This morning started at a very AM of an hour as I got up to watch the live broadcast of the Champions League semi final between Manchester United and Arsenal, with the latter being “my” team (or, to be more accurate, the team that once upon a time I chose to support for some very unreasonable reason). There can be no doubt that ManU is the better team at the moment, so this was always going to be a tough game to watch. Indeed, “they” won the game 1:0, making Arsenal’s life really hard ahead of next week’s rematch in London.
As grueling as the experience was, it’s important to note the score could have easily been 5:0 if it wasn’t for Arsenal’s goalkeeper, Manuel Almunia, having the performance of his life. It’s important for me to say this, because normally I’m the first person to point a finger at Arsenal’s defense as the source of their problems this year and call for a new keeper.
To compliment this morning of gruelling football and to demonstrate some similarities between football and life in general, I thought I might recount two childhood football stories of mine.
Let’s set the dials on our time machine to when I was in sixth grade, roughly 11-12 years of age.
Times were different; in fact, I tend to miss those days when I hardly had any responsibilities, my duties – school – were easy, and I was well taken care of by people whose help I certainly didn’t appreciate as much as I should have (but then again who does). Times were different: computers and video games were yet to conquer kids’ leisure time, and the single TV channel Israel had running at the time didn’t offer much of a competition either. At the time I would normally come back from school in time for lunch, do my homework, and either read or go back to school in the afternoon/evening in order to play some sort of a ball game with my friends. I was lucky: I had a football of my own, so as long as I showed up it was always likely we’ll end up playing football. For the record, I sucked in football big time; I still do, but it doesn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy it.
One of those afternoons started out the normal way, with a bunch of kids playing football. Come dinner time most had retired and it was just me and my friend Eli that stayed to fool around a bit longer. It was already dark when we were approached by a kid a year below us, who was obviously eyeing my football: he invited the two of us to play against him on his own.
Eli and I were both amused. Two against one, even when one of the two is a generally bad player, is a bit on the tougher side of challenges; and that kid was a year younger than us, which does make a difference when you’re just a kid. Still, what did we have to lose? We switched the school’s flood lighting on to have a bit of a play in the dark.
And play we did. Or rather, we were played with. Toyed with. That kid ran circles around us with the ball glued to his feet. Come eight o’clock we were down 25 to 6, out of breath, and utterly humiliated.
For the second story we will need to rewind yet another year. This time around all the boys in my class were playing football at our school’s biggest pitch; it was PE class or gym class. Whatever you want to call it, it was the class I usually dreaded the most given that “physical” and me never really went together. From time to time, though, our teacher got lazy, so instead of doing the usual workouts he just let us play ball; and that was different. That was fun!
Thus we found ourselves playing at our school’s biggest pitch, the one we usually couldn’t play in after school because the older kids would scare us away so they can play instead. At the time that pitch looked big and impressive, but during the last time I visited Israel I passed by and couldn’t help notice it wasn’t that big. Add to that a recently added roof (don't ask me why it was needed) and the whole place looks different and alienating.
On that particular day my father just happened to pass by, walking the adjacent street. He saw me playing, so he stopped for a few minutes to watch the game through the school’s fence. I don’t know why he was there that time of the day and how come he wasn’t working, but what happened next had all the makings of a fairy tale to it.
Because I was never that physical, my team football duties were usually around defence. That is, if the ball crosses over to our half, I should do my best to kick it to the other half; no actual finesse was required, and there was none available to begin with. And then, just as my father leaned against the fence to me/us playing, the ball crossed over to “my” half. I ran to it, and with a single touch aimed at the general direction of “the other side of the pitch” I kicked it as hard as I could.
Spectacular things rarely happen, but that time around they did: my ball curved beautifully and landed at the top corner of the goal. The keeper couldn’t help it, it was just too good a ball; and when you add the distance into the equation then you have to admit that by kids’ standards, this was a wonderful goal. All the more when the rival team’s keeper was Asher, a boy I didn’t particularly like at the time (in retrospect, he didn’t really deserve this attitude of mine; sorry, Asher!).
I was all happy and ran over to my father, seeking confirmation for that spectacular goal. He was happy, of course, but not half as ecstatic as I was. The way I remember it, he was fairly indifferent. Maybe it was because he was well aware of the undeniable: that my spectacular goal was no more than a fluke.
Now, this is not a story where I am blaming all of my life’s miseries since on this treatment I got from my father; that was never the case and my father and I have had a generally healthy relationship, as much as any relationship inside a typically dysfunctional family can be. The only thing I take out of this story is that you can make an effort and you can be spectacularly successful once in a while, but in order to be truly acknowledged as spectacular you need to be systematically successful. This harshness of reality doesn’t apply to sports alone, which is probably the reason I still remember this event the way I do; and let’s face it, given the time that has past since it is highly likely I only remember some very specific aspects of it and in a very specific way.
The same thing will happen to Arsenal and Almunia: A few months from now no one would remember Almunia’s heroic performance; people will only remember that at the end of the day, it was Manchester United that went on to play in the final.