Upon reflecting on the last weekend of football, it is difficult not to acknowledge that it was far more eventful than the average weekend’s dosage of the game. It was always going to be so, with the opening fixture of it coming in the form of Manchester United vs Liverpool, which in itself is always a feisty encounter, but the rivalry was to be exacerbated by the Suarez-Evra incident. I wrote here about my own view on the situation at hand just after Suarez was given an 8-game ban by the FA. In spite of admitting to using the word ‘negro’ once, he chose not to shake the hand of Patrice Evra, because he had the guile to report racist abuse. The swine.
Then the actual match, which seemed to have been lost amid the furore, happened and was entertaining from what I saw on Match of the Day and read as I wandered around Paris trying to find some internet on my phone. Suarez played the pantomime villain to all but the Liverpool fans, who shared his self-perception as the tragic, victimised man with a persecution complex. Following two goals from Wayne Rooney, the second of which was a lovely finish through the legs of Pepe Reina, Liverpool grabbed a goal through their misunderstood hero, Suarez. The game finished 2-1 to the hosts and the post-match press conferences left one dour Scot with far more dignity than another, as Sir Alex Ferguson denounced the Uruguayan’s actions and Kenny Dalglish continued to back his man. The saga looked as though it would continue for many a week, until Suarez and Dalglish issued apologies today and Chief Executive Ian Ayre followed suit. Though the former twos’ reeked of insincerity and read as though they were written with guns to the writers’ heads, the gesture may hopefully spell and end to all this. Ayre’s apology was essentially an apology for the idiocy of those below him, but may that be the end of this circle of stupidity.
Meanwhile, just after the final whistle which confirmed United’s win, Evra took it upon himself to charge around the Old Trafford pitch celebrating as if he had scored the winner. The petty, vitriolic part of me was all for this - it was a personal victory for him, but another part of me can also see the more unsightly side to it. The clash and all the surrounded it was no great show of the game at its finest. The whole scenario is one which will be best confined to history.
Then, earlier this evening, Zambia claimed the Africa Cup of Nations trophy, 19 years after the tragic plane crash which wiped out a team brimming with potential. They battled fiercely against the Cote d’Ivoire who, player-for-player, could have been expected to brush their opponents aside with consummate ease, but within this Zambia team there lay a wonderful spirit and determination. They fought and won, mere hundreds of metres inland from the site of the crash, which killed 18 members of the squad, as well as four members of their backroom staff. Their players gained initial recognition for their singing, which they did before kick off and during the shootout. It was an amazing sight to witness and although I was cheering Gervinho, it was impossible not to be enchanted by Zambia. It was heart-wrenching to see the tears of defender Joseph Musonda as he was replaced due to injury after just 11 minutes, but only a soulless person with a heart of stone - or maybe a fan of the Cote d’Ivoire - would not have been moved when manager Herve Renard carried him to celebrate with his team-mates.
Without wanting to descend into the hackneyed clichés, there were so many elements of why we all love football in this match: the hard-working underdogs overcoming their clearly stronger opponents through their spirit and strength as a unit, while adding a redemptive chapter to a story so laden with tragedy. The 34-year old defender who had plundered his whole career to no avail leaving the pitch in tears, only for his despair to transform into euphoria as he celebrated the victory. Football throws up tales of this ilk like nothing else can. While there was the 90-minute, drama-filled soap opera at Old Trafford the day before, the two-and-a-half hour epic usurped it as the tale that will survive the test of the generations.
On a personal level, however, the highlight of my footballing weekend came in the form of the 92nd minute at the Stadium of Light. Around this time I, with my school group, was stepping onto the platform of the Gare du Nord, preparing to get the train back to London. There were around 10 of us Arsenal fans trying desperately to ascertain the score; some were receiving text updates from friend or family in London, though not wanting to waste any further money on texts and already having 1mb of internet to use at no extra cost, I chose to frantically attempt refreshing my Twitter, hoping beyond hope that we would get a winner. The first text came in just as we clambered onto the platform, almost literally just off the train that took us to the station. One person called that it was 2-1 and Henry was the scorer. Then another, and another. At this point, I was connected to the internet and my exploding Twitter feed confirmed that Thierry Henry had indeed scored the goal that may well be the winner. Then, in the middle of the Gare du Nord, the group of us all started chanting ‘Thierry Henry, Thierry Henry…’
It was perfection bordering on the night of his return. With Chelsea and Liverpool having lost and one of Newcastle or Tottenham to drop points in their encounter later in the day, it was one day when we desperately needed a win. 1-1 became 2-1 and 228 became 229. All because of Thierry Henry. It was not a story of loss and hope like Zambia’s, just one of pure brilliance. We should have known; it was just too perfect not to happen. His magnificence in his first spell enhanced my adoration of football and the Arsenal in my more formative years and later on, he returns to rekindle memories of those wonderful times.
We saw some of football’s darker side at Old Trafford; the potent hatred in a rivalry is something that should be celebrated but the circumstances that surrounded this particular meeting were nothing to enjoy. Zambia’s win and Henry’s goal remind that fairytales still happen and will continue to as long as the game carries on. It is the nature of football and it is why so many adore it now and why future generations will feel the same. Success can be bought, but legend cannot.