Tag Archives: Manchester United

The Philosophy of a “Soccer Fanatic”

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The Fernandez siblings in 2011. Image by Sheldon Fernandez © 2014

In  June, the largest global audience in history will tune in to watch the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, a quadrennial carnival rivalled only by the Summer and Winter Olympics. Many will live and die by the progress of their teams, with hearts-in-mouths and lumps in throats. Tears, shrieks and all the rest will combine into smorgasbord of emotion that only soccer can induce. What is it about the game that gives it such widespread appeal? Against the backdrop of club football, Sheldon Fernandez searches for the answer ….

An excerpt of his new piece in F&O’s Think-Magazine section – part memoir, part musing:

The dimensions of my Man United fandom frightens me at times, so intense and entrenched are the emotions. When my team wins the universe is vibrant and orderly and rays of sunshine shower my existence. But when they lose the cosmos is a morbid void and I feel like a helpless actor in an absurdist play. Quite often the scale of these emotions is tied to the scale of the triumph or failure. In the wake of a spectacular victory I devour the newspapers like a giddy parent as if the team’s accomplishments are my own. But after a crushing defeat I erect a firewall, a media blackout of therapeutic and existential necessity, though in the back of my mind I agonize over wrongful tactics and chances missed. 

Yes, this is absurd – so the detached philosopher in me, of years past, would intone to the fanatical version of himself today. Civil war in Syria, strife in North Korea, and trouble and tribulation elsewhere throughout the globe, but there you sit, raptured and transfixed, your happiness and wellbeing tied to an athletic scrimmage. The soccer enthusiast today would indeed mystify his more mature doppelganger of years past, but in-between these personalities there lies an interesting story, a gradual metamorphosis from soccer dabbler to footballing addict. 

It began on November 26th, 2006, a slow and slothful Sunday for me but monumental in Manchester … 

One day at Wembley: a soccer fanatic reflects. (This piece is published free, with public access, at the author’s request.)*

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One day at Wembley: a soccer fanatic reflects

In  June, the largest global audience in history will tune in to watch the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, a quadrennial carnival rivalled only by the Summer and Winter Olympics. Many will live and die by the progress of their respective teams, with hearts-in-mouths and lumps in throats. Tears, shrieks and all the rest will combine into smorgasbord of emotion that only soccer can induce. What is it about the game that gives it such widespread appeal? Against the backdrop of club football, Sheldon Fernandez searches soulfully for the answer.

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The Fernandez siblings. Image: Sheldon Fernandez © 2014

By SHELDON FERNANDEZ

Published: May, 2014

Lionel Messi darts into the penalty area with preternatural swiftness, the ball tied to his feet via an invisible string that less gifted men term ‘genius’ or ‘magic’. Suddenly and somewhat arbitrarily he aborts his explosive run towards the goal and stops as three defenders – world class athletes in their own right – wobble anxiously amidst his cunning feint. Mayhem manufactured, the little man slides an inch-perfect pass to an oncoming teammate who blasts the ball over the bar. So quickly does this sequence unfold that I experience a queer disorientation, as if God himself clicked ‘fast forward’ on the visual storyline in front of me, only to reset time to its normal velocity moments later.

Lionel Messi is indeed inexplicably fast, but what separates him from other footballers is what one might term his ‘unearthly dexterity’, the otherworldly ability to contort his trajectory without sacrificing the Olympian velocity with which it is traversed. Such physical prowess, in combination with the tremendous torque and elasticity that makes it possible, seems more befitting of a jungle cat than a professional athlete enacting his craft.

These mental palpitations should, at this particular moment, be disconcerting to me. For I have travelled nearly four thousand miles with my siblings to watch our team play in, and hopefully win, the 2011 European Cup – football’s most hallowed competition after the loftiest trophy, the World Cup. But right now I am a split consciousness, a split energy. The game is still scoreless, but my team, Manchester United, one of the richest and most successful clubs in the world, is being outshone by FC Barcelona, an equally acclaimed and famous team from Catalonia, Spain.

