Why can’t I commit? This is my dilemma, doctor, as a recovering sportswriter. Essentially, I root for four teams – the New York Mets, the two US national soccer teams, and also Italy’s soccer team, a passion going back to 1982, when Italy won.
(in 1998 in Aix-en-Province, I twitched my head so badly when Roberto Baggio hit the cross-bar against the French team, on a day off for me during the World Cup. “They’ll kill you,” my wife said, of the French patrons of the pub.)
I know sports fans who need to have a team in every game they watch. Does it make the event more exciting? I don’t know.
I do know that I could not crank up a favorite in the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool on Saturday.
I had reasons to root for Liverpool. Me mum was born there, but throughout her long and educated life she had no interest – no knowledge, I suspect—of the Liverpool team. (“We were really from Southampton,” she would say. Her father was posted in Liverpool for a short time by the White Star Line, before moving to the States.)
If I were going to root for Liverpool, it would be because of the informed passion of our oldest grandchild, named George, who has been storing up soccer details since he was 2 or 3 and he could beat me in the FIFA electronic game.
A decade or so ago, George committed to Liverpool, and then he switched into an even higher gear when they acquired Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian will-of-the-wisp, one of the sweetest (is that even a soccer word?) athletes I have ever watched, almost a holy man.
I tried to commit to Liverpool for the final, but I also have the strong memory of my college pal, Ward Wallace, who moved to Spain for a PR job in the mid-60s, As a business person in Madrid, he became a loyal fan of Real Madrid, the New York Yankees of Spanish football.
Ward had season tickets to Bernabéu Stadium and eventually moved to a smaller flat right near the stadium. In 1991, he and I had an Italian lunch al fresco across the street from Bernabéu.
Ward passed a few years ago, but his passion for Real has made it impossible for me to root for Barca or Atletico, etc.
On Saturday, during the final, I daydreamed of all the Champions League finals I have seen, although never in person: the majority in L’Angolo, the wonderful and vanished bar on Houston St., run by Pino-from-Sicily.
The games and years blur but I can see stirring rallies by Manchester United and AC Milan, in L’Angolo, in the company of soccer pals like Massimo and Ricardo and Logan and Denise. I’ve watched a final at the flat of Paul Gardner, who has taught me so much, along with our friend and colleague, Lawrie: I believe I’ve watched a final or three in the company of Lawrie and hubby Duncan-from-actual-Arsenal, and Roger-the-Chelsea fanatic.
Most finals blur, but the best I ever saw was by Didier Drogba, who carried Chelsea on his broad back, playing the full field, offense and defense.
In the time of Covid, I settled into the TV cave in our basement on Saturday, with grandson George texting me regularly, praising the new Liverpool weapon Luis Diaz.
Meantime, I was caught up in my impressions of three decades of covering soccer:
*-Carlo Ancelotti, now a venerated coach of Real, but in the 1990 World Cup in Italy, he was a heady midfielder for Italy with a constant smile, despite injuries.
*-Thibaut Courtois, the Belgian keeper for Real Madrid, who always seemed a bit wooden to me when he played in England, but on Saturday he was stoically repelling shots by Liverpool – the Man of the Match, George and I agreed, even before the final whistle.
*- Conversely, Mo Salah seemed to be trudging in mud, after a brutal schedule of national and club matches, a nearly criminal demand on these great players. “He needs the summer to recover,” my grandson texted.
*- My neutrality remained steady, but a grand memory took over when the TV crew caught a glimpse of Zinedine Zidane, the French artiste who, in 1998, performed the best individual final I’ve ever seen – in this very stadium, Stade de France -- controlling the ball with his feet or gliding into the air for two, count ‘em, two header goals.
My wife was there that day, because kind friends had a spare ticket, in the lower stands, with a great view of Zidane, as he floated.
On Saturday, on the TV, there was Zidane, now a former Real Madrid coach. unable to hide his narrow marksman eyes inside a white hoodie, and accompanied by his striking wife, Véronique, a dancer and model. The camera did not linger long, but the sight of Zidane et femme seemed to call up the memories of 1998 – a grand omen for Real Madrid.
