of all I didn’t know that under their manager, the taciturn Yorkshireman Bill Nicholson—”Billy Nick”—and their loquacious Irish captain, Danny Blanchflower, Tottenham had become the greatest team to emerge in Britain since the “Busby Babes” of Manchester United perished in the Munich air disaster of 1958. The hotel clerk had been right. This team could have given Real Madrid a fright. These were the Super Spurs in their greatest year, on their way to capturing British soccer’s Holy Grail, the League and Cup Double; that is to say, victory in a single season both in the First Division of the Football League and in the country’s premier knockout competition, the FA Cup.
I don’t remember who Spurs thrashed that day, but I do recall understanding that I had in some profound and unalterable way been changed by my visit to this bleak northern borough of a city in which I was still a complete stranger. The boy who left the Spurs’ stadium at White Hart Lane after the final whistle was no longer a spectator. He had become a fan.
Bill Brown, Peter Baker, Ron Henry, Danny Blanchflower, Maurice Norman, Dave Mackay, Cliff Jones, John White, Bobby Smith, Les Allen, Terry Dyson. To this day I can recite the names of the first team without needing to look them up. I can even do most of the reserves. Johnny Hollowbread, Mel Hopkins, Tony Marchi, Terry Medwin, Eddie Clayton, Frank Saul … Sorry. Sorry. I’ll stop.
I can remember, too, the horror with which I greeted the series of mishaps that broke the side up. I felt them as personal tragedies: Blanchflower’s knee injury, Norman’s broken leg, Mackay breaking the same leg twice, and above all the death of John White, killed by lightning while sheltering under a tree on a golf course. White’s nickname at Spurs had been the Ghost.
Spurs did the Double in the 1960-61 season, narrowly missed repeating the feat in 1961-62, and in the following thirty-seven years they have often been “a good Cup side, winning many British and European knockout trophies, but they have never won a League Cha onship again. This is what it means to be a fan: to wait for a miracle during decades of disillusion, and yet to have no choice in the matte allegiance. Each weekend, I turn to the sports pages, and my eve a matically seeks out the Spurs’ result. If they have won, the weekend feels richer. If they have lost, a black cloud settles. It’s pathetic. It’s an addiction. It’s monogamous, till-death-us-do-part love.
In that glorious 1960-61 season, however, Blanchflower’s Tottenham did, just that once, take the First Division championship by storm. Then, on the first Saturday in May, they went down the road to Wembley for the Cup Final, the Double’s second leg. They won the game 2-0, even though they didn’t play well on the day, as even their manager, Bill Nicholson, later admitted. They were, in fact, lucky to win.
The team they beat was Leicester City.
The 1999 Worthington Cup Final would turn out to be a tale of two opposing goalkeepers. The Spurs goalie, Ian Walker, had only recently regained his first-team place after a slump in form, and many of us still worried about his vulnerability. Leicester, on the other hand, had the U.S. international keeper, Kasey Keller, in goal. Walker and Keller would make one bad mistake apiece at crucial moments of the match. One of them got away with it. The other’s fumble decided the game.
Goalkeepers aren’t like other players, perhaps because they are allowed to handle the ball within the delineated confines of the “penalty area,” perhaps because they are the last line of their team’s defense, but mainly because, for goalkeepers, there is no middle register of performance, each time they play, they know they will come off the field either as heroes or as clowns.
A good goalkeeper must be brave enough to dive at the feet of an opponent arriving at speed. He must command the area around his goal and exude an air of swift decisiveness. He must know when to catch the ball and when to punch it, and whenever high crosses are aimed into the penalty area from the wings, he must, if he can, rise above the throng of players and make the ball his own.
In spite of (or because of) the goalie’s vital importance, English soccer has goalkeeper jokes the way rock ‘n’ roll has drummer jokes. There was once a goalie nicknamed Dracula, because he was afraid of crosses Also a goalie nicknamed Cinderella, because he was always late for the ball.
The keeper in the “Super Spurs” Double side was the Scottish international, Bill Brown. He was gaunt and unsmiling and brilliant and had an old-fashioned short-back-and-sides haircut, and nobody ever cracked a joke about him.