I turn to my anxiety-ridden sister and we share a rueful shrug. Losing, especially on so grandiose an occasion, should be a ridiculous musing for a serious Manchester United fan, a defeatist mindset quickly extinguished by the realization that we are the ‘best.’ Yet scanning my sister’s face, I sense her thoughts are not dissimilar from my own and that her stilted calmness is masking an inner conflict of competing allegiances – between the love for our team and the sport they deign to play. Manchester United – paraphrased as ‘Man United’ or simply ‘United’ – are on the ropes, defending deeply and desperately, but we are being bathed in brilliance by this Barcelona team and the peerless Messi who spearheads their attack.

The Scotsman besides me, a lifelong follower of the game and thirty years my senior, catches my name while I check my phone to consort with friends at home.

“Fernandez? That’s a Spanish last name. You’re cheering for the wrong team, mate.”

An odd life trajectory has led me on this day to London; an Anglo-Indian male with Spanish roots cheering for an English football team in a competition he knew nothing about a few years prior. Despite the incredible spectacle in front of me I will do what I always do during experiential highs and step outside reality, from the game itself to a perch of ironic detachment, the Philosopher King of a-once-in-a-lifetime sporting event.

Club football with its parochial leagues and mystifying rivalries – who had time for that? 

That my siblings and I are football fanatics can be attributed to our father who encouraged us into organized sports when we were young to ‘keep us out of trouble’. Returning home from my first game at age four I beamed to my aunt that I had managed to kick the ball twice in the entire game, and with a sinister smirk she suggested that I could perhaps improve by kicking it four times in the next match, which I duly did.

My sister’s footballing pedigree is less pitiful. Championship game, score tied, extra time, Shannon aged nine picks her moment and lofts the ball into the net to the ecstatic celebrations of parents and family. Sprinting up to me after victory, the Little Midget – a nickname that persists today – screamed “Give me money!” as I’d promised to award $20 a goal to anyone who scored. Relieving me of a twenty dollar bill, Shannon quickly disappeared into a melee of other jubilant midgets, and her first brush with celebrity concluded.

Yet amongst the Fernandez clan we all knew that Shane was the real article, the one with genuine athletic talent. Lithe, explosive, with devastating speed and resplendent ball control, my younger brother was a crackerjack footballer, one of the few players who received an ‘A’ grade at a professional soccer camp in his teens. In his championship game in university, he contrived a move of such deftness and skill that it provoked ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ from the admiring crowd, and with all the pride I could muster I exclaimed, “That’s my brother”.

The footballing itch will forever be with Shane, I think, who has an appreciation of the game more intimate and personal than either Shannon or I know or understand. Watching professional matches in person our brother sometimes seems so lost in thought that I wonder what his pensive face is concealing. Perhaps it’s a somber game of what-if – that had he been born in a more soccer-euphoric country than Canada we might be watching him play alongside the very stars that now captivate us.

That we are spectators at today’s game at all can be credited to our athletic brother who, according to family lore, became a United fan out of spite when our cousin from London refused to lend him an Arsenal jersey. Around this time – the mid-1990s – the two teams were embroiled in a bitter battle for English soccer supremacy and, unable to sample the glitzy Arsenal paraphernalia of his more privileged cousin, a teenage Shane defected to the enemy. Our younger sister quickly followed suit – I can still remember purchasing monthly United magazines for her despite our mother’s objections – and she was soon fawning over chiseled players the way female adolescents salivate over Hollywood hunks. Their abrupt fandom was rewarded by United’s magical season in 1999 when the team achieved a dramatic treble by winning in succession the English premier league, the FA cup, and the European trophy. Such a feat would be roughly equivalent to a National Hockey League hockey team finishing first in the league, winning the Stanley Cup, and triumphing in a hypothetical competition amongst the entire world’s elite professional hockey clubs (the European Cup is, in effect, soccer’s equivalent of the latter.)

Yet it would be years before I, their older brother, would see the light. While I had always loved soccer and was something of a historian when it came to the World Cup, like most people my primary engagement with the game took place in four-year cycles to watch the world’s grandest tournament where my team, Brazil in brilliant yellow, would usually dazzle. But club football with its parochial leagues and mystifying rivalries – who had time for that? In the spirit of sibling camaraderie I would take in the occasional United game and then inevitably marvel at all the fuss. Because outside the World Cup, how exciting could soccer really be?

