Who knew soccer could be this Awesome?
- Updated: May 13, 2012
I just witnessed the most enthralling, mind-boggling, insane, improbable, jaw dropping, and every similar adjective you can imagine, sporting contest I’ve ever seen. And it was a mother bleeping English soccer match. Long suffering Manchester City scored two goals in extra time to swipe the Premier League title from cross-town rivals Manchester United who have overshadowed, beat down, and thumbed their noses at City for years.
You might ask how a Yank from Erie, PA, who has never crossed the pond, got involved in this sort of business. It was video games and law school, in that order. Back in my 20’s, I fell into a FIFA soccer addiction on the ole Playstation 2. Anyone who has played the FIFA video games can surely understand. My favorite was using Manager Mode to take a middling squad to Premiership glory. That middling squad was Manchester City, who always seemed to have a number of veterans on the downside of their career that I could quickly jettison for younger, cheaper talent to develop. The video game period got me to a point where I’d occasionally check the EPL standings to see City constantly mired in the middle of the pack (this was before City were bought by an Abu Dhabi billionaire who changed everything) . Things progressed to all out fandom while I was in law school as I started watching tons of Premier League games as a form of much needed stress relief and much less needed procrastination. Law school does weird things to people, merely getting hooked on English soccer makes me feel like I got off easy.
I’m not going to tell you that you must watch the EPL. It has more drama than the WWE, and can produce amazing peaks and valleys of emotion, but if you don’t like soccer you will simply not enjoy it. Probably nothing will ever change that. I happened to grow up playing soccer so I appreciate the game. But I totally understand if you think that soccer is just seldom scoring, boring rubbish that you’d only watch if the other channels solely carried ice dancing.
However, today’s action highlighted all that makes the EPL compelling. You need to know a little back-story to fully appreciate the insanity that went down. Manchester United is the EPL version of the New York Yankees. You are probably a soulless bastard if you cheer for them and you’re not from Manchester or you don’t have a family member who played for them. Man. U owns 19 league titles, 11 FA Cup titles, 3 Champions League titles, and a variety of other accolades. The are led by a smug, knighted Scotsman who always seems to come out on top while constantly throwing barbs and playing mind games with the rest of the league. City, on the other hand, are a star-crossed bunch who continually find new ways to break their fans’ hearts and disappoint. At their best they come close and fail, at their worst they embarrass themselves. ESPN’s club description says it all. “Manchester City’s history can be summed up by one statistic: they are the only English champions to be relegated the following season. It is an apt reflection of a club who have lurched violently between the sublime and the ridiculous, and who have often seemed to have tragicomedy in their genes.” Until today, City hadn’t taken the league championship for 44 years.
When teams from the same city meet in English soccer, it is called a Derby match. These Derby rivalries have all the hate and bitterness of Bama/Auburn, OSU/Michigan, Stanford/Cal, Red Sox/Yankees, ect. Man. U traditionally plays the role of ass-kicker and City are the red headed step child.
In 2008, City were bought by billionaire and Abu Dhabi royal family member Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. He promptly poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the club collecting the best talent money could buy. The club overpaid for its players, most of whom make outrageous weekly salaries. The club has been roundly criticized for their free spending ways, even though all the top rated European Clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man. U., and Chelsea, and the like have equally as ridiculous payrolls.
One of the things that makes the EPL great is that the millionaire players are complete rockstars over there and often act like bratty teenagers on a good day and like raving madmen on a bad one. A tabloid-eske atmosphere surrounds every match. Outrageous behaviour is the norm, and in a land of madness, Man. City manage to stand out as some of the craziest s.o.b.’s around.
City are lead by Roberto Mancini, a disciplinarian coach who soccer writers love to hate. They think his tactics are “negative,” which in laymen’s terms means he likes to win 1-0 and tries to clog things up on d, and he lacks the stones to encourage an aesthetically pleasing style of play. Of course, all that Mancini’s men did this year was go out and lead the EPL in goals scored. Last season, Mancini led City to their first trophy in over 30 years by guiding the club to FA Cup victory, yet he was still attacked from all sides. City also have a fellow named Mario Balotelli who is so insane you should probably just go to his Wiki page and check it out for yourself. His most famous act of lunacy this year was burning down half of his house with fireworks (he claims his friends actually did the deed) the night before the first Manchester Derby match at around 3:00 AM. Of course City went on to whip their neighbors 6-1 at Old Trafford, spearheaded by Balotelli’s brace (soccer term for scoring two goals) and the foul he drew that led to a red card on the Red Devils’ fullback Jonny Evans. As Mancini says, “the problem is because of his age, he can make some mistakes. He’s Mario. He’s crazy – but I love him because he’s a good guy.”
