The English take losing hard, and we’re not just talking about former colonies.
When a Hungarian soccer team visited the island in 1953 and claimed the first win ever by an international side on English soil, sportswriter Geoffrey Green summed the mood inside Wembley Stadium that day perfectly. The nation that exported the game to the far corners of the globe on the wings of an empire had been thoroughly outclassed by a team from the continent playing a style which the English barely recognized and were hopeless to counter. No one better described that feeling of helplessness better than Green, who wrote in the Times of London the next day:
“Here, indeed, did we attend, all 100,000 of us, the twilight of the gods.”
So maybe it’s a good thing there were plenty of his countrymen rooting on either side of Manchester City’s decisive 1-0 win over crosstown rival United on Monday. Besides, nothing quite as monumental as the birth of the modern game took place during that contest, even though it was billed as the biggest game in Premier League history _ not to mention the most-watched regular-season match in the history of the planet. And for those Americans still wondering why all the fuss over a game that ran 90-plus minutes with only one score _ and without producing a clear-cut winner in the league’s title race _ let’s try to put it on more familiar footing: It’s as if the Mets of English football, after decades of getting pushed around, finally screwed up enough courage to stick their thumbs in the eyes of the Yankees.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment,” said Vincent Kompany, City’s captain and the game’s lone goal-scorer. “It’s far from over, and we know that, but just to give our fans two wins over Manchester United this season _ we have to finish it off.”
United has won 12 of the last 19 Premier League titles, while City last topped the English circuit in 1968. The last time the Blues _ to United’s Red Devils _ even finished second was 1977. And in order for this win to mean anything, City will still likely have to win or draw on the road against Newcastle and then at home against Queens Park Rangers, two teams with plenty left to play for. United, on the other hand, plays next against Swansea at home and then Sunderland on the road. Both look like easier matches, but considering the way things have gone for United the past three weeks, nothing is guaranteed.
What does seem certain, though, is manager Sir Alex Ferguson and United may finally have real competition at the top. Under Ferguson’s nearly three decade-long-and-counting stewardship, the club knocked Liverpool off the throne, then outlasted challenges from Arsenal and Chelsea. And Ferguson won personal duels with Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho.
But City was taken over two years ago by the deep-pocketed Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the brother of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and it’s clear why Ferguson has been dreading this day ever since.
“It was feisty. It was a competitive game which we expected, not a lot of goal chances,” Ferguson said.
Actually, even that was an exaggeration. United had exactly zero shots on goal.
“We had control of some parts of the game, but not enough,” he conceded a few moments later, “to cause any damage.”
The closest United came to doing that was late in the second half, when Ferguson and City manager Roberto Mancini nearly tangled on the sideline. City midfielder Nigel de Jong cut down United attacker Danny Welbeck and the managers began trading barbs and then hand gestures, each apparently suggesting the other should stop chirping at the refs. Fortunately, sideline officials and an assistant coach kept it from escalating beyond that.
“Sir Alex told me something not kind,” Mancini said. “But I can understand, because at that point, tension is high.”
Unlike pro sports leagues in North America, European football has no rules currently in place to govern players’ salaries. But both the Premier League and UEFA, the governing body for European competitions, are in the process of installing so-called “Fair Play” provisions to limit exactly the kind of exorbitant spending on talent that first Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich used to lift Chelsea, and more lately, the sheik has lavished on players at City. The billionaires’ fantasy league stretching around the globe is about to change.