The acoustics at Wembley are teasing, foreboding, like a medieval army approaching ominously from a distance.

The Manchester United section is disturbingly silent. This was supposed to be our one advantage said the experts, a way to offset Barcelona’s superior talent and skill. The Spanish juggernaut are indeed sensational – the best to ever play the game, some insist – but the intangibilities of home field advantage were supposed to be an equalizer, an opportunity to intimidate our aristocratic opponents through some good, old, English fanaticism.

But a bubbling cauldron of enthusiasm we are not, and our pensiveness seems all the more pronounced against the rhythmical chants of the Spanish fans.

“I Barça! I Barça! I Barça, Barça, Barça!” they thunder in unison from across the stadium.

The acoustics are unlike anything I’ve experienced at a sporting event; not deafening, but teasing, foreboding, like a medieval army approaching ominously from a distance. The echoes and vibrations give me goose bumps, and, what’s worse, the players are responding to the positive delta waves of their countrymen.

Barcelona pass the ball with harmony and gusto and the display is mesmerizing. Like millions, I’ve been enchanted by their majestic play on television, but watching it in person literally injects an extra dimension into the experience, the depth of another axis that two-dimensional television conceals. Amidst the visceral stadium atmosphere, their byzantine passing patterns seem richer, slicker, and more vivid.

The beauty of Barcelona’s play lies in its devastating simplicity. Termed the tiki-taka, the system is premised on delicate one-touch passing where the ball is moved around in dizzying triangles as the opposition tries to maintain their composure and morale. To appreciate tiki-taka, imagine a team sport at its telepathic best, in which the understanding between players is so intuitive and refined that their play unfolds as if choreographed by a higher power: Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri dancing through players on ice, or Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen flummoxing the NBA’s elite defenses. Multiply this seamlessness across eleven players on a sprawling soccer field, and the aspirations of tiki-taka start to come into focus.

This particular Barcelona team, insist many, represents the highest form of this style, a perfected synthesis of the individual and the collective. Throughout a passing sequence a player might touch the ball for a fraction of a second before shifting out of purview but not out of influence, finding pockets of space and perfecting the geometry, improving his position after one pass to predicate the next.

Watching Barcelona play, one senses that, like a chess grandmaster, they are two or three steps ahead of the opposition, such does their play unfold. Xavi passes to Messi, back to Xavi, now to Inesita, now to Pedro, back to Busquets, to Villa, to Messi, to Xavi. The interconnections are effortless, the understanding, instinctive. Eighteen passes and Manchester United have yet to touch the ball. My team – our team – seem but observers in a kaleidoscopic exhibition of keep-ball. Ruthless and demoralizing, the enthralling spectacle is the byproduct of thousands of practice hours on the field and a youth program that entrenches players into the system in their early teens.

This, in the end, is the deceptive lethality of the Barcelona machine: the internal rhythm to which their collective forces march, a symphony foreign and unintelligible to their opponents and undergirded by the phenomenal skills of players like Messi. While the rest of the soccer world clamors for grand schemes and complex tactics, Barcelona exude footballing precision in an almost mathematical purity, each pass and feint a structural justification for aesthetic perfection on the field.

After 27 minutes of incessant pressure the inevitable finally occurs: Xavi, the great midfield orchestrator, slips a fiendishly accurate pass to Pedro who calmly slots the ball into the net. 1–0 Barcelona.

I smile sheepishly at my sister. Any impulse towards the outrage we should be feeling has been extinguished by the cruel logic of Barcelona’s superiority, suddenly confirmed by the booming roar of the other half of the stadium.

As they say on this side of the pond, our team is being ‘undone’.

The dimensions of my fandom frightens me at times. Yes, this is absurd, I tell myself. Civil war in Syria, strife in North Korea, trouble and tribulation worldwide — and here I sit, raptured and transfixed by an athletic scrimmage.