One day in the mid-1960s, however, Billy Nick splashed out 30,000 pounds, then a world-record transfer fee for a goalkeeper, to bring a huge raw Irish kid the short distance from the little Watford Football Club to mighty Spurs. His name was Pat Jennings, and he wore his hair fashionably long and wavy, with sideburns. The Spurs faithful distrusted him at once.
He did his time in the reserve side but soon enough got his turn in goal. The home fans gave him a hard time that day until, at a crucial moment, he flew across his goalmouth to save a shot that was heading at high velocity for the far top corner, and not only made the save but caught the flying ball cleanly in a single outstretched hand.
We looked at one another, aghast, with the same question in all our eyes: exactly how big are this guy’s paws? After that save, Jennings had no more trouble with the Spurs crowd, who took him to their hearts until, many seasons later, the management did an unthinkable thing. Deciding that Pat—our by now beloved Pat, Ireland’s international keeper as well as ours, Pat who was regularly rated as the finest in the world!—was over the hill, they transferred him to Arsenal. To Arsenal, of all clubs, where he went on to enjoy year after year of triumph! Even now, it’s hard to put into words the outrage I felt. The outrage I still feel. I can only say what Spurs fans said to each other in those days, furiously, mirthlessly, often adding, as intensifiers, a series of unrepeatable expletives: “It’s a joke.”**
4. THE SOUNDTRACK
Ossie’s going to Wembley
His knees have gone all trembly
Come on, you Spurs.
Come on, you Spurs.
Soccer is a sung game, lustily and thoroughly sung. Teams have their individual anthems—”Glory, Glory” for Spurs, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for Liverpool—and a collection of other so to speak patriotic songs. Ossie was Osvaldo Ardiles, a member of Argentina’s 1978 world-champion team, who came to Spurs immediately after his World Cup victory and endeared himself to the supporters both by the neat brilliance of his play and by his inability to master the sound of the English language. (“Tottingham,” he called his chosen club or, alternatively, “the Spoors.”)
Ossie went to Wembley to play for Spurs against Manchester City in the 1981 FA Cup Final, and he had, as a teammate, a fellow Argentinian, Ricardo “Ricky” Villa. The game was drawn, but in the replay Villa scored one of the most inspired goals of modern times, jinking and twisting past most of the opposing defense before he buried the ball in the net. Thus Ossie’s final became Villa’s triumph. Ricky won the Cup for “Tottingham,” but Ossie still has the song.
Soccer has many other aural codes. There is, for example, the rhythm of the scores. Each Saturday we hear the results being read on radio and TV, and so formalized is the reading that you can divine the result simply from the announcer’s stresses and intonation. Then there’s the music of the roars. In the middle 1980s I lived for a time at one end of Highbury Hill, the long road at whose other end is the Arsenal stadium. Match days, when the crowd surged past our house, were often a little wild. (Once somebody stuck a flayed pig’s head on the iron railings of my front yard. Why? The pig didn’t say.) But I could always work out how the game was going without leaving my study, just by the way the crowd roared. One kind of roar-uninhibited, chest-beating, triumphant-invariably followed a goal by the home team. Another, groanier noise indicated a near miss, a shrieky third informed me of a near miss by the opposition, and a dull grunt, a flayed pig’s head of a grunt, would follow a goal by the visitors.
There are also the chants, non-team specific formulae adapted by each set of supporters for local use. I once took Mario Vargas Llosa to White Hart Lane, and he was bewildered and delighted when he realiced that the fans’ cry of “One team in Europe! There’s only one team in Europe!” was being chanted to, more or less, the tune of “Guantanamera”.
That year, Spurs had a right-back called Gary Stevens. A rival soccer club, Everton, also had a right-back called Gary Stevens, and, to make matters worse, both players had at different times played right-back for England. Thus, to Vargas Llosa’s further mystification, another version of the “Guantanamera” chant went “Two Gary Stevens! There’s only two Gary Stevens!”
