The Never Ending Story

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As a person of 23, born as the nineties began, my perspective on football has been shaped accordingly since then. I have a cherished early memory of watching England’s Paul Ince dink his penalty limply towards the goal in the World Cup fourth round against Argentina in 1998, sitting with my brother on my dad’s bed at about six in the morning. I played football all throughout my childhood years but I began to take a more active and mature interest around the age of 16, which means that from the year 2006 onwards my encounters with the stars and star teams of the sport became the meaningful authors of my own story of the beautiful game. Of course, Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Di Stefano, Beckenbauer, these names were in the very forefront of the football rhetoric that surrounded me; as the authors of the generations previous to mine, they had shaped the consciousness’ of the leading voices around the sport, not to mention the players. I knew that Pele was great, that Maradona was sublime, and that all the others were likewise, Youtube has allowed me to even witness the evidence for their reverence, but of course it isn’t the same. They were already idols and, as Lebron James put it when speaking about his own sport, for many people they were already on the “Mount Rushmore” of football, or at least a combination of those idols were, causing much debate. They were inaccessible to me tangibly and so remain forever disconnected from me in a way.

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Even the stars on the cusp of my time, like Zidane or Ronaldo, are represented more by the tail ends of their careers. I never saw Ronaldo in his pomp at Barca, or Zidane in his at Juve. Zidane to me is the incredible, statesmen-like dictator of games, strikingly monobrowed, but willing to end it all, his career and World Cup swansong, with a crashing headbutt to the chest of an opponent. Ronaldo was the suspiciously portly striker with the ludicrous talent for scoring goals, always being there to tap in, always finishing with ice cold precision and preposterous ease. I know the versions of these two Galacticos are not the full versions, not by a long shot, but no amount of videos compiling their skills and goals will change it.
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It’s the same with teams. The ABU’s of the world (the Anyone but United brigade) who hold a festering hatred for the most successful English club of my era, I know are right in many ways to do so. The way that they turned their club into a corporation to rival any, monetising everything in sight with logos and sponsorship, and then using this financial might to dominate the English league puts them, in the minds of many, up there with the worst commercial empires the world has seen, the McDonald’s of football. Yet, the instant elevation to that level of financial capacity that has been enjoyed by Chelsea and Manchester City, by virtue of the bottomless wallets of their two owners (who are awful, awful people without question) angers me more. It has pained me slightly, although not a great deal, to see Manchester United struggle so this term, but the more interesting outcome of their troubles has been how it has given such genuine pleasure to so many, many others.

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So, I didn’t get to see Maradona play, and it’s disappointing to have that gap. I wasn’t even alive to be interested in football when he was playing. It’s like being forced to begin a novel halfway through, and staring wistfully at the ragged edges of the pages that have been torn out. There’s an alienation that exists between me and Diego and company. But I can’t change the date of my birth, that much is sure. And no matter anyway, I get to watch Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo go tit for tat with each other each season, breaking scoring record after scoring record. I get to see a competitive Manchester derby every season as well now. And in 15 years, I’ll still be watching matches every week, and feeling thankful for the privilege of being able to see the best young starlet of 2029, whoever he is. I can rest assured that the novel will be added to before I reach the end. And I can only hope that West Ham United’s sub-plot favours a story of triumph over tragedy.

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