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Worriers of Athens

Rafael Benitez meditatesAll is done now, the final ball kicked and the whistle long blown. What can I say? Fairy tales are rare enough in life—what chance the fantastic and outright miraculous repeating itself in the Champions League? In a reverse of the“Miracle of Istanbul” of 2005—a come from behind football victory so preposterous it could only have been scripted in heaven—and this scribe certainly wrote it so (Formality Warped into an Epic), Liverpool made all of the running against AC Milan in Athens today, had all of the chances and most of the possession. They played with heart and with passion, and fully deserved to have won. But sadly, it wasn’t to be so. The resolute but barely deserving Italians, in a fashion similar to last year’s World Cup, made the best of only a handful of chances, scoring twice against the run of play. Whatever the scorecard might say, money, corruption and negativity were at the final whistle, winners on the day. While admittedly Milan scored one worthy goal—the other a hand ball if not offside as far as this red-hearted, red-eyed fan is concerned, it is controversial that the champions elect were even in the title race. Convicted of match fixing and corruption last season, they were initially barred from participation, a punishment only overturned on appeal. Money and power so often talk louder than justice it does seem; miracles were always against the run of this particular play. Coach Rafael Benitez of Liverpool, all dignity in the face of near conspiratorial adversity, questioned the questionable long and loud; his final substitution delayed for more than four minutes, extra time cut mysteriously short, almost every close decision going against him and his players when the going got tight. When all is said, protested and done, he can be proud of his team, however unpalatable the final result, as can the legion of red fans. Liverpool played with a stature far above their individual ability, and just for a moment, a goal in the 86th minute drawing the score back to 1-2, it seemed a glimmer of the miraculous might shine forth again. Perhaps the problem was that Benitez, so poised in the face of a semi-final penalty shoot-out two weeks before that he appeared to be meditating—literally, like a yogi, seated in semi-lotus position as his team slotted home the winning goals—put his faith in protestations of injustice, official incompetence at best in the dying minutes, instead of concentrating on the beneficence of some hidden, inner power.
Concentration gives us victory, But we need meditation To maintain our victory-joy When fear and doubt Threaten to take it away. —Sri Chinmoy Excerpt from Twenty-Seven Thousand Aspiration-Plants, Part 19.

Paul Scholes sees red Ah, the beautiful game. Am I getting old, or is it not quite so beautiful any more? Manchester United mid-fielder Paul Scholes was given his marching orders today, sent off in the 85th minute for aiming a punch at Liverpool‘s Xabi Alonso. To add heart-break to insult and near assault, United scored the match winner several minutes later, and in somewhat fortunate circumstances. Gerard’s men have every reason to feel robbed, and yet while it may feel like no consolation to the sting of defeat, should feel proud for having played their red hearts out. I remember being in similar card-worthy circumstances once: running for a ball in a high-school football match, I was pulled from behind by an opposition defender, in much the same manner that the combustible Scholes was held by Alonso. Not normally prone to sudden inflammation, I nevertheless have a track record of reacting poorly to foul-play, and while the referee wasn’t looking, swept out the legs from underneath my opponent, sending us both tumbling to the ground. I didn’t actually see what happened next, but it was a topic of conversation for several weeks. While still on the ground, my shirt-pulling antagonist shaped to deliver a punch. Before he could do so, a team-mate, perhaps more interested in inflicting grievous bodily harm than my particular welfare, came running to deliver (as called in another code) a“king-hit,” sending my would-be assailant flying and starting a near all-in brawl. I guess I am grateful to have had my honour (and facial structure) defended, but in all honesty it was incidents like these that saw me stop playing the not always beautiful game, despite making it all the way to national age-group tournaments. I remember actually getting punched from behind around the same time by an irate goal-keeper. About 10 kilos heavier and fully in control, I turned and simply laughed—he had run 50 metres to deliver his ineffectual“hay-maker,” and quite honestly looked rather stupid. Although relatively minor in the scheme of things, it seemed like only a matter of time before something actually serious would happen—an injury or stupid encounter to really regret. Such incidents took all the joy out of a once enjoyable sport for me. I do enjoy competition and skill, and will commend them in others—even if my opponents—but out-right animal aggression has a place in neither, and I am happy to be called old-fashioned or out of touch for saying so.

Best goal celebration ever!

Craig Bellamy, striker for English Premier League football side Liverpool, is said to be a person who crystallises opinion. In a League where larger than life is a way of life, everybody either loves our hates the diminutive, fiery former goal-scorer for Blackburn. And just to prove my afore-mentioned maxim: after Bellamy's latest on-field exploits, I think I could become a fan. Bellamy has been in the news in recently for allegedly striking fellow team-mate John Arne Riise with a golf club during a training camp in Portugal—perhaps confusing the six-foot red-headed Norwegian for a golf ball. Whatever the truth to the incident (did he shout“fore” first?), I very much admired his gesture in this morning's encounter with Barcelona; after scoring a dramatic, score-tying goal, he turned to the crowd and proceeded to tee-off, striking an imaginary golf-ball to the back of the stand. To do so showed a considerable sense of humour, and no small sense of self-deprecation. One seldom sees celebrities in his position—deservedly or not—deliberately making fun of themselves, and I expect Bellamy disarmed a legion of critics with this single, comic gesture I have some sympathy for the situation famous athletes find themselves in. Not for their astronomical salaries mind you, but their non-existent private lives, the smallest incident seized upon and“beat-up” out of all proportion; they are watched ceaselessly by an army of journalists whose livelihoods depends upon such, whatever the truth. He may have done what he is said to have done, or he may not have; either way it was more than likely a private falling-out between friends, and if they are friends again once more—they both took the field together this morning so it seems likely—what exactly else matters? Because at the end of the day, whose business was it apart from theirs?