Monday, March 19, 2012

A game of two halves (and other clichés)

When the final reckoning comes it is likely - and one of my sincerest hopes - that the accolade of 'Greatest English Footballer Ever' will be bestowed upon Jimmy Greaves.

In 157 appearances for Chelsea between 1957 and 1961 he scored 124 times, scoring on his debut for the club in 1957 and going on to achieve an as-yet unbeated club record of 41 league goals in the 1960-61 season. He then went to AC Milan, where he scored nine times in 12 appearances before coming back to London and finding the net a whopping 220 times in 321 outings with Spurs. On top of that, he is the third-highest goalscorer for England, with 44 goals in 57 appearances - a total which infamously excludes the 1966 World Cup Final, which Greaves missed.

Apologies for that statfest, but it allows me to tee up one further notable point about Greaves – that he has been the chief proponent (if not, possibly, originator) of football's greatest cliché: "It's a funny old game".

This five-word banality really doesn’t say anything at all, but at the same time says everything about how absurd football can be. Because – as a footballer will say - “at the end of the day” – football is a funny old game. 22 people kicking an inflated leather sphere up and down a pitch for 90 minutes before declaring one of the following – “We’re over the moon”, “We’re sick as a parrot” or “We came for a point and we’re going home with a point”.

I was musing on just how absurdly irrelevant football really is on Saturday evening as Fabrice Muamba lay in intensive care in a north London hospital.

Hours earlier he had suddenly slumped to the floor in Bolton Wanderers’ FA Cup Quarter-Final against Tottenham at White Hart Lane.

Now, this 23-year-old father of one, a child refugee from the bloodshed in his Zairean homeland, who arrived in England unable to speak English but applied himself academically and athletically to excellence, who became a hugely popular – if not technically gifted – footballer at Arsenal, Bolton and the England Under-21s, was fighting for his life (and, as I write, still is).

To exacerbate football’s absurdity further, as Muamba continued his brave battle yesterday afternoon, Chelsea sent out Fernando Torres to lead the attack in their own FA Cup Quarter-Final against Leicester City at Stamford Bridge.

Torres, you’ll recall, had cost Chelsea a ridiculous £50 million when they bought him from Liverpool in January 2011. You’ll also recall that Torres had not scored a goal, professionally, in 151 days (or more than 25 hours spent on a football pitch) - not the expected return on a striker, least of all one commanding such a price.

So when the blond one known in his native Madrid as El Niño, mostly dribbled the ball past the hapless Kasper Schmeichel on 67 minutes, it was understandable that Stamford Bridge – which had, an hour earlier, warmly applauded Muamba in sympathetic unity – rose to its feet in raptures as if they had witnessed a Biblical miracle.

A second was to follow almost 20 minutes later, causing those of a religious persuasion in the stands to immediately abandon any plans to visit Lourdes and stay rooted in London SW6.

Which led to me thinking about that other noble footballing cliché – “a game of two halves”. Because it really is a game of division, between those work hard to become great and those who have greatness thrust upon them, and then have struggle to live up that greatness.

Torres demonstrated at Athletico Madrid and at Liverpool what a lethal striker he is. Whether the two goals he scored for Chelsea yesterday finally unleash the demons that were preventing him extending that reputation for lethality remain to be seen.

And even if he now goes on to exceed Jimmy Greaves’ club record of league goals in a single season (not impossible, of course, but even if Chelsea face opposition comprised entirely of multiple amputees in their remaining fixtures this season, it’s as likely as Rafa Benitez becoming the next secretary of the Chelsea Supporters Club), Chelsea fans will naturally be beyond elation. But right now, the only thing that matters in this beautiful game is that one particular 23-year-old, who has united the entire world of football behind him, pulls through and makes it to his 24th birthday three weeks from now.

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