It is, if my calculations are correct, autumn 1995. Old Mike & Stuff and I are off to see the Prague derby; Slavia v Sparta. We leave Strangely Brown in the apartment, as hungover as we are ourselves; Old Mike & Stuff (Robert Fripp in the early days of King Crimson) still barely recovered from the terrible case of the old shits & stuff he's just, basically, you know, got over & stuff and which have forced him immediately to locate the lavatory in every bar or restaurant we've visited since so as to place himself within a clench-arsed shuffle of their security and peace for the remainder of the evening. Leaving ourselves a cosy three quarters of an hour before the game kicks off, we go off in search of Slavia's ground.
An hour later, we find it, having thoroughly enjoyed our brief tour of Viktoria Žižkov's crumbling wreck of a stadium to which we were directed by a kindly Czech constable who seemed completely unfazed by our manic miming of Herculean goal kicks and broadly spherical objects. He may even have exclaimed "Borby Charl-torn!" or "Norby Stee-laze" or such like proof of comprehension, in a predictable caricature of the international language of the sport. We finally get to the old Strahov, Stadion Evzena Rosickeho & stuff, hand over considerably more of the worthless pre-euro local currency than the cover price to a man who may or may not be an official representative of the club for an otherwise reasonably priced pair of tickets and take our seats - or rather, our section of wooden bench, to be precise.
We've basically, you know, missed the start of the old game & stuff having heard a tremendous roar as we approached the ground; presumably Slavia have scored. We will hear a similar eruption a few minutes into the second half when Slavia bag their second, shuffling as we are outside the ground with three quarters of the rest of the attendees stood ahead of us in the queue that circles the stadium for a beaker of tepid Gambrinus. We do get to see a fair bit of the second half. The distinctively poodle-haired and Alice-banded Karel Poborsky plays for Slavia. He will go on to score a famous lobbed goal against Portugal at Euro '96 and help the unheralded Czech Republic to the final, which they lose to those heartbreaking Germans by way of an extra time golden goal. In the wake of the tournament he joins Man. (krrr-phttt) Utd., but fails to live up to his tournament form there.
Karel Poborsky: I'll swap you him and Jan Coller for a Patrick Berger.
It ends 2-0 to Slavia. Having missed the goals, the highlight for us is the extraordinary devilry of the away fans as they fling themselves at the thirty foot high wire fence that separates them from the pitch and, by the end of the match, around 50 heavy duty officers in full combat gear wielding shields, snubnosed machine guns and a pack of rather large and intimidating alsatians. Suitably terrified, we rush to the exit as rapidly as possible in order to get Old Mike & Stuff to the nearest lavatory and leave the gangly Prague youths hanging from the mesh; basically, you know, setting light to the Sparta scarves they've pushed through the old wire and taunting the police & stuff.
Milan K: I'm really Inter his books...
"Es muss sein!" Tomas repeated to himself, but then he began to doubt. Did it really have to be?
"Es muss sein!" It must be. There aren't many books I can honestly claim have changed my life in any fundamental way. The Beatles; an Illustrated Record by Roy Carr and Tony Tyler is one, obviously. I don't recall any other reading material passing before my eyes between the ages of eight and thirteen other than that book. Private Schulz, the tie-in novel by Jack Pullman, the TV series' creator, marked another turning point in that I not only finished it, but did so, by and large, without mouthing the words as I read them. Of the books I've read by Czech authors born in Brno, if any of them had a significant effect, Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the one that would most readily spring to mind. I first read it when I was 24 or 25 years old. From my early teens on and up to that point in my life I had been convinced that I would make my living as a musician; there would be a degree of fame, wealth and female fanaticism involved as well, if memory serves. I willed it; it had to be, didn't it? I'm sure I would have been abused of the notion eventually, by another source; the realisation would have sunk in anyway, with time. Or maybe not? Maybe it did have to be but, by chickening out on my true fate, I'd surrendered the dream too soon. Either way, sat there in a dingy public library feeling all the heavy weight of a life to be lived out in the shadow of failure, Kundera's suggestion in The Unbearable Lightness hit home with some force: "Muss es sein?"
It's a disorienting thing to lose that sense of certainty, but necessary, I feel. If nothing else, it's useful practice for the greater disorientations that lie in wait ahead. I remember reading an interview with Martin Amis where he says something along the lines of when you're young you keep telling yourself that one day you're going to get old and die; but you don't really believe it. That's what happens to all the others; you're different. It does sink in though, eventually, and is a similarly unnerving revelation as the discovery that the things you were certain were going to happen almost certainly won't. So, apart from the fact that you'll definitely be checking out one day, Es muss not necessarily sein at all, really. I want to be a writer, to make my living at it, earn a crust doing something I love rather than cooler kinging it through to a clapped out retirement, stomach clenched in anger at every slap of the baseball in the mitt as I was serving my time. I want that, but there is no inevitability about getting it. But if it does happen, it will really mean something; I'll know how lucky I have been. Or so I tell myself.
I suppose it might have been like that for those Invincibles. We will win! It must be! And so they did, more often than not in that heady period. And when they couldn't win, they couldn't be beaten either. In 49 league games this astonishing feat was performed until, at Old Trafford on October 24, 2004, they came across a team who finally had the resources to impose their own will on that astonishing side. It still is an extraordinary sequence, but it wasn't just the not losing streak that disappeared that day. The team had lost its aura; the spell had been broken. The immortal and unyielding qualities we'd all taken for granted had evaporated; we were no longer gods, but had been revealed as all too human, and eminently fallible. And what followed is what always happens when you wake up from a dream. Disorientating? Yes, for sure. But necessary, perhaps, as all awakenings are.
Now a new team is beginning to grow out of the disorientation that came with the realisation that we really were mortal after all. Arsenal are rebuilding, as we do after setbacks; as we must. The team may not yet match the grandeur of the shiny new Emirates stadium yet, but give it time. We may yet look back as fondly on this season as we did 2004, just as I have enjoyed being spirited back to a beautiful time when we couldn't find the game in that beautiful gothic city; the charming town that was spared the destruction meted out to Warsaw as a consequence of Chamberlain's appeasement. Its old Old Square & stuff are still as pretty as a fairy tale, I'm sure and the lucky gooners who've made the trips out there will find that what the Czechs say is true; they really do have the strongest women and the prettiest beers (I might have got that the wrong way around...). Lovely to recall Old Mike & Stuff, too; to visualise him dabbing at his granny glasses with a pointed finger, pressing them tight against the bridge of his nose; the two of us hysterically laughing at our inept attempts to find the ground. Good to go back one day, perhaps? And maybe another Tomas, local boy Rosicky, the 'Little Mozart' will at last start to deliver some of the promise he so evidently has but has so far rarely shown? It will be, perhaps; but not because it must.
L.U.V. on y'all,
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