The dimensions of my Man United fandom frightens me at times, so intense and entrenched are the emotions. When my team wins the universe is vibrant and orderly and rays of sunshine shower my existence. But when they lose the cosmos is a morbid void and I feel like a helpless actor in an absurdist play. Quite often the scale of these emotions is tied to the scale of the triumph or failure. In the wake of a spectacular victory I devour the newspapers like a giddy parent as if the team’s accomplishments are my own. But after a crushing defeat I erect a firewall, a media blackout of therapeutic and existential necessity, though in the back of my mind I agonize over wrongful tactics and chances missed. 

Yes, this is absurd – so the detached philosopher in me, of years past, would intone to the fanatical version of himself today. Civil war in Syria, strife in North Korea, and trouble and tribulation elsewhere throughout the globe, but there you sit, raptured and transfixed, your happiness and wellbeing tied to an athletic scrimmage. The soccer enthusiast today would indeed mystify his more mature doppelganger of years past, but in-between these personalities there lies an interesting story, a gradual metamorphosis from soccer dabbler to footballing addict. 

It began on November 26th, 2006, a slow and slothful Sunday for me but monumental in Manchester. Desperate for some external stimuli I flipped through the TV channels and saw it: “11am: EPL Soccer – Chelsea FC vs. Manchester United FC.” My siblings had been harping about this game for weeks and had given me the basic facts: purchased in 2004 by a billionaire Russian mogul, Chelsea had supplanted Arsenal as United’s chief rivals and had edged them to the English title in the past two years. Particularly grating was their arrogant and charismatic coach, José Mourinho, who had anointed himself ‘The Special One’ upon arriving in England and now had the success to justify his chutzpah. Slighted but hungry, United began the 2006-2007 season in devastating form and were sitting on top of the table (first place) when they welcomed the champions to their home field that Sunday.

Succumbing to sibling hyperbole I sat alone in my apartment and watched the game in silence. Amused, then enthralled, and finally mesmerized, I called my sister.

“Shan, my god, this amazing!”

“I TOLD YOU”

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“We tried!”

What a fool I’d been all these years, but the misconception is understandable: why wouldn’t the best and most passionate soccer confine itself to the grandest of footballing tournaments, the FIFA World Cup?

In a word, chemistry.

It’s the silver bullet, say the experts, the nebulous glue between teammates that makes their play crisper, sharper, and, at highest levels, decisive. Put eleven of the most talented footballers on a field together for the first time and they will be imbalanced and disjointed because the collective needs time to harmonize, to ‘gel’. Put the same players on the field together season after season, and the results can be magical. And due to the economics of the modern game this quality is easier to foster at the club level than at the national one. Whereas Man United players train together for several months throughout the year to nurture and refine team-play, members of the English or Brazilian national teams have but a few weeks to prepare for major tournaments. The result is superior football – aesthetically, tactically, and ‘chemically’ – amongst Europe’s top professional leagues.

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Ryan Giggs. Photo by Allison Pasciuto (Wikimedia) Creative Commons licence

Two other factors amplify this discrepancy. Because of the countries in which they were born many elite players never partake in the World Cup, a reality especially common for footballers from small African and European countries whose national teams are too weak to qualify for such tournaments. For example, because he plays for Wales, casual observers of the sport know not the name of Ryan Giggs, one of United’s most successful and decorated players. While less gifted players showcase their talents to billions during the World Cup, unlucky artisans such as Giggs can do little but rue the cruel fate of personal geography and must pine for professional recognition in club soccer. One is thus likely to see talent deeper and more diverse in a game between two top club teams than at the World Cup. 

Common to all elite footballing tournaments, however, is the fandom, the pageantry and the tribalism, a cocktail of emotions laced with historical rivalries and lifelong passions, undergirded with singing, intimacy, and deep-seated community. As social creatures, something in our makeup yearns for interconnection and dependency, a craving often mollified by spirituality and kinship, but also primitive fandom. For ardent supporters, fandom can be rich and diverse: a conversation-starter with strangers, kinship with aloof relatives, or communication fodder during awkward encounters. 

As I watched Chelsea and Man United slug it out to a spellbinding 1-1 draw that Sunday I was treated to a new and higher level of football, dazzling, fluid, conducted at incredible pace with a rapturous crowd to boot. Dissecting the game’s finer points with my brother that afternoon, our conversation seemed more purposeful and authentic than ever before. The epiphany was complete.

