This is Not a Typo: Manchester City are Champs
An English Premier League Wrap-up
While the English soccer season always seems to last a gloriously long time, this year it seemed particularly lengthy due to the drama that filled the calendar from its beginning in mid-August right up until the last day, Sunday May 13. Billed as “Survival Sunday” by the English Premier League (EPL), all the games had identical start times (3 p.m. in England; 10 a.m. E.D.T. in the U.S.) so that there was no funny business. Many of the games on this last Sunday had implications, both at the top and bottom of the table. The league title came down to, literally, the very last minute. The Fanzine sports desk takes a look back on this 2011-2012 season, and recalls some of the most memorable stories.
1. Forty-Four Years is a Long Time to Wait
The biggest story of the season, by far, is the mere fact that Manchester City won the title. The EPL isn’t known for parity. Since Blackburn Rovers won the league in the 1994-95 season, only three teams won the EPL title until this year: Arsenal, Manchester United, and Chelsea. By way of comparison, in the big four North American sports during the same time period, 10 different teams have won the MLB World Series; 11 have raised hockey’s Stanley Cup; 12 have triumphed in the Super Bowl; and eight teams have taken the NBA title.
The last time that City wore the crown of the top-tier of English football was 1968, 24 years before the creation (and slight restructuring) of what is now called the EPL. As any City fan will tell you, their team’s on-again, off-again march to the top spot could not have happened any other way. That is, giving its fans—through the season and especially through the 90+ minutes of their final game—equal doses of agony and ecstasy.
We wrote a few weeks ago of City’s tumultuous season, so we won’t rehash all that. Everything that preceded Sunday is prelude, and if you just tuned in, all you need to know is this: heading into Sunday’s last game of the season, the title was City’s for the taking. All they had to do was win, at home, against the 17th place team, Queen’s Park Rangers. On paper, things certainly looked easy for The Blues: they hadn’t lost at home all season, posting 17 wins and one draw. Conversely, QPR had a dismal away record, winning only three times on the road. But, if there’s one thing any sports fan learns, the words ‘on paper’ mean nothing, that’s why they play the games.
City took the lead 1-0 late in the first half, but QPR equalized early in the second half. Then, catastrophe for QPR. Their captain and nutcase extraordinaire Joey Barton did what he does best: suffered a moment of sheer insanity. He was caught elbowing City striker Carlos Tevez in the head, tossed from the game with a straight-red card, and for good measure, rabbit-punched City’s other Argentine striker Sergio Aguero in the kidney on his way off the field. Despite the 1-1 score at the time, City fans were salivating: scoring one goal with eleven men against ten must have seemed like child’s play. Except that QPR, incredibly, in their lone foray downfield after the Barton incident, managed to score off a counter-attack, taking a 2-1 lead. They then collapsed all nine field players in their own box, making it nearly impossible for City to find any room to get a clear shot on goal.
The 10 QPR men played like 20, and cleared every attempt City made to penetrate. 90 minutes went by and the score remained 2-1. City would need a miracle; indeed, cut-away shots to Man United’s away match at Sunderland showed United fans in the stands celebrating another title. Into extra time the match went, five minutes of time added, thanks to the Barton incident taking up so much time early in the half. Then, suddenly, in the 92nd minute, Edin Dzeko, City’s out-of-favor striker, headed in a corner kick to tie the game. Two minutes later, with a mere 90 seconds or so left in the game, Aguero broke free in the box and booted home the winner. Pandemonium ensued, in the stands, on the field, in the Blue side of Manchester, in the Mad Hatter’s on Third Avenue in Manhattan, anywhere and everywhere long-suffering City fans watched. And now wept in joy.
2. Promotion and Relegation
In that great tradition of English football, the bottom three teams from the EPL are relegated to the second-tier league (currently referred to as the NPower Championship) and the top three teams from there are promoted to EPL punching-bag status for next season. As of this writing, only two of the promoted teams are known, Reading and Southampton. The third team will be the winner of a one-game playoff between Blackpool and West Ham United next weekend; both teams played in the EPL last season.
As far as relegation, in a strange coincidence all three teams with nicknames synonymous with ‘traveling’ were relegated. Farewell then, ye travelers: Bolton Wanderers, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Blackburn Rovers. Going into Sunday’s final matches, Blackburn and Wolves were already relegated, but had Bolton won, they would have pressured the above-mentioned QPR to win their match at Manchester City. It was a strange sight, at the end of that match, seeing the QPR bench and fans celebrating their EPL reprieve (after finding out that Bolton had only drawn in their match), despite losing the game. Indeed, QPRs loss became moot, and that game turned into a win-win for both teams, and had both teams celebrating on the pitch after the game.
3. Player-on-Player Racial Abuse
Sadly, in soccer, it’s not uncommon for black players to be racially abused by opposing fans, but it’s unusual when player-on-player incidents occr. Two of the EPLs biggest stars, were involved in two separate on-field racial altercations, which marred the season.
