Sport Soccer

Thursday 23 May 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Sport can still shock us out of our complacency by presenting us with something completely unexpected'

Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Were there ever two better nights of football? Or two better nights of sport? Or even two better nights of drama? At a time when most of the population seems to be on tenterhooks over the convolutions of Game Of Thrones and Line Of Duty, sport remains the greatest show on earth.

Imagine the script conference for the episodes of Tuesday and Wednesday night. "Right, they're 3-0 down with one leg to play. Against the competition favourites who also have the best player in the world on their team. And to make things even tougher, their best player is out injured. All the while the game is going on we keep cutting across to him, sitting in the stand in agony because he's unable to affect the result. Feck it, we'll have their second striker injured too."

"Brilliant CJ. But if he's out, who'll be the hero?"

"Divock Origi."

"Divock who?"

"Ah you know, guy who normally doesn't figure much and is only there because the other guys are out injured."

Tottenham's Lucas Moura. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Tottenham's Lucas Moura. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

"Oh. Him. Are you sure that's a good idea? We've used him so little the viewers might not even remember who he is."

"Trust me, the viewers will love it. And wait till you see the routine I've cooked up for the winning goal."

The writers of the rival series know they're going to have come up with something special to match Tuesday night's spectacular. "Right, they're 3-0 down."

"With one leg to play?"

"With one HALF to play. And they're away from home. And to make things even tougher their best player is out injured. All the while the game is going on we keep cutting across to him, sitting in the stand in agony because he's unable to affect the result.

"Brilliant JC. But if he's out, who'll be the hero?"

"Lucas Moura, guy who normally doesn't figure much and is only there because the other guys are out injured. Are you worried this sounds derivative?"

"I'm worried we'll be sued for plagiarism but go on."

"They get two goals and they need just one more. But the other team keep going close to getting the one which will kill the game off. And just when it seems they've run out of time, well, wait till you see what I've cooked up for the winning goal. The viewers will love it."

Love it we did. The two Champions League semi-finals were like the essence of great sport triple distilled. After all, why is sport worth caring about or for that matter writing about? Not because it offers the opportunity to point out further examples of the world's mean-spiritedness and tirelessly search for examples of flouted concussion protocols and the like. Or because it can be press-ganged into the service of some dreary political point, as the partisans on either side of the Caster Semenya case are doing.

If that were all there is to sport, it would not grip people the way it does. Its essential appeal is beyond analysis. Trying to reduce that appeal down to something rational and manageable is a senseless pursuit. It's like being the guy who, when he hears Blondie doing 'Denis', rubs his chin and says, "Y'know, Clint Burke is actually one of rock music's most under-rated drummers."

This might be true but it entirely misses the point. The point is that this is Blondie! Doing 'Denis'! The greatness of that cannot be captured by a hundred hours of earnest documentaries showing how they miked the flange fader to the wah-wah to give the drums some extra wibble and bong. The best of sport, like the best of music, cannot be captured in words. It does not stand for anything else. It is the thing itself.

That's why our reactions at the final whistle on both nights last week were a primal and visceral thing. If we'd been Americans we'd have just said, "Wow". Being Irish we probably came up with something more profane, as Jurgen Klopp did. The matches were utterly and wonderfully shattering on an emotional level.

Hence the stories of Liverpool players crying in the dressing room. And the sight of Mauricio Pochettino, a hard-nosed professional operator, reeling around the place in floods of tears, a man entirely undone by the emotions of the moment.

We go to sport for emotions like this. In an age when so much in society seems attenuated and mediated, when social media is so adept at manipulating our emotions and when we cloak ourselves in a carapace of self-protective irony, sport can still shock us out of our complacency by presenting us with something completely unexpected.

Rock music and classic Hollywood once performed this function for us but these days both are focus grouped to an extent which removes almost all spontaneity. But sport can't be scripted. It is an unruly element in a regimented world. It lets us break on through to the other side. Surround it with all the corporate and PR bullshit you want but its essentially untamed nature will still emerge on the greatest nights.

Witness the state of the Ajax and Barcelona players in the aftermath of their unthinkable defeats. These are millionaires, mercenaries who will continue to enjoy a lifestyle beyond the reach of most of us despite the midweek result, yet they were prostrated as though by a personal grief. Their emotional investment in the result had become as great as that of the most fanatical supporter.

This year's Champions League has, to a certain extent, been a victory for traditional football values over the vast overweening power of money. The group stages began with a thrilling victory for Liverpool over a Paris St-Germain side who in the run-up to the game had trumpeted their determination to become a new kind of football club, a sort of global entertainment brand destined to rule on and off the pitch by dint of their massive financial resources.

Liverpool's Jordan Henderson in action with Paris St Germain's Dani Alves. Photo: Andrew Boyers/Action Images via Reuters

PSG departed the competition in the round of 16. The equally wealthy Manchester City could not win it either. Now, there's no point in exaggerating what the triumph of Liverpool and Spurs represents. Neither club is short of a bob. This is an uprising of the gentry against the monarchy rather than the peasantry against the aristocracy, more English Civil War than Russian Revolution.

Yet it is salutary all the same. The close season will bring us the usual blather about managers being 'Handed War Chests' and clubs 'Preparing To Break The Bank To Secure Success' as though football matches can be decided by teams comparing balance sheets. Financial power does confer an advantage but it's not always an insurmountable one.

Look at some of the players fielded by Liverpool on Tuesday. Local lad Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, snapped up from Hull City for £8m, Joel Matip picked up on a free from Schalke 04, Xherdan Shaqiri who came from a relegated Stoke City team, the once mocked pair of Jordan Henderson, who arrived from Sunderland, and James Milner, regarded as a busted flush when Manchester City let him go for nothing. And of course Origi who cost £10m from Lille and before the Barcelona game had made 19 appearances in two seasons, scoring four goals.

These are the kind of players who, under different circumstances, you could imagine back-boning some mid-table Premier League outfit. The same goes for Spurs. Kieran Trippier cost £3.5m from Burnley, Danny Rose £1m from Leeds United, Dele Alli £5m from MK Dons, the game-turning Fernando Llorente is 34, came from Swansea and has scored two goals in 35 appearances over the last two Premier League seasons. The mighty triumvirate of Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen cost a combined £35m; less than half a Lukaku in Manchester United currency.

Despite the protestations by self-pitying fans of other big clubs that they cannot be expected to win anything until every spot on the roster is filled by proven world-class talent, management still matters as much as money. The presence of Liverpool and Spurs in the Champions League final owes everything to that most traditional of managerial virtues - making the very best of what's at hand.

Post miracle, it's worth remembering how close both clubs came to not even making the knock-out stages. Spurs were on their way out with five minutes left at the Nou Camp before Moura hit an equaliser and they still needed Inter Milan to miss late chances against PSV Eindhoven. In injury-time at Anfield, Arkadiusz Milik looked set to score the goal which would have put Napoli through instead of Liverpool only for Alisson to come to the rescue. Perhaps this final pairing was fated all along.

After Tuesday and Wednesday night neither team deserves to end the season empty-handed. The ideal finish would be Brighton denying Manchester City today to hand Liverpool that coveted Premier League title and Spurs winning a first Champions League in Madrid on June 1.

The opposite seems much more likely to happen. But who knows? Perhaps the scriptwriters have some extra twists and turns kept in reserve for the season finale. After the last few days, nothing would come as a surprise.

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