The vast majority of this week has seen me putting together a Dispatch in which I dissected the meaning of Gennaro Guttuso’s ‘Waterloo’ moment. The aging pitbull general of the AC Milan midfield, faced with the realisation that his team had been largely outfought and outthought by the relative Champions League novices of Tottenham, decided to take matters into his own hands and attempt to fight the entire Spurs squad with coach Joe Jordan being the particular focus of his red-misted ire.
Then on Friday, during a cigarette break, quite randomly and innocuously, the thought hit me. As football fans, as human beings, why is it that we expend so much energy focusing on life’s negatives and let-downs? Goodness knows there are enough forums and platforms for us all to vent our collective spleen on what we think has gone wrong in the game. From phone-ins to blogs to mass protests, we all labour under the impression that something’s amiss in the world. Footballers are greedy. Agents are gluttonous. The game is run by a closed circle of corrupt businessmen, driven by the financial rewards of sucking the lifeblood out of it. We all know this. It’s a common tale, told many times.
So this week, I want to celebrate the little miracles that the game gives us. Things like a little club from West Sussex taking on and frustrating the most famous club in the world in an FA Cup match. Or the youngsters of Arsenal maturing before our very eyes and besting the greatest practitioners of the game, Barcelona. Or the magical, inexplicable moment in which I saw my club defeat the seven times champions of Europe on their home ground. But most of all I wanted to tell you about my friend Pete White.
Pete and I met in 2002 in Bali. I was on the verge of being ripped off by a savvy local tour-guide who regaled me with silver-tongued charm about the benefits of his expensive dolphin-spotting enterprise. Needless to say, I would have parted with my rupiah and embarked upon said experience if it had not been for Pete who happened to be walking past at the time and had already learned from his own encounter that it wasn’t quite the event it was being portrayed to be. Actually, let me back up a second. If I had not been wearing my Spurs shirt, Pete wouldn’t have stepped in to warn me as to the hazardous decision I was about to make. Because, like me (for his sins) Pete is a Spurs fan. As a result of this chance meeting, Pete, myself and our girlfriends (now wives) travelled around the island for the next three days. And out of this, grew a friendship that has lasted to this very day. We have been to each others’ weddings, shared many laughs and have of course, taken the pilgrimage together to the hallowed terraces of White Hart Lane.
In May 2012, Pete will be undertaking a very different and more exhaustive pilgrimage. Having found out that the Rwandan Olympic team will be basing itself in his hometown of Bury, St Edmunds, he and two friends plan to cycle from Suffolk to Rwanda covering six thousand miles in seventy days. He’s doing this to raise money to allow the Rwandans to fund their Olympic journey, experience and preparations which hinge on them having £25,000 at their disposal before they can think about getting a reimbursement from the International Olympic Committee.
The thought of Rwanda conjures up so many negative connotations for many of us who watched in horror and helplessness at the genocide that occurred there in the mid-nineties. However, what awaits Pete I’m sure, is an experience that will be as life-affirming and hopeful as having one’s first child. And underpinning all this, is the notion that sport, can and does unite us all.
Dispatches began on the eve of the South African World Cup. I began writing it because I wanted to articulate just why football is so important to me. As the blog has developed and gained more readers, I have come into contact with (via Twitter and other social networking media) many others out who want to do the same as me. I have received responses and am now in contact with people in the US, Ghana, New Zealand and Holland and fans of Blackburn and Blackpool, Ajax and Arsenal to name just a few – people who I know I will never meet but share my abiding love and hate of the game.
Unfortunately, I don’t frequent White Hart Lane as much as I used to due to financial constraints and responsibilities but also because for years, I have felt distant from the game I’ve obsessed over for the best part of 25 years. I’ve felt patronised, ignored, shouted down by the marauding bullishness of Sky Sports for longer than I can remember but via this platform, I am now reading about football and communicating with other fans in a way I didn’t think possible just under a year ago. During matches now, I find it more incisive and humourous to have my ‘twitterfeed’ on, rather than listen to more bland punditry emanating from the television screen. It’s almost like being in the pub but from the comfort of your own sofa. Because, what all these people have in common, is a deep-seated passion for the game. Beyond advertising hoardings, beyond the Nike tick and beyond another Beckham barnet.
On the island Kho Pha Ngan, off the Thai coast, at Ban Chaloklum Beach you’ll find a rotund fisherman who answers to the name of Joe. He cannot speak English very well – at least he couldn’t speak it with any degree of fluency back in 2002. But as we got off the longboat, I was astounded at his attire. In this remote place, the fattest Thai person you could ever hope to see had put his large frame into a rather tight Spurs shirt. As he approached us he let out the bellowing cry with arms aloft: “TOTT-NAM HOTSPUUUUR”. Over the next few days he dismissed Glenn Hoddle’s passing philosophy as “too slow, too slow” and religiously and painstakingly filled in his giant World Cup wall chart as the tournament progressed. I have it on good authority that he’s still there and in possession of the ‘dressing room’ Spurs keyring I gave him upon leaving.
The thing is, however disillusioned we are, there are always people who feel the same way as we do. The great thing about our twenty-first century world is that we now have the means to articulate this and our passions with greater immediacy and as the more serious business of social change in the Middle East sweeps before our eyes, we can now see and take heart from the power and the need for all of us to know that we are not alone.
Football brought me into contact with a person who has become a great friend of mine. He is preparing for a journey that while involving cycling every day in aid of the Rwandan Olympic team, I have no doubt that the international language of football that I have experienced in myriad ways in foreign lands and closer to home, will bring him new friendships and ties that bind. Love him as I do though, you’ll never see me on a bicycle. I’ve got my sofa. So, as Pete carries on his diligent training regime this week, I’ll sit here planning another swipe at the forces of evil bankrupting this game of ours. Next week, normal service will be resumed.