 

A joyful carnival is in the making … The cyclone of emotion rips through the stadium with such demonic power I feel I’m going to levitate.  Dejection to delirium, hell to heaven, all grim suddenly vim.

Wembley is rocking, a living and vibrant organism, but the electricity is emanating from the wrong side of the stadium: their side, Barcelona’s side. As Pedro scores the Spanish fans ignite with such force and uniformity that their euphoria stiffens the hairs on my skin. Five minutes later their mood dissipates, but not by much. 

From across the stadium, I stare at them in envy. The explosive intensity from moments ago has morphed into a buoyant tribalism as singing, banter and Spanish chants ripple throughout the stadium. A joyful carnival is in the making, but we are strangers to the party. Wembley is being engulfed by a Spanish fiesta and for the first time I truly take stock of the atmosphere.

Stadium

The author’s view of the footballing cathedral that is Wembley stadium, in 2011. Image by Sheldon Fernandez © 2014

The whole point of this journey was to witness the grandest of football matches in person, yet what strikes me at the moment is the slightly artificial texture of my surroundings due to the gauzy coating of the stadium air, almost as if I’m watching a 3D rendition of the game on an enormous movie screen in front of me. The bubble and beat of the opposing fans, the giddy grandiosity of the occasion, all of it, is combining into a manufactured reality with a strange feeling and friction. At the moment, Wembley isn a paradox, an optical illusion of an experience less real to me than the televised production I will watch in the days ahead.

Lionel Messi slaps me back to life with another darting run towards goal. The Barcelona machine is still chugging, still extravagant, still irresistible. Not content to sit on their lead they continue to pressure our defense, dominating possession and dictating play. In 2009 these teams met in a similarly epic European Cup final that still scars United fans, as Barcelona scored early and then passed, passed, and passed our team to death. Two years on and we are witnessing the same depressing trajectory and anxious and worried faces in our section abound.

Inestia passes to Xavi, back to Mascherano, to Pique, to Abidal, before finally, mercifully, one of our players intercepts and puts the ball out of play for a throw-in deep in Barcelona territory. For the past half hour our view of the game has been brilliant in a demoralizing sense. Situated about 20 rows behind the Man United goal, our side, the ‘English’ side, has witnessed all the action – Spanish action, Messi action, infiltrating and overwhelming our penalty area. Finally, for once, our players are up the field, lurking in enemy territory.

Barcelona take the throw-in when suddenly, out of nothing, a melee materializes in their penalty box. Wayne Rooney, our best player, steams towards goal and slips the ball to Ryan Giggs whose instant and gentle pass-back paralyzes the opposing defenders. Rooney shoots and seconds before the ball crashes into the net I do what I’ve been wanting to since the game began, and scream with every fiber of my being.

Milliseconds later sixty thousand United fans follow suit and the result is complete and utter bedlam. Astonishment, wonder, unrestrained joy. Crowd going berserk. Bear hug with Shane, bear hug with Shannon. Relief, elation, temporary bliss. High-fiving strangers, hugging strangers, jumping with strangers.

The cyclone of emotion rips through the stadium with such demonic power I feel I’m going to levitate. The emotional turnaround, so instant and unexpected, amplifies and prolongs the pandemonium. Against all sporting logic, United are level. In an instant, Barcelona’s superiority and artistry has been nullified. Dejection to delirium, hell to heaven, all grim suddenly vim, we’re the famous Man United and we’re rocking Wembley. Barcelona 1, Man United 1.

In the end, this is I suppose the primary appeal of fandom: connectedness and kinship in an era of isolation and fiefdom. At the moment, I have sixty thousand soul mates in the stadium and we are bellowing with childish glee, a shared camaraderie towards a futile but heart-warming goal.

The game restarts and although Barcelona maintain possession their play has less snap, less bite. Catalan confidence, overflowing moments ago, has dissipated. Veterans in the crowd share knowing smiles, so common is this trajectory in sports. Team A fail to translate their superiority into goals and Team B equalize undeservedly, shifting the dynamics of the contest. Discouraged and dejected, Team A lose their psychological edge against Team B, buoyed by the unmerited reversal.