Liverpool’s Uruguayan keg o’ dynamite, Luis Suarez was banned for eight games by the Football Association, England’s governing body of soccer, after finding him guilty of racially abusing Man United’s captain Patrice Evra, a black Frenchman. Suarez’s defense was the old “huh? the word I used isn’t an epithet where I’m from”; but the F.A. didn’t buy it, possibly because Suarez ain’t no choirboy. (Among a long list of questionable behavior, my favorite: while with his previous team, Dutch side Ajax, he was suspended for biting an opposing player.) According to Evra, Suarez told him he ‘kicked him because he was black,’ and that ‘he didn’t speak to blacks.’ Liverpool ended up looking bad because of the unconditional support the club officially showed for Suarez’s bad behavior, including the entire team wearing pre-match, supportive t-shirts after the F.A. ruling came down. Suarez added gasoline to the fire when, in the second Liverpool v Man United match later in the season, he snubbed Evra in the traditional, pre-game handshake line, inflaming an already charged and tense lead-up to the match.
The other incident involved the man who is quite possibly the biggest dickhead playing soccer today, Chelsea’s captain John Terry. During a game, Terry allegedly called QPR’s Anton Ferdinand, and I quote, a fucking black cunt. Terry’s story is that, no, no, he didn’t call him that, he was actually asking Ferdinand if he, Ferdinand, thought he called him a fucking black cunt. Or something like that. The logic is fairly twisted and has a whiff of lawyerly rhetoric about it. Let’s add another layer. Anton Ferdinand’s brother, Rio, is an England national teammate of John Terry, and is now saying he doesn’t feel comfortable playing on the national team with Terry this summer in the European Cup. The newly-hired England manager, Roy Hodgson, is considering leaving Terry off the roster, fearing the scandal will be a distraction. Ya think?
It’s possible that Terry is telling the truth, but frankly, he ain’t no Boy Scout either, and has an even longer list than Suarez of questionable on- and off-field behavior. To my mind, he’s poison, and the sooner England see the back of him as not only captain, but team member, the better off they’ll be in international competitions. Terry was the England national team captain, until they stripped him of the captaincy while this case is pending. He goes to court in July, conveniently, after the Euro Cup is over, should England feel the absolute need to include him in their squad.
4. Yeah, But Why Do They Call Him The Assassin?
Arsenal’s Dutch striker Robin Van Persie, lived up to his nickname, The Assassin this year by scoring 30 EPL goals for the north London side. As a team, Arsenal scored 74 goals this season, so van Persie’s tallies were an astounding 41% of his team’s output. For what it’s worth, he was/will be voted EPL player of the year by just about any newspaper/reporter organization/football group that votes on such things. And the best news for Arsenal fans: as of now, he plans on staying with the club, denying year-long rumors that he wants out.
After a rocky start, including the wrong end of an embarrassing 8-2 mauling by Man United back in late August, Arsenal steadily climbed the table, from a low of 17th place to a solid third place finish, securing a berth in next year’s Champions League, where they will need van Persie’s magic touch even more than in their EPL games.
5. Golazos Galore
Okay, so English soccer announcers don’t do the long-drawn-out “Goooooooolllllllllll” freakout that their Spanish-speaking counterparts do, but we can still borrow a term from the Spanish-language soccer world: golazo. Basically, this term means an amazing goal, and announcers don’t throw it around lightly. In every season in every league there are muchos muchos golazos, so let’s embrace that term here and point out some golazos from the EPL season.
To my mind, the Best Goal goes to Newcastle’s Papiss Cisse, whose goal against Chelsea in early May was both powerful and sublime. It was one of those “I sort of meant to but probably couldn’t do it again in a million years” goals, meaning these guys certainly have the skill to do such a thing, but still, it was a little bit lucky. Late in the game, already up 1-0 on Cisse’s first goal, Newcastle took a throw-in about 35-yards from Chelsea’s goal. Another Newcastle player received the ball on his chest and knocked it over to Cisse, who took it on one bounce and, with the outside of his right foot, struck the ball which curved away from, and over the head of, Chelsea’s keeper Peter Cech. The curve on the ball has to be seen to be believed. Cisse was not only about 20 yards out, but right next to the sideline, meaning he was probably about 35 yards away from the goalkeeper. It was one of those goals where coach, teammate and especially goal-scorer just shake their head and laugh in sheer disbelieving joy at the beauty they have witnessed.
Four other golazos that receive honorable mention include:
1) Robin van Persie’s left-footed, full-volley, received from over his shoulder on a dead run that screamed past Everton’s Tim Howard.
2) A half-slapstick, half-incredible-athleticism goal: Arsenal’s Theo Walcott is surrounded by three or four Chelsea defenders as he approaches the 18-yard box, trips and falls flat on his face, his momentum continues to carry him forward, he pops up instantly still controlling the ball, deftly splits two shocked defenders at about 12 yards out and beats keeper Peter Cech with a clean strike [at 3:27].
3) A rare goal by a goalkeeper, in this case Everton’s American keeper Tim Howard, who cleared a backpass by knocking it 90 yards downfield, the ball skips on a wet surface and takes an abnormally high bounce over the head of the Bolton goalkeeper who was way off his line.
4) Stoke’s Peter Crouch is about eight feet tall and weighs––maybe––80 lbs., so that when you see him, your brain automatically thinks that he’s uncoordinated (he is most definitely not). Against Manchester City in late March, Crouch heads a punted ball from his own goalkeeper to a teammate, receives the ball back from the teammate and from about 35 yards out, juggles the ball once with on his right foot, and then scorches a right-footed full-volley past City’s keeper. (As a side note, Crouch said the funniest thing ever to come from the mouth of sports figure. When asked to speculate what he thought he would have been if he hadn’t become a professional footballer, he replied: a virgin.)
Let’s hope that next year’s season has every bit the fun, excitement, and drama that this