They call it “the beautiful game,” and they are wrong.
It’s not beautiful. It’s not a game of precision and flow. There’s nothing fluid about it. It might be the world’s most popular game, but it’s terrible. I’ll never forgive myself for spending hours upon hours of watching soccer, watching associations, spending hours in front of a television to watch the world’s best ply their trade.
To imply it’s beautiful is to imply that you’ll watch it and be reduced to smiles and tears. You’ll watch, and it’ll calm your fears, ease your soul, and give you something worth watching over and over. You’ll be in a serene place, a place where few people go, a place resembling a Buddhist nirvana. If it’s truly beautiful, you’ll go there.
No. Soccer, or association football, or whatever you want to call it – it’s not beautiful. It’s far better than that.
As long as I walk my days on this physical Earth, I will never experience the feelings I experienced on Sunday from the Etihad City of Manchester Stadium in the northern part of England. I’ll never be able to replicate the knots of my stomach, the gut feeling taking years off the end of my life. I’ll never again stand in unison as 50,000 people, and I’ll never stand in the same explosion of fireworks emotions, with fear and elation, experiencing the highest of high, a place no drug can ever take me.
To those of us who root for the Manchester City Football Club, we’ve gone a lifetime as the petulant little brother of Manchester United. It’s been said it’s too convenient to jump ship to Trafford, to root for the Red Devils who win and win frequently. They’ve got it all – championship after championship, Wayne Rooney, Sir Alex Ferguson. They’ve got the Premier League by its throat, with more money than any team we can ever understand. Even with terrible ownership in form of the Glaser Family, Man United is the flag-bearer of English football. We can’t deny it, and we hate it.
For years, for all of our years, since my dad was a young lad in Manchester, our family of fans waited for this moment. All City had to do was defeat a potentially-relegated Queens Park Rangers team on the last day of the season, and the impossible would be true. It’d be the final straw of the march from politically-incompetent and corrupt ownership to the moment of the sun, as if we were the Los Angeles Clippers winning the NBA Championship.
50,000 screaming fans arrived at Etihad Stadium in the City of Manchester to celebrate this moment. With a loss, QPR would potentially be relegated, hardly a challenge for the team in sky blue. It’d be a coronation moreso than a challenge, as a win would win the Premier League title. Tied with Manchester United, City had a massive goal differential advantage, granting them the championship. For United, they needed City to lose or tie in order to have a chance to win. And, naturally, Hair Club For Men Wayne Rooney led them to a victory.
That aside, what we witnessed on Sunday gave all of us in attendance the greatest feeling on the planet. It was the excitement high, followed by exultation, followed by an irreplaceable low and feeling of “typical City.” Then, in a matter of five minutes, our worst fears became our greatest rally, our greatest victory, and years upon years of anguish released in a tear-filled championship celebration.
City of Manchester Stadium rocked from the first minute, but fans around me pointed a couple of things out that could be construed as a cause for concern. First, QPR seemed almost in denial of scoring an offensive challenge. For large swaths of minutes, they’d play nine, 10, then 11 back. They seemed content to defend their goal and try to go for a 0-0 tie.
To a fan, it’s a curious move because it allows a team with a potent offense, such that City has, to attack, attack, and attack. To the analyst in me, I got increasingly nervous. I’d seen several 0-0 ties between squads at the top and bottom of the Premier League over the years. It usually took place because the lower team played almost entirely defensively, waited for the offense to make a mistake, then tried to capitalize. To the losing team, a tie against the top is almost as a good as a win, and where one point would assure QPR of the financial windfalls of the Premier League next year, it seemed they were content to just play for next season.
But in the 40th minute – elation. Striking the back of the net, Pablo Zabaleta, who isn’t even a striker and hadn’t scored a goal since I moved back to the UK last year, set off the first major celebration. QPR’s strategy failed, and a loss potentially sent them back to the npower Championship. This would almost assuredly make them attack City, and that meant more offensive room for City to maneuver. With the half approaching, we looked at it as 45 minutes to glory.
Then something happened. The football gods did what the football gods usually do to Manchester City; they toyed with them, and they toyed with us. With QPR not switching out of a defensive strategy, Man City lost control and an edge in the midfield, and Cisse found himself with a lot of room and nobody near him. He struck from a solid 20 yards out, drove the ball past Joe Hart, and tied the game at 1-1.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the stands who didn’t want to murder Roberto Mancini at that point.
Seven minutes later, I was in the men’s room when Joey Barton got thrown out for fighting. A dumb move, and I missed it. I don’t particularly like Barton to begin with, so I missed the opportunity to summarily boo him and call him names that would make my mother blush. Rule of thumb – never leave to go to the men’s room unless it’s half time.
So, ok, it’s 1-1 at this point, but QPR is down a man the rest of the way. They can’t possibly play 10 men back the whole time simply because they’re odd-manned out. I don’t really know the strategy at this point for QPR because there was anticipation on the City side. There was absolutely no way they could lose this one.
In a similar scene, QPR got a breakout somewhere around the 66th minute and the City defense forgot how to play in front of their own goal. Jamie Mackie buried the easiest goal he’ll see for months, put City down 2-1, and made us all want to decapitate Mancini for his team playing flat.
Time ticked on. It was like watching a slow, painful death of a year-long dream. City led the Premier League by dozens of points, choked it away, and found themselves now minutes from losing. Not only were they losing, they were losing to a far-inferior squad, and they were about to lose the championship to, of all teams, Manchester United. We’d been flexing bravado and chipping away at United for years, making Ferguson eat his words when he called us small time for putting a billboard in Trafford. He’d been dumping on City for years, and we’d never had a chance to stuff it. Now, with a golden opportunity, Mancini’s boys were going to beat by…QPR??
What transpired during stoppage time will forever live in the annals of all sport, not just soccer. Nobody comes from down a goal in stoppage time and actually wins. Nobody beats an opponent this late in the game, and nobody does it with a championship on the line.
And City did it.
I’ll never be able to fully explain what happened, and I’ll never be able to fully talk about what happened in that upper deck in that arena. I hugged dozens of people, danced in the stadiums’ stairways, and felt a stadium shake. The loud screaming, the celebrating, I’ll never begin to remember everything. I blacked out, but I remember it. It was years of agony coming loose. It was years of pain. It was a championship that was in Manchester….and not in Trafford.
As a comparison, my editor-in-chief made the right comparison. It’s like the Boston Bruins were playing the Winnipeg Jets with less than 30 seconds left in the third period. Trailing by one, the Bruins emptied the net and needed to win, or the Stanley Cup would go to the Montreal Canadiens. They score twice in the 30 seconds, and they win the Stanley Cup in the process. That just doesn’t happen.
If you watch the video, it shakes. But that’s real shaking, that’s not a bad camera angle. The stadium was moving, and the din could be felt down into London and into the rest of Europe. Manchester City won the 2012 Premier League championship, and they did it in the most impressive and impossible fashion. Sergio Aguero has a place for my child’s first name somehow, and it was the greatest feeling in the world. I’ll never, ever be able to explain it.
I woke up on Monday afternoon after going to sleep with dozens of hours of delirium under my belt. I had a headache that I couldn’t feel, empty celebratory bottles on my floor that might never get cleaned. My Manchester City sky blue kit hasn’t been taken off since I put it on during Sunday morning. I still need a shower, and I don’t feel like washing the smell of celebration and championship off my body.
Manchester City won the championship. It never gets old. And I can’t stop typing it. We won. We did it.
Eat it, Trafford.