The referee whistles for half-time. Everyone applauds, but we’re the moral victors at the moment simply because we should be losing. The fickle footballing gods have given us a kernel of hope and the game’s momentum. As the on-air commentator states, “The bounce, is at the other end of the new Wembley.”

Jogo Bonito — ‘play pretty,’ a philosophy of hope that artistry can triumph — is the attractive and aesthetically pleasing football that lifts adults out of their seats and sends shivers down the spine. There is something special about football, a unique physicality about the world’s most popular game.

From where does football get its capacity to enthrall and captivate, to penetrate the patina of male stiffness and charm the soul?

Jogo Bonito is the two-word answer, and what it expresses is an ideal, a hope, the holy grail of professional soccer. Translated literally as to ‘play pretty,’ the Portuguese phrase refers more generally to attractive and aesthetically pleasing football that lifts adults out of their seats and sends shivers down the spine.

Perhaps the central concepts are fantasy and beauty. Organized athletics inspires and aspires to much – rigor, dedication, and pure physical awesomeness – but none more so than human creativity and imagination realized through the body. History is replete with sporting moments that provoke awe and drop the jaw, from the otherworldliness of Michael Jordan to the effortless silk of Roger Federer, but there is something special about football, a unique physicality about the world’s most popular game. 

One theory is that the sport’s bodily constraints – no hands allowed – inspires superior levels of inventiveness and technique. When children first encounter the game there is a predictable clumsiness when they manipulate the ball with their feet, but for those who persist the frustration can be gradually supplanted with awe and joy, and with playground trickery that keeps them playing until dusk.

And then there is the game’s economic frugality – a leather ball and juvenile enthusiasm are its only prerequisites – that gives it its widespread appeal. On a planet of widening disparity, there is something cleansing, cathartic even, about the irrational origins of footballing genius and the arbitrary bestowal of talent. And the sport’s history is indeed rife with feel-good fairytales as some of its greatest players – Pele, Maradonna and Messi –honed their talents amidst impoverished surroundings. Like Mecca and the Vatican, the Ganges River and the Holy Land, thousands voyage to the desolate birthplaces of the soccer gods to caress the fossils of formative greatness.

Yet even more than playing pretty, Jogo Bonito represents a philosophy of hope that artistry can triumph at the highest levels. To retain its shine, beauty must win. 

The tensions between the the practical and the aesthetic are best epitomized by the 1966 and 1970 World Cups and their respective victors. The former is generally considered a triumph of ruggedness and ‘work-rate’ in which a brave English team finally brought football’s greatest trophy home to its inventors. But the nature of their victory – the negativity, the defensive emphasis and vapid tactics – provoked fear that imaginative football might be on the wane. 

But then, in 1970, arrived Brazil. Armed with Pele, arguably the greatest player in the history of the game, the boys in yellow set the field aflame with their dazzling play. The angles, the flicks, and the radiating joy of the players was the stuff of mythical beaches and schoolyard showmanship but combined with the indispensable ingredient of effectiveness. Triumphing handsomely over negative Italy in the final match, Brazil proved that artistry and flair could triumph on the grandest of stages, and they have since been exampled as the paragon of footballing excellence around the globe. Thus, while England of 1966 are remembered, Brazil of 1970 are celebrated. 

In the end, this is the reductive power of football: a simple game that appeals to the simplest of desires, a rare connection-point between divergent lands and diverse peoples, from decadent metropolises to penniless slums, a universal grammar of joy and delight.

The anxiety during the halftime intermission is palpable, the air thick with nervous chirpings from nervous fans.

Shannon

The author’s pensive sister Shannon at halftime. Image by Sheldon Fernandez © 2014

The anxiety during the halftime intermission is palpable, the air thick with nervous chirpings from nervous fans. Shannon, always adept at directing her sporting intelligence towards an objective evaluation of the game, is a ball of nerves. Shane, the laconic soul among us, turns on his iPod and retreats into quasi-meditation, evaluating, calculating, dreaming.

“We’re in with a chance, but we need to up our game big time.” the elderly Scotsman intones. I nod silently.

The United players are out first, eager and determined, ready to resume battle. So it all comes down to this, forty five minutes – twenty-seven hundred seconds – to grace footballing history and cradle immortality. Are they up for it? Are we?