All together now: “We all agree … Arsenal are rubbish!” Or, when your team is winning well: “Are you watching, are you watching, are you watching, Arsenal?” Or, in the same circumstances, but more ambitiously: “At last they’re gonna believe us, at last they’re gonna believe us, at last they’re gonna believe us! … We’re going to win the League.” (Or, if more appropriate, “Cup.”)
Or, vindictively, after one’s team has taken the lead, and while pointing at the visiting team’s supporters in their corral: “You’re not singing, you’re not singing, you’re not singing anymore!”
5. DAVID AND THE GENT
One week before the Worthington Cup Final, Tottenham’s French superstar, the gifted left-winger David Ginola, had scored a solo goal in a league match that was almost a replay of Ricky Villa’s famous Cup-winning masterpiece. Ginola has movie-star good looks and Pat Jennings’s hair: tresses long and silky enough to win him a featured role- this is true in a L’Oréal television commercial. (“Because I’m worth it” became, in Ginola’s heavily accented version, “Because I’m worse eat.”)
There is no doubt that Ginola is worth it. His skills are even more lustrous than his locks. Ginola can shimmy like your sister Kate. His balance, his feinting, his tight ball control at high speed, his ability to score from thirty yards out, or by waltzing past defenders like the great matadors who work closest to the bulls, make him a defender’s nightmare. Two criticisms have been made of him, however. First, that he is lazy, a luxury player, uninterested in the hard graft of the game. Second, that he dives.
Diving is a form of gamesmanship. A diver pretends to be fouled when he hasn’t been. A great diver is like a salmon leaping, twisting, falling. A great dive can last almost as long as the dying of the swan. And it can, of course, influence the referee, it can earn free kicks or penalty kicks, it can get an opponent cautioned or even sent off.
The course of the 1999 Worthington Cup Final between Spurs and Leicester would be greatly altered by a dive.
An earlier Spurs star, the great German goalscorer Jürgen Klinsmann, also used to be accused of diving. Spurs fans screamed “cheat” at Ginola when he was playing for Newcastle United. England fans booed and howled at Klinsmann when he plunged to the ground while playing for Germany. But when the two of them signed for Spurs, the fans understood that these noble spirits were in truth more sinned against than sinning. Oh, now we saw the subtle pushes with which cynical defenders knocked them off balance, the surreptitious little trips and ankle-taps in whose existence we had so vocally disbelieved. Now we understood the tragedy of genius, we saw how grievously Ginola and Klinsmann had been wronged. Was this just our self-serving fickleness? Certainly not. Reader, it was because the scales fell from our eyes.
As for the other criticism leveled at Ginola, that he was lazy, that all changed when, during the course of the 1998–1999 season, Spurs acquired a new manager. His name is George Graham, and he was known, when he was an elegant player (one of the stars of the Scotland team), as “Gentleman George.” As a manager, he has acquired a less cultured image as the hardest of hard men, a man whose teams are built on the granite of an impregnable defense. In a few short months, he has transformed that well-known joke, the Tottenham defense, into a well-drilled, stingy unit. He has taught the back four to imagine they are joined by a rope, and now, instead of running in opposite directions like Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, they move as one.
What would a grim fellow like George Graham make of the blessed butterfly, Ginola? It was widely believed that the L’Oréal model would be the first player Graham unloaded after taking charge at Spurs. Instead, the winger has blossomed toward greatness, and nowadays he and Graham sing each other’s praises almost daily. The manager has inspired the player to work hard, and the player has, well, inspired the manager the way he inspires us all. “Do something extraordinary,”
Graham now tells Ginola before each game, and it’s astonishing how often Ginola obliges.***
Oh, there’s one more thing about George Graham. First as a player and then as a manager, he made his name, and won a shelf of trophies, at Highbury. Spurs have hired the former manager of their archenemies, Arsenal.
6. DECLINE AND FALL
How did such a thing come to pass? The answer lies in Spurs’ recent nl history. They last won a major trophy, the FA Cup, in 1991. After that the club’s fortunes started a long, depressing slide. Boardroom incompetence had landed Tottenham in serious financial trouble, and the team’s star player, England’s moron-genius, the child-man Paul Gascoigne, as famous for bursting into tears during a World Cup game as for his exceptional talent, had to be transferred to Lazio in Rome, Italy, to help pay off the club’s debts.
