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Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Billions Watched...

Saturday 3rd November, 2007: Arsenal 2 (Fabregas, Gallas), Manchester United 2 (Gallas o.g., Ronaldo)

It had to happen sooner or later, I suppose, the first real stumble of the season. Not the team; the two draws that have so rudely interrupted our fine sequence of wins in all competitions were both against quality opposition, so no disgrace there. I'm talking about the book; the writing is the problem at the moment, not the team. Three days have elapsed since William Gallas' late goal earned us a point against the reigning champions and I have been, until now, unable to get any words to come out at all. I've been stuck, sat before the white sheet with nothing coming; just blankness and a fuzzing of the brain. With the away game in Prague looming, I've forced myself to start writing, just to see what comes, before the whole lumbering juggernaut that is The Road to Moscow judders to a halt with barely a quarter of a season played. Moscow seems a long way away right now. I've come very close to jacking it in.

Like a billion other people, I watched the Man U game on television. Maybe that's the problem. After all, most of those billions of souls - we'll assume that most of them had or now have some interest in the broader game of football - might reasonably be expected to comprise the bulk of my prospective readership around the globe. If they've seen the game, as I did, via the mediating filter of satelite TV, what could I possibly tell them about Arsenal versus Manchester United that they don't already know? Why should my experience of the match be worth reading about when they already have a perfectly good one of their own?

So we all sat there; or slouched or stood or sprawled across the floor or the sofa or reclined in an office chair and gawped at the screen on the wall of the dilapidated pub, or at our laptop in Silesia, or a projector in Saigon. The vagaries of the shapes and dimensions of the screens no more significant than those of different sized bowls into which uniformly apportioned slops of identical gruel might have been doled on a collectivized farm. Because even with the death of communism, we can still be made to endure a similar communal impoverishment of the consciousness. Oh sure, you can choose your own camera angles and listen to the commentary team in Swahili, but it's still nothing at all like being there is Rupert Murdoch's Sky TV. It's better than some dandruff-ridden 70s satelite transmission of a game from the soviet bloc, but in the end you just endure a different kind of tyranny; one of pizzazz and hyperbole not that of static, snow and a rolling drum of a picture.

I suppose this is the kind of problem you can expect though, when you write about the popular or common experience in the age of the globalized media. We all think we know more than those who play the game or the men who pick the teams. The stodgy-faced Man Utd fan sat in the corner rails at the screen "you have to do better than that" as Ryan Giggs' instinctive reaction shot at the end of a cross he's not expecting to reach him pings just wide. It's as if there's a suggestion that Giggs might somehow prefer to miss than score a goal. We all know - or think we know - the game inside out; a global panel of pundits and experts strtching from Beijing to Nova Scotia. So what can I say that might add anything at all of worth to our understanding of the beautiful game?

I could tell you about the soft Irish-flavoured lilt of the home-shirted Liverpool fan stood beside me at the bar, I suppose. I coulod try to describe the way his spectacles did that goldfish bowl thing that makes the wearer look like Joe 90 or one of the Tracey brothers from Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds. Or I could pass on to the gentle reader that this lad's seat was in the end where all the goals were scored iun Istanbul that night in May 2005 when Liverpool came back from three goals behind to snatch the European Cup from AC Milan. Or I could tell you how we hugged - two perfect strangers united in antipathy towards Man U - when William Gallas' late goal levelled the scores. But then, a billion others would have watched as we did, theie eyes like ours refusing to believe the referees unarguable point back to the centre circle, only losing any doubt the goal was good once we had born witness to the gentle dropping down of that levelling two in place of a loser's one, as slow as a day clicking over on the counter of a wristwatch, on the Sky scoreboard. Gallas' goal thus legitimised, only then could our festivities begin.

But then you will all have your own stories; the billion others of you out there who either leaped for joy as we did or hung your head in despair at that late, two point-stealing goal. Or maybe you were a neutral, just happy to enjoy the game? Perhaps it's you I'm writing for; the uncommitted, the one who likes but does not love, applauds rather than cheers. But how do you describe in words a passion to those who do not share it? How could In describe that joyous leap, the ....of fists raised up towards the ceiling; pink-faced, our hearts pounding laughing at the outrageousness of it all. Substitute the elation they felt and the doom in our hearts when Ronaldo scored their second, and perhaps that's why a game we only drew had more of the feeling you'd expect from a victory.

Or maybe I'm writing for someone else entirely. Someone not yet born; someone who may never know a game called football who may wonder what they used to do in that crumbling wreck called Emirates. Someone to whom our loafers and trainers, polo shirts and tracky bottoms will seem as antiquated as a Roman tunic or a gladiator's sandals or that once great Colloseum do to us. You write for time, I suppose; to tell the billions yet to come what it was like to be among the billion who were once here.

L.U.V. on y'all,


Hear Bob read extracts from his diary of the 2007-08 season, "The Road to Moscow"!!

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