It’s not the Champions League or the FA Cup on the front pages of The Times, FourFourTwo, and Total Football, it’s Everton striker Wayne Rooney, the brilliant English 17 year-old that made Arsenal fans weep and Everton fans don “Roonaldinho” jerseys (in tribute to Brazil’s Ronaldinho). Rooney’s goal against Arsenal marked not only the first League loss this season for the Gunners and the belief that Arsenal keeper David Seaman is at the end of his days, it showed a footballing nation how beautiful a goal could be from the foot of a before-unknown, prodigious young talent.
That goal sank me into depression for a few days, images playing over and over in my head of Rooney’s shot, mimicking that of Ronaldinho’s World Cup goal against Seaman, sending waves of doubt through my too-confident belief in Arsenal. How could it have gone in? Hadn’t Seaman tried to put an extra spring in his step after the humiliating World Cup goal? By all accounts, it was a fantastic, unbelievable goal, and a mistake, surely, in the mind of any Arsenal fan. And the man, or rather boy, who managed that rocket, had yet to be signed by Everton. Drama o high drama, o football gold, and glory rolled into one.
Roonaldinho didn’t even start the next match for Everton, a side now hovering around the middle of the table. There was too much apprehension about young Wayne. Could he cut it? Was it a fluke? Could Everton afford to take the chance? Like an opera, the first act has ended and we wait with bated breath for the next twist, salivating for the next melodramatic moment.
Those of you who saw Dennis Bergkamp’s goal against Newcastle last year, where with a small toe flick and near perfect timing he managed to send the ball one way, the defender the other and score a blistering shot into the low-right side of the goal, will know the excitement I’m talking about. Marcelo Balboa’s rifle-accurate bicycle kick from the edge of the box against the Columbus Crew last year, or the bicycle kicks, diving headers and long shots make football what it is: Glorious, artistic movement at its best. The player becomes part artist, part surgeon, slipping the ball through the defense, over the heads of keepers, or saving it miraculously from the goal line. Decisions be damned. Right or wrong they only add to the improvisational script of football.
The rot in the game? It’s not the officiating. It’s often poor, and at times so unbalanced you often wonder who paid to make the calls. Bergkamp’s elbow against a flailing West Ham defender didn’t result in a red card, but instead a goal for the Gunners to put them in the lead against a frightfully confident West Ham side. But an elbow from Mark Viduka in LeedsC recent FA Cup match against Gillingham resulted in a red card and a draw. For those who saw it, it was soft, almost gentle compared with Bergkamp’s street brawler-like attack.
The Bundesliga has already added another official to the pitch to make decisions easier for the first official. How long until instant replay becomes the riposte of every good decision on the pitch? How long until the coaches can challenge a decision not with words but rules? But this need for perfect officiating is only part of the cancer, not the whole of it.
With all this controversy about officiating and talks of instant replay rearing its ugly head into the world of European football, it seems the sporting public is on the verge of giving up on what makes the game so great and pure when compared to the slow drawl of baseball, the oppressive repetition of cricket and the overbearing military structure of American football. The love of the players, the love of the drama, where has it gone?
It’s the focus we miss. The fact that there is so much money in the game is not a new revelation or one that is particularly original, but that makes it no less frightening. Football is about television contracts, satellite contracts, and club owners who own multinational conglomerates and look at football as profit rather than leisure. The start of Serie A was delayed this season as the league and clubs fought with the satellite provider about contracts. Money, money, money. The people with the money want to see the league more fair, more balanced. A fan will always gripe about a missed call or too much extra time or even deliberate stalling to run down the clock. But that is part of the heart of the game. The passion and drama come from the unique blend of officials, managers, players, and circumstances. So what if Liverpool forward Michael Owen lost a few hundred pounds at the track? He’ll be back to score again, alongside that worthless Emil Heskey, and create some of the drama we love, on the pitch and off of it.
We need, and the leagues need, to avoid the route of American football, with commercial time-outs and instant reply. It’s the game we love, so let us watch it and embrace it. The rules have worked pretty well for the last hundred and twenty something-odd years. Money is bandied about by the clubs in dire financial need, barely making it. Football is not a profit-making machine for all of the clubs in the league, just a lucky few. Look over the financial reports at the end of the season and you’ll be surprised. Many are hurting, but few mention it. Fans hope the owners are as romantic as they are and luckily, some are or many sides would have gone the way of the monorail. No matter the financial problems, the players, coaches and fans show up, support their clubs no matter how far they have to travel, because the games are the churches and honeymoon suites where we spend time with our precious F.C. families.
The fateful Everton game was erased from my video collection that same day, erasing the looks on the Arsenal fans at Highbury or the cowering glance of Seaman-turned-Spears (Ooops! I did it again.) It sent shivers through me. But much like any football fan, I wanted to see it again. And again and again. Unbelievable, unreal and beautiful. Now I wish I had that tape back, for the very reason I erased it.
I want to see the brilliance and unbridled talent of the Rooneys and the Gazzas and the Coles (and as many more as you can name). I don’t want to see a Ford commercial or a fat bastard selling me a male enhancement drug. Just great goals. Hopefully, if we Gunners fans are lucky, not against Arsenal.