-- Real Madrid did win, 1-0, as Vinicius Jr., flitted past Trent Alexander-Arnold, the wandering right back. “We go again next year,” my grandson texted.
I was neither elated nor sad, because I did not have a team in this match, but I had watched some of the best players in the world. Was I missing something by not having a team? I really do not know.
5/29/2022 07:00:25 pm
George - As you know I do have favorites (Spurs & Atléti). But the game is beautiful and I often enjoy the reduction in tension that comes with being a neutral. Also, as you know, I’m a Yankees fan so I can’t root for (though do respect FSG’s non oil wealthy) Liverpool Red(Sox). So I was happy with result though I don’t root for Real Madrid in La Liga. So there’s my convoluted logic. It was an entertaining final. Thanks for writing about it and your non rooting interests. Michael
5/30/2022 09:49:51 am
Michael: I get it. Real's steady victory does confirm what Atletico is up against in La Liga. And you've managed to be a force at times.
6/4/2022 08:28:00 am
Late - perhaps too late - to the game here, because I had recorded the match and tried to avoid spoilers and have been too busy with busyness to watch timely - the Times page 1 proved a spoiler! I have come to recognize that having a match recorded and avoiding spoilers are more important than actually watching it. However . . . .
5/29/2022 07:48:58 pm
5/30/2022 09:57:04 am
Randy, thank you for the nice words. I do have some vague sense of a neutral peace...I once wrote a NYT magazine piece on the hold of "eastern" religions, and spent a weekend at Philip Kapleau's Zen Center near Rochester, NY. I went jogging with the young (American) monks and also worked in the kitchen...and when the group "sat" they patrolled the room, whacking the shoulders of people who were not "centered." (They knew I was into it, so they paddled away.) I had a glimmer of being switched off-- or up -- and finding some neutral place.) Not taking sides in a soccer game could qualify, I guess....thanks for your thoughts. GV
5/29/2022 08:57:01 pm
5/30/2022 10:04:50 am
Dear Altenir: Wow! I did not know., Just yesterday, I was taking a walk around the high-school track and singing along to my iPod and specifically "Desde Que o Samba é Samba" with Caetano Veloso...such a beautiful song....and now I discover that Vinicius de Moraes was the co-writer....the day after his namesake scored the only goal. Karma!
5/30/2022 02:20:15 am
I thought the Liverpool-Real match was nothing special, though there were some very good individual performances on both sides. Courtois played out of his skin. Vinicius, Benzema, Carvajal, Eder, Casemiro, Modric, Kroos. Salah, Konaté, Fabinho, Mané, Henderson. Trent Alexander-Arnold reminded me of a young Paolo Maldini, raging up and down the flank…until he fell asleep and left Vinicius unmarked. So the guy who had been, arguably, Liverpool’s best player ended up costing them the game. Such is football...Two excellent, historic clubs, two of the best modern managers. But only one can win and in the end it was Courtois who made the difference. At least it didn't come down to penalty kicks!
5/30/2022 10:08:44 am
John: spot on, anything but penalty kicks (not that I have a better solution). There were wonderful players on both sides. Salah for sure...And Modric is one of the great ones...he seemed to have the same nasty mix of exhaustion and age that Mo had. But he set up the goal -- one of the most centered and versatile players I have ever seen. So how could I root? Thanks for your note. GV
5/30/2022 11:43:02 am
Some of the best games I've watched were the lower level ones, whether professional or amateur. This included some of my college games at Lehigh University.
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“I don’t think people understand how Covid affects older Americans,” Mr. Caretti said with frustration. “In 2020, there was this all-in-this-together vibe, and it’s been annihilated. People just need to care about other people, man. That’s my soapbox.”
---Vic Caretti, 47, whose father recently died of Covid at 85.
---From an article by Paula Span, who covers old age for the NYT, which currently has 2646 comments, the majority criticizing the American public – and public officials – for acting as if the pandemic is “over.”
Classic wishful thinking, at a lethal level.