Barcelona emerge from the tunnel to cacophonous chants. The referee scans the field and performs his perfunctory checks. He blows his whistle. Game on.

Pass, pass, pass. Pretty patterns, deft touches, tiki-taka resumed. Pass, pass, pass. Hushed anxiety in the Man United section. Barcelona have left their psychological frailty in the dressing room and are playing with aplomb. But there is hope … so long as the score remains level.

Seven minutes later Andrés Iniesta the Spanish great midfielder passes to Messi, and Messi, mercurial Messi, the most delicate and cunning player in the game, mutates into a giddy schoolboy and rifles a shot towards goal with cruel abandon. The images will be forever etched in my memory, so perfect was my line-of-sight: the ball at the feet of this slender man, a sudden sprint, a white projectile hurtling towards the net with the slightest of arcs. Spanish delirium, Catalan chaos, players in purple embracing their leader, players in white dazed and bemused. Barcelona 2, United 1.

Their lead reestablished, Barcelona endeavor to fulfill their lofty distinction as, quite simply, one of the greatest teams to ever to play the game. With conviction and class, artistry and flair, they attack the goal with unrelenting zeal, Jogo Bonito personified. After several minutes of scintillating play, striker David Villa curls the ball delicately into the top corner of the goal. Barcelona 3, United 1.

Shannon shrugs her shoulders. “They are just too good,” she says, half amused, half dejected. “It’s like they have two extra men on the field.” Her split disposition mirrors the sentiments of most United fans I suspect: resignation, but of the philosophical and guilt-warming variety and an unconscious affirmation of the central axiom of competitive sports that the better team should indeed prevail. Barcelona, brilliant Barcelona, have played adventurously, imaginatively, and beautifully.

The final whistle sounds and I know that I will not witness a finer footballing spectacle in my lifetime, a stirring master class of teamwork, commitment, and skill. The Spanish side are the champions of Europe and deservedly so. They huddle and jump around in a circle, victorious gladiators in triumph. At the other end of the field lie our players, exhausted and crestfallen in the shadow of defeat.

We applaud as United collect their silver medals. Barcelona then lift the European Cup and many Manchester fans remain to acclaim the new champions. There is a tinge of sadness because of United’s colossal defeat, but at the moment it is balanced or outweighed by the artistry of Barcelona’s triumph.

To the outsider, the entire enterprise is peculiar, even mystifying: the pandering, the clamoring, the existential meaningless of it all. Amid the narratives and counter-narratives of the professional game it is easy to forget that the encounter is, above all, a sport: a physical and joyful activity that has enthralled humanity for hundreds of years. In this sense, today’s final is a creative apex of this beautiful pastime and the elite warriors who practice it, a soccer symphony in the spirit of Mozart or Bach. True lovers of the game simply cannot lament Barcelona’s victory and this evening’s performance that will enchant for years to come.

But the victor’s triumph can be measured only by the vanquished, their greatness by the opposition’s caliber, and what adversaries our beloved Man United proved to be. My team, our team. A team that played the greatest club in the world on level terms for the first 45 minutes of the game. A team that gifted me the greatest euphoria in my life by equalizing against the run of play. A team that sprinted themselves to exhaustion in the wake of Catalan brilliance. But, mostly, a team that paid homage to their craft through the integrity of their play. Who until the final whistle played fairly, manfully, and committedly when giving up seemed easier.

Manchester United. We will never die.

The trip home is surprisingly sanguine. We run into Barcelona fans at the airport and they accept our courtly congratulations with humor and grace. Classy team, classy fans, we nod. Less than 48 hours after we arrived on English soil we depart, exhausted and spent. Somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean I scan the sleeping faces of Shane and Shannon and then stare out at the ashen sky. Indeed our team has lost, but deep down, in the quiet of this moment, I know that all three of us have won.

Copyright © Sheldon Fernandez 2014

Sheldon Fernandez, in addition to being a football fanatic, is a computer engineer, humanitarian, and aspiring artisan.  He can be reached at: sfernandez@infusion.com. His previous essay for Facts and Opinions was a Think – Loose Leaf commentary, My Last Day in Kenya. 

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