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Football must know its place in life, balancing properly escapism and realism

Football must know its place in life, balancing properly escapism and realism

Greek history: Juan Sebastián Verón in action for Manchester United in the rescheduled match against Olympiakos in October 2001 Photo: GETTY IMAGES

playing at Olympiakos will always be a fixture that places
football in its proper perspective.

On the first occasion this wildly-supported side here in Piraeus, a club
claiming four million of the 11 million Greek populace, sought to host
United, the Champions League tie planned for Sept 12, 2001 was eventually
postponed because of the acts of barbarism inflicted on Manhattan’s Twin
Towers a day earlier.

“Football is nothing,” stated Uefa’s match referee in explaining why the game
was off, as if he needed to explain.

Such sentiments flooded back when returning here for the rearranged game a
month later, for another meeting the following season and also for Tuesday
night’s match.

Passing through Athens’ peaceful airport on Monday, the mind rewound to a
period when United visited five times in three years and five days at the
start of the new Millennium, facing both Olympiakos and Panathinaikos twice,
but it was the date they did not play on that reverberates most.

It was all poignant, bizarre, scrambled. Sir Alex Ferguson, David Beckham,
Ryan Giggs and company had just landed when news came through of the first
plane crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.

Nobody knew then that terrorists had hijacked the plane. United officials,
reporters and a few fans were standing around the carousel, discussing
whether it could have been some terrible pilot error. Ferguson, finding a
quiet corner, held his usual pre-match briefing, talking at length about
Juan Sebastian Verón’s qualities.

United’s manager was then unaware of the enormity of events in New York, a
vibrant, polyglot city he has a real affinity to. When Ferguson and his
players reached their Athens hotel, they flicked on their televisions to
find a rolling-news loop of the second plane crashing into the South Tower.

For 24 hours, Uefa was uncertain how to react. In the present social-media age
when the information stream does not simply flow gently like the Hudson but
drops in like Niagara, Uefa would never have played those 2001 ties. Back
then, Uefa was determined for the show to go on. Briefly.

So, following a respectful period of silence, English clubs awkwardly kicked
off their Uefa games. Arsenal faced Real Majorca. They lost but nobody
really cared. Liverpool were held by Boavista.

Gérard Houllier, a coach more insightful of global events than most, concurred
with one reporter’s conclusion that a draw was right. It would have felt
wrong for anyone to celebrate.

Back in Piraeus, Olympiakos laid on an evening function down by the harbour.
Long-planned speeches. Well-chosen gifts for their guests. The best fresh
fish. It all felt and tasted very hollow, following the numbing footage from
New York.

The following morning, Uefa finally, and fully, appreciated the gravity of the
situation. Publicly, the game was postponed out of respect for those who
died. Privately, Uefa feared an escalation of the terrorist threat. As
Uefa’s Gerhard Aigner said: “The scale of this tragedy and the pain and
sorrow which it brings should cause us all to reflect.”

Indeed. To think of those who lost loved ones. To pay respect to the murdered.
To place football in its rightful context, a reality too often forgotten.
Football can provide succour, distraction, but it must always know its
place. That “life and death” Shanklyism was always a sack-load of
discredited, deflated balls.

Obsessed with football, Olympiakos were unimpressed by the delay, commenting
they were “very upset”. Fortunately, the referee Kim Milton Nielsen,
Beckham’s nemesis from France 98, sensibly saw the bigger picture, voicing
his frustration that “terrorists have shown they can stop football in the
whole of Europe” but stating that “football is nothing” when so many people
“have been killed”.

Football is quixotic, self-absorbed yet compassionate. No sport, no other
sphere of society can be as crass as football yet no sport, no other sphere
of society can respond to tragedy as sensitively as football.

Football’s need to balance properly escapism and realism continues with the
distressing scenes from Kiev where the fondly-remembered vibrant fans-zone
of Euro 2012 is now stained with the blood of local protesters.

Without professing an iota of the intelligence or sophistication of the many
columnists opining on such serious issues, any football reporter who
strolled there two years ago, who mixed with the England, Ukrainian and
Swedish fans as they swapped chants in the sun, standing close to the group
campaigning for the release of Yulia Tymoshenko, will ultimately have been
made aware that football must always know its place in life’s firmament.

French Kevins know their Keegan

A Nice fan fell into conversation with me about Liverpool
during the Euro 2016 draw and casually remarked that there was a group of
Frenchmen called Kevin celebrating their 40th birthday the year after the

He claimed the group was named after Kevin Keegan, the charismatic Liverpool
No 7 who played in the European Cup tie against St-Etienne in 1977.

The story may not be true. It may be Tosh. He was also playing. Anyway, the
point is that when it comes to assessing the size of a club, as Manchester
City’s Manuel Pellegrini attempted recently, history must be taken into

Under Brendan Rodgers, Keegan’s old club have a future of immense promise.
Regardless of recent storm-tossed years adrift from a golden sky, Liverpool
are established as a major club globally. As with the Beatles’ back
catalogue, Liverpool’s heritage is a collection of memories people keep
referring to, keep taking inspiration from. Ask a French Kevin.

Sunday will be special for Sunderland’s Ellis Short

During another season debating the morals and methods of Premier League
owners, fretting especially over the tradition-damaging antics of Vincent
Tan and Assem Allam and the continued shame of the Glazers’ debt game, it is
an opportune moment to salute Ellis Short, one of the least known of the 20
boardroom titans.

Missouri-born owner is a private man, focusing on his family, tennis and
stellar private-equity career, but it will be a special day for him at the
Capital One Cup final at Wembley on Sunday.

He is not in football for the ego, the limelight or the PR. Short is just a
competitive character who loves his sport and who acts decisively,
acknowledging the screw-up with the screw-loose Paolo di Canio and turning
successfully to Gus Poyet. Most importantly, Short can see Sunderland’s
potential on and off the pitch.


Football must know its place in life, balancing properly escapism and realism

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