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.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.