Yesterday, in case you weren’t aware, was the twenty-second anniversary of Arsenal’s famous 0-2 victory over Liverpool, the game when Michael Thomas scored an improbable last minute goal to seal the Gunners’ first League One win in 18 years (watch the video if you haven’t already).
Arsenal weren’t supposed to win by two goals at Anfield, but they did, waiting until the very last second to do it in, as the cliche goes, “dramatic fashion.” The cinema-like quality of the match—it was the indeed the centre-piece of the 1997 film Fever Pitch, based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name—exemplified what fans of the game adore about football, a sport capable of producing moments of sheer, beautiful madness, like a lucky pass bobbling off of Steve Nicol’s elbow right in the path of an enterprising striker.
Of course, on the other side of the spectrum, football is also famously capable of producing forgettable outings, games so bad they drain the viewer and provoke vows of “never again” among angry neutrals. Lately, it seems the Hyped Cup Final™ cranks out these duds at a factory-like pace. These are the finals spoken about for weeks on end, endlessly previewed on satellite sports channels as the game of the century, mercilessly probed for all their cultural significance in blogs and newspapers around the world. Yet it seems the more media build-up there is, the worse the match turns out.
The biggest final in all football for example is the World Cup, which many purists contend hasn’t produced a good match since Mexico 1986. And ever since the Champions League final was declared football’s newest stylistic and dramatic zenith (helped in large measure by Liverpool’s famous 2005 comeback from three goals down in the first half to AC Milan), the quality of finals seems to have gradually dropped off.
This is an entirely unscientific analysis of course. But you can see the contrarian streak among Twitterers and pub fans everywhere: the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United tomorrow is ”bound to disappoint.” Some consider Barcelona’s quality, as the Run of Play’s Brian Phillips recently put it, “metaphysically high-maintenance.” The sheer number of factors at play in Barcelona’s apparently effortless quality over the last few years is unsustainably complex, a Catalan chaos theory on grass. Meanwhile, Manchester United will be desperate to prove themselves after winning what many consider one of the least emphatic domestic titles in years, on a point total that wouldn’t even earn second place in previous Premier League seasons.
Ergo, there is a legitimate fear Manchester United will tentatively wait for a Barca attack, while Barcelona, fearing United’s strong counter, will pass the ball around in their own half. Meaning yet another terrible final. Reason enough to give up all hope, right?
Except the skeptics will tune in tomorrow in anticipation of a great game along with everyone else. Why? Because even under the weight of both tremendous expectation and dismissive doubt, football doesn’t ever kowtow to the observer. It does not perform on command, it does not favour one line of interpretation over another. In a million alternate universes, the ball didn’t bobble off Steve Nicol’s elbow, Grobbelaar gobbled up the ball and Arsenal ended the 1989 season with bitter disappointment. In a million alternate universes, Steven Gerrard’s header missed and an inferior Liverpool side got destroyed by AC Milan.
But thankfully, we live in this universe. With football, there’s always hope you’ll be there to witness the next historical moment, the next lucky bounce, the next moment when Teddy Sheringham equalizes and Ole Gunnar Solskjær wins in the last minute for United, the next incredible Zidane goal in a CL final. And so, fingers crossed, we sit down to watch.