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Londoners Adopt Twisted Loyalties
« on: May 18, 2012, 11:29:51 AM »

Londoners Adopt Twisted Loyalties
George Vecsey, The New York Times Last updated on Friday, 18 May 2012 13:49

In the layered world of soccer, there is no end of season, no lack of subplots.


"Go, Schweinsteiger!"

A large swath of London-centric fans is likely to be screaming that most Germanic of soccer names Saturday during the Champions League final.

Many hard-core English fans would absolutely hate to see Chelsea, based in London, win the Champions League trophy, which began as the European Cup 57 seasons ago, and just about every Tottenham fan in creation will be rooting for Bayern Munich. What better instant favourite could there be than Bastian Schweinsteiger, the formidable (and perhaps still injured) midfielder from the Bundesliga?

Soccer creates odd and highly temporary alliances. After that stupendous Survival Sunday, when two rivals from Manchester struggled into the final seconds of simultaneous matches to decide the Premier League championship, the complicated dramatics continue. They hardly ever end, really.

If there is any other sport on this earth that provides so many concurrent thrills from club play and national competition, then I have never heard of it.

Nobody has more to gain from Chelsea’s defeat than a crosstown rival from London, Tottenham Hotspur. At the Tottenham fans’ chosen outpost in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan — a pub named Perdition — Hotspur fans will turn 10th Avenue between West 48th and 49th streets into Little Bavaria.

It’s not merely a major case of schadenfreude, either. Because of the rules this season, by winning the Champions League final in Munich on Saturday, Chelsea would gain a berth in next season’s Champions League tournament — squeezing Tottenham out of that lucrative and prestigious continental competition.

"We really have to root for our special interests," said Sean Byrne, the proprietor of Perdition, who has been a Tottenham fan since his childhood in Dublin in the 1960s.

This is how world soccer works — why a fan in Shanghai might wear a Barça jersey, why a fan in Toronto might wear a Fiorentina scarf. In the cable-and-Internet age, the world's sport is sinking deep roots in the United States, too. Just look at the placards outside bars and restaurants, advertising the Champions League final at 2:45 p.m. Eastern, Saturday, accompanied by ethnic cooking and various libations.

Byrne was 11 years old in Dublin when his best friend, Bobby Smith, told him about Jimmy Greaves, from the East End of London, with his feel for the goal. "They’ve always had an attacking style," Byrne said, admiringly. The pals never got to see Greaves in person but they watched him on the tube and became Spurs fans for life "through thick and thin, more bad years than good years," said Byrne, who has been to several dozen matches at the Spurs’ ancient home on White Hart Lane.

This season Tottenham challenged for first place in the Premier League, ultimately finishing fourth, which under old conditions would have qualified them for the Champions League next season. A ruling by UEFA, the European soccer’s governing body, however, specifies that Chelsea would dislodge Tottenham by winning Saturday.

This dynamic has kicked up all sorts of London antagonisms. Normally, Tottenham fans are more concerned with their North London derby with Arsenal. Things can get a bit snide. In an almost annual celebration, Arsenal fans observe St. Totteringham’s Day, on which the Spurs are mathematically eliminated from finishing above Arsenal. Poor Tottenham tends to suffer. An Arsenal pal reminds me of the match in 2006 when Tottenham players turned up sick, at first blamed on the lasagna at the team hotel, later attributed to a virus one of the players was carrying. After Tottenham lost, Lasagna-gate was forever memorialized in song by Arsenal fans.

Chelsea has its own Thames-side derby going with Fulham, while Queens Park Rangers and the currently relegated West Ham also spar for London attention.


Loyalties can swerve radically during a staggering springtime of cup matches and league matches and Champions League matches. On Cinco de Mayo, some English fans might have been happy with Chelsea’s 2-1 victory over Liverpool in the final of the F.A. Cup, that great national tournament that culminates at Wembley. Perhaps Liverpool is still resented for winning five European titles, the most by any English squad.

In the same mad month, some English fans could logically switch off and root for Barcelona against Chelsea in the Champions League semifinal because they admire Barça’s artistic style. Chelsea also turned off some potential supporters when its unsavoury captain, John Terry, kneed an opponent in the back when he thought the referee was not looking.

Somehow, Chelsea managed to survive Terry’s expulsion against Barça. Many London fans cannot root for Chelsea to become the first London squad to win the European title — stunning, but true. Since that competition began in 1956, Real Madrid has won nine times and A.C. Milan seven. Manchester United won three and, for goodness’ sakes, Nottingham Forest won twice and Aston Villa of Birmingham once.

Nevertheless, Chelsea has become an attractive team on a roll since the Italian-born Roberto DiMatteo took over on March 4. One of the great oddities of the formerly insular English league is that DiMatteo has been joined by his fellow Italian Roberto Mancini, who won the Premier League title with Manchester City on Sunday. (Carlo Ancelotti, another Italian coach, won the Premier League and F.A. Cup with Chelsea in 2009-10.)

DiMatteo is still stuck with the interim title because the owner Roman Abramovich is hard to please. Di Matteo battened down the hatches with Italian-style defense and also freed up Didier Drogba to use his heart and skill to carry Chelsea. The club also has keeper Petr Cech, a worldly Czech who wears a form-fitting helmet since a fractured skull in 2006.

In a sane world, these superb players who stagger through the big matches of May would have three or four months off, like American team athletes. But soccer squeezes every last pound and euro of value from these racked bodies and minds. In less than a month, the best national teams will be competing in the 2012 European championships in Poland and Ukraine, the second-best soccer tournament in the world.

Then comes vacation? Well, maybe a quick one. By late July, many of these very same bone-weary players will be staggering through income-generating exhibitions in North America in something called the World Football Challenge. That is the nature of soccer. It serves up overlapping competitions and loyalties as well as emotions that veer with the ferocity of a free kick on goal.

© 2012, The New York Times News Service

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