Offside, 28 October
It takes more than a bad food fight to ruin good football.
‘Was it pea soup or tomato?’ That is the big debating point after last Sunday’s ‘Battle of the Buffet’ at Old Trafford when Sir Alex Ferguson was reportedly pelted with soup, pizza, and sandwiches by irate Arsenal players.
The food fight does raise some important questions about the state of our national game. Why, for instance, did Britain’s wealthiest football club serve up such stodgy fare to the country’s top footballers? Were the Arsenal players enraged by United’s physical tactics or simply disgusted at the poor quality of the food? Most of us have been having a good old chuckle over this latest episode in the ongoing feud between Manchester United and Arsenal. ‘Given Arsenal’s French contingent and that they play barely a baguette’s length away from the gourmet paradise that is Islington, one would have expected at the very least a little clarified consommé and perhaps some pain rustique’, quipped Times food writer Ross Anderson.
Some commentators, however, take the more gloomy view that a flying pizza today means moral disintegration tomorrow. ‘After the Football Association’s calamitous failure to punish David Beckham for deliberately risking injury to an opponent while serving as England captain, the governance of Premiership football collapsed in a hail of soup, sandwiches and pizza’, raged Paul Hayward in the Daily Telegraph. ‘It becomes much harder to tell a three-year-old not to throw pizza around the kitchen when some of the best footballers in the land are using the Margherita as a missile.’ (1) Oh please. If parents can’t discipline their children it’s just a copout to blame footballers. You may as well blame circus clowns or children’s TV programmes for irresponsible glorification of pie throwing.
We should not, however, allow a mere food fight to distract us from the more important life-and-death matter of the match itself. As a spectacle it wasn’t the sort of game that would have pleased the ‘purists’ (that intensely irritating breed of people you’ll find in gastropubs declaiming loudly about how they think the ‘beautiful game’ should be played). What it lacked in free-flowing football it more than made up for in dramatic tension.
‘In all the football matches I have watched during my 27 years in England I cannot say that I have ever seen a game as quick, as pulsating and as tense as the one we saw at Old Trafford yesterday’, gushed Alan Hansen. I wouldn’t go quite as far as Hansen. I’ve seen higher quality football played at a breathtaking pace between these two teams in the past. Sunday’s game didn’t live up to its ‘match of the decade’ billing but it was pretty damn compelling nonetheless. And as for the bad blood between the two teams – surely that was all part of the entertainment? All the best football rivalries are animated by a bitter mutual animosity. The Spanish have a word for this – they call it morbo. Arsenal versus United has shedloads of morbo.
Arsene Wenger was typically ungracious in defeat, blaming the referee and whinging about United’s physical approach. ‘I just feel that on the day Manchester United did not play with the spirit I like football to be played’, said Wenger. Oh yes and what spirit might that be? Throwing players forward gung-ho and leaving great inviting big spaces at the back for Henry and co to exploit? Perhaps they should just play Manchester City every week – I’m sure Kevin Keegan’s team would oblige.
Wenger’s complaint has become something of a familiar refrain whenever a team denies Arsenal the time or space to play – just as United did in last season’s FA Cup semi-final. If Arsenal cannot cope with opponents who stop them from playing it highlights a chink in their apparently unbreachable armour. It also sends out a message to prospective opponents: the Arse don’t like it up ‘em, so to speak. If Arsenal want to succeed in Europe they will have to break down well-drilled defensive teams rather than just moaning about them.
Sunday’s game illustrated that United still possess the know-how to win the big games. But Ferguson’s team no longer have the swagger or invincible aura of champions. They can get fired up when they meet Arsenal, but this fixture is now starting to resemble United’s cup final rather than a title decider. Ferguson insists his team is in transition, but in transition to what? United are still reviled by opposing fans but it is no longer the case that they are feared by opposing teams.
(1) Rival camps dish out the dirt as feud careers out of control, Daily Telegraph, 25 October 2004
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