The “sale” of Paul Gascoigne was a traumatic event for the fans. Gascoigne was what we thought of as a true Spurs player, fabulously gifted, a playmaker at least as influential as the late John White. Now Gascoigne, too, had been struck down, and was gone.
As the club declined, the fans were left with their memories. Spurs have had more than their share of genuinely great players: the lethal goalscoring partnership of the “goal-poacher” Jimmy Greaves and Alan Gilzean (he of the “cultured forehead”); the stealthy beauty of the play of Martin Peters, a member of England’s 1966 World Champion team. Later Tottenham teams offered us the high-velocity skills of Gary Lineker, a Leicester City player many years before he joined Spurs, and the long-range passing accuracy of Ardiles and Villa’s English teammate Glenn Hoddle.
(This same Hoddle was fired from his job as coach to the England national team because of a series of confused remarks he made about reincarnation. By jumbling together the languages of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and spiritualist mumbo-jumbo, he mana, give the impression that he believed disabled people were to blame their disabilities, but in spite of the predictable tabloid uproar. I for it hard to condemn poor “Glenda” for what seemed more like stupid than malice. I remembered the grandeur of his game in the old day and the joy it had given me, and I hated to see him turn out to be such a doofus. “At the end of the day I never said them things,” he mumbled miserably as he shuffled off into the darkness, making one wish he could still leave the talking to his feet.)****
The low point of Spurs’ fortunes was reached in the 1997–98 season, when the team’s owner, the computer-industry millionaire Alan Sugar, appointed as manager a Swiss person called, alas, Christian Gross. He never managed to command the team’s respect or to attract first-rate players to the club, and under his regime Tottenham came close to losing their elite Premiership status.
At the start of the present season, the team looked even worse, and Gross was duly sacked. Five days after his exit I saw them thrashed 3–0 at home by Middlesbrough, a team that the great Spurs sides of the past would have effortlessly demolished. The Tottenham players and supporters were utterly demoralized. Then Alan Sugar, to the consternation of many Spurs fans, turned to the ex-Gunner, Gentleman George.
George Graham had taken some hard knocks of his own. In the last decade there has been much concern about the growth of corrupt practices in soccer. There have been allegations that Far Eastern betting syndicates have sought to influence senior players to throw matches. In France in 1997, Bernard Tapie, the multi-millionaire proprietor of the country’s then-champion side, Marseille, was found guilty and jailed on charges of match-fixing and corruption.
As a player, George Graham was a member of the Arsenal team that did the Double in 1971, thus emulating the Spurs’ great achievement. (They’ve since done it again, damn it, just a year ago; and they played so brilliantly, so much like a classic Spurs side, that I was forced to set aside a lifetime’s prejudices and cheer them on.) As a manager, Graham led the Gunners to two League Championships and four other major honors. But in the mid-nineties he, too, faced accusations of wrongdoing. He was found guilty by the Football Association of receiving “bungs,” under-the-counter cash payments worth approximately £425,000, made as “sweeteners during the course of big-money transfer deals. In spite of all the success he had brought to Arsenal. Gentleman George lost his job.
However, he’s a tenacious character, and he slowly fought his way back into the big time. By the time Sugar made his approach, Graham had become the manager of another Premiership club. Leeds United. where he had put together one of the most promising young sides in the league. But the lure of one of the country’s traditional “big five clubs proved irresistible, and he came back to London.
If some Spurs fans mistrusted him, the speed of the team’s improvement has shut them up. Tottenham still don’t have a great side: as I write this they’re stuck in the middle of the Premiership table. But getting to Wembley is the most glamorous event in a club player’s life. George Graham must take the credit for bringing a little of the old glamour back to depressed White Hart Lane.
7. A RESULT TEAM
A man on his way to the big game passes a pub near the stadium H and grimaces at the sidewalk, which is ankle-deep in used plastic beer glasses and empty cans. “That’s why the game will never catch on in the States, right there,” he says, a little shamefacedly. A second man chimes in. “That, and the food,” he says. “The meat pies, the fucking burgers.” The first man is still shaking his head at the garbage. “Americans would never leave this mess.” He sighs. “They wouldn’t stand for it.”
A third man, passing, recognizes the first and greets him gaily: “You’re like bleeding dogshit, mate-you’re everywhere, you are.”
The three men go off happily toward Wembley.
Inside the stadium, the field of play is covered in two giant shirts and a pair of giant soccer balls. There is much razzamatazz-great flocks of blue and white balloons are released, and giant flares begin to burn as the teams arrive and this has plainly been learned from studying American sporting occasions. But as ever, the point of being there is not this sort of thing but the crowd. You’d have to be made of stone not to be affected by the communal release of shared excitement, by the simple sense of standing together against the world, or the opposing team, anyhow. The chanting swells and surges from one end of the
grand old stadium to the other. Next year Wembley is to be demoli and a new third-millennium super-stadium built in its place, almost the old lady’s last hurrah.*****
The game begins. I quickly see that it isn’t going to be a clase Leicester look distinctly second-rate, and although Spurs settle for into a rhythm, they don’t inspire full confidence. In the twenty-firs minute Sol Campbell, an England international player, completely missee a crucial tackle, and Leicester are kept at bay only by a fine covering tackle by Spurs Swiss defender Ramon Vega, another player whose form has improved dramatically since Graham arrived.
My heart’s in my mouth, but Ginola gives me something to enjoy: a couple of fast, swerving runs with no fewer than three Leicester players trying to shut him down, and one moment of breathtaking ball control, in which he pulls down an awkwardly high ball with one touch of the outside of his right boot, and passes it away almost instantly, the speed of his artistry setting up a dangerous Tottenham break.
No goals in the first half. In the second, however, high drama. In the sixty-third minute, the Tottenham full-back Justin Edinburgh is crudely tackled by Leicester’s blond-thatched Robbie Savage. Irritated by the clumsiness of the tackle, Edinburgh stupidly reaches out with an open hand and smacks Savage somewhere on the head. Blond hair flies. Then, after a comically long pause, Savage executes a perfect backflip of a dive and collapses to the ground.
The referee, Terry Heilbron, has been fooled. He cautions Savage for his unfair tackle, but then shows Edinburgh the dreaded red card for his “foul” on Diving Robbie. Edinburgh has been sent off, expelled from the game, and Spurs are down to ten men against Leicester’s eleven.
“Cheat, cheat,” chant the Spurs fans, and then boo. The noise made by thirty-five thousand or so soccer fans booing in unison is unearthly, monstrous; but in our hearts we fear that the day may be lost. And for the next several minutes, as Leicester City charge forward, our fears seem justified. In the Spurs goal, Ian Walker has to stretch hard to catch a loose ball. Then Leicester burst through Spurs’ depleted defenses again, and this time Vega is cautioned for a “professional foul”-the deliberate fouling of a player whom he couldn’t have stopped by fair means
It’s all Leicester City, but slowly—and this is an indication of the steely confidence Graham has engendered—Tottenham regroup. Their fans sing a rousing chorus of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” to encourage them, and, surprisingly, Spurs begin once more to have the better of the exchanges. David Ginola on the left wing is having a quiet game by his exalted standards, but Leicester are still being forced to use two or even three players to stop him. This means that, in spite of being a man down, Spurs actually often have a man over on their right flank, and it is down this flank that their best attacks now come. The Tottenham right-back Stephen Carr is making more and more threatening runs. The England international midfield player Darren Anderton (once nicknamed “Sicknote” because he got injured so often, but fit at last these days) is also beginning to show, with his trademark long-legged stride and his dangerous floated crosses. Spurs main goalscorer, Les Ferdinand, is looking livelier, and so is the team’s duo of Scandinavian stars: the Norwegian striker Steffen Iversen and the Danish midfielder Allan Nielsen, who has been picked only because the team’s new signing, the England player Tim Sherwood, is ineligible, have a shot each, and then combine fluently to allow Nielsen another shot, well saved by Kasey Keller.
Meanwhile, Leicester’s Savage, clearly rattled by the boos that fill the stadium whenever he touches the ball, is involved in another bit of rough stuff, but gets away with it. The game goes into its last five minutes. If there is no result after ninety minutes’ play, there will be half an hour of extra time, and if the scores are still level, the game will be decided by penalty kicks. (Soccer fans hate the arbitrariness of the sudden-death penalty shoot-out. We always hope it won’t come to that.) In the eighty-sixth minute, Ian Walker moves to the edge of his penalty area to gather a loose ball, slips, misses the ball completely, and allows Leicester’s Tony Cottee to send it bouncing and bobbling across the face of Tottenham’s undefended goal. Amazingly, there isn’t a single Leicester player on hand to tap it into the empty net. Walker scrambles back into position. Tottenham’s moment of greatest danger has passed.
The game enters the last minute of normal time. Leicester, already playing for extra time, take the precaution of bringing off the much-reviled Robbie Savage, who would be sent off if cautioned a second time, and the way he’s been playing, he’s lucky not to have been shown the red card already. On, in his place, comes Theo Zagorakis, canta Greece’s international side. Before Leicester have time to settle to the change in their formation, however, lightning strikes.
A whipped pass from Ferdinand in midfield releases Iversen, w fist run down the right catches the Leicester defense cold. He cute toward goal and shoots. It isn’t a great shot, on target but weak. Some how however, Kasey Keller fails to hold the ball, and palms it feebly right onto the forehead of the charging Allan Nielsen. Boom! As the Univision commentators would say, “Góóóóóóóóól!!!!!!”
It’s all over in an instant, and Tottenham have won 1-0. And then there are the celebrations to enjoy, the presentations, the jeering. You’re not singing you’re not singing, you’re not singing anymore. The oddly three-handled Worthington Cup is held high by each Tottenham player in turn. In victory they suddenly stop looking like rich, pampered superstar athletes and become, instead, innocent young men bright with the realization that they are experiencing one of the great moments of their lives. The massed joy of the Spurs fans is itself a joy to behold. Never mind the scrappiness of the game. It’s the result that counts.
George Graham is famous as a manager of “result teams,” teams that will somehow grind out the result they need without bothering too much about providing entertainment along the way. I can’t remember when the term was last applied to a Spurs lineup. It’s an Arsenal kind of concept. “Boring Arsenal” were also “Lucky Arsenal,” because of their habit of stealing games like this one. Well, who’s boring and lucky now?
As I left the ground, beaming foolishly, a fellow Spurs fan recognized me and waved cheerily in my direction. “Gawd bless yer, Salman,” he yelled. I waved back, but I didn’t say what I wanted to say: Nah, not Gawd, mate, he doesn’t play for our team. Besides, who needs him when you’ve already got David Ginola; when you’re leaving Wembley Stadium with a win?
* However, it is deeply disturbing to discover that the club records contain no reference to this game, although there was an Arsenal-Real Madrid friendly in September 1962, which Real won 4-0. It seems I have somehow constructed a phantom memory, on the veracity of which my mind continues to insist, in spite of the documentary evidence to the contrary. An early indication, perhaps, that my métier would turn out to be fiction.
**A joke with legs. In 2001 it happened again. Sol Campbell, the Spurs’ captain and star defender, decided to switch allegiances to Arsenal as well.
*** This love affair didn’t last. Eventually Graham’s true nature reasserted itself and Ginola was sent packing. But not so long afterward, Graham was sent packing too. That’s soccer, as they say.
**** George Graham’s sacking made possible the Second Coming of Gler over at White Hart Lane and kept the spiritual stuff to himself.
***** They haven’t knocked it down yet. Instead, in the great tradition of British fiascoes-cf. the Bouncing Bridge across the Thames, the Millennium Dome—the superstadium plan has hit snag after snag. Will there be a new stadium in North London or not? Who knows?