City also endured a Carlos Tevez soap opera this year. Tevez is a supremely talented striker, but surprise surprise, also an incorrigible headcase. Tevez refused to warm up and come off the bench for City’s Champions’ League match against Bayern Munich in September. This lead to a multiple month pissing contest and golf vacation (full of hearings, suspensions, and drama) for Tevez who refused to show up in England to deal with the issue. The dude was MIA in South America when all the proceedings were going on. Tevez eventually returned to the starting line-up in late March and helped steady the club in the waning days of the title race.
City came out of the gates like world beaters this season, trouncing the likes of Man. U and Tottenham Hotspur. The league championship seemed inevitable by mid-season. However, in typical City fashion, they completely fell apart in the 2nd half and trailed Untied by 8 points with 6 games to play. Improbably, United stumbled while City came on, and City led the league by virtue of goal differential with two games to play after a 1-0 victory over United in the Derby rematch.
All of this set up today’s action. The last day in the Premier League highlights two of my favorite things that the EPL does. All the final days’ matches are played at the same time so nobody gets a strategic advantage. More importantly, all the bottom feeders have to work their asses of to avoid relegation to the minors. The bottom 3 teams each season suffer the humiliation of going down a level. We need this in American sports. It says to the crappiest teams, “you are an embarrassment and you’re not even worthy of playing in this league.” I love it.
Manchester City faced the Queen’s Park Rangers who had just been promoted this season, and who could only assure themselves of avoiding relegation with a victory today. QPR are led by the manager who held Mancini’s post immediately before the Italian came aboard, Mark Hughes. Hughes has not hid his bitterness over his sacking at all. QPR also features 3 former City players who would have loved to stymie their old club.
City came out and dominated the action early. By my unofficial count, they held 96.9% of the possession. City broke through on Pablo Zabeleta’s first goal of the campaign in the 39th minute. Since City was in complete control it looked like it would be a walk in the park from there…..but come on, this is Manchester City we’re talking about. In the second half, QPR managed counterattacks that led to goals in the 48th and 69th minutes. The goals were “against the run of play” as the soccer announcers would say. Despite the fact that hot-headed, Grade A Asshole Joey Barton (one of the former City players on the pitch) was red carded for elbowing Tevez in the head in the 55th minute, leaving QPR to battle on with 10 men, City appeared headed down the road of colossal failure one again. Barton, btw, proceeded to kick City striker Sergio “Kun” Aguero in the lower-mid section and attempted to fight half the City squad after he was red carded, before he made his way to the locker room. Can’t make this shit up. The Argentine super-striker would get the last laugh on this day.
As the game wore on, Mancini paced around the sidelines desperately trying to get something to go right. City star midfielder (often aptly described as a mountain of a man) Yaya Toure had already been forced off the pitch due to a first half injury. On a team filled with all-stars, Toure is the man who always bails City out in the biggest moments. Mancini put in the aforementioned Balotelli and tallish Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko (who bears a striking resemblance to my buddy Big Country) in an effort to jumpstart his offense. Nothing worked. City held all of the possession, but their efforts bounced harmlessly off of QPR players, all of whom spent most of the second half packed inside the box. When City’s efforts did make it through the QPR bulwark of bodies, goalie Patrick Kenny was always up to task.
By the time the 90 minute mark rolled around, it was clear that United was not going to relinquish its 1-0 lead over Sunderland, and thus the championship would again elude Manchester City. It always does. City needed two goals in extra time to claim the title. The cameramen panned around the stadium where the fans were crying, peering through their fingers because they couldn’t bear to watch another City collapse, and looking like the most dejected group of people I have ever seen. Manchester police must have been lining up to guard the city’s bridges.
Miracles were needed, and the first came from a Dzeko header off of City’s 19th corner kick in the 92nd minute. The 6′-4″ youngster has a tendency to make a meal of easy chances, but he managed to power this one into the back of the net. City then benefited from the 5 minutes of added time that resulted from Barton’s despicable antics. They needed every second, but with the hour glass clinging to its last few grains of sand, Aguero (this year’s super signing for City, and Diego Maradona’s son-in-law) took control of the ball deep in the box, and ripped a shot past Parker just before the final whistle. Moments after the resulting kickoff, the ref blew his whistle and the noisy neighbors were EPL champions.
Minutes before, the British version of the evil empire were celebrating their 20th league title. Now it went to the other side of Manchester for the first time in 44 years. Wow. I think the distinguished announcers Ian Darke and Steve McManaman were so shocked they started headbutting each other because they didn’t know what else to do. Me? I promptly started writing a rambling blog post that might double as a novella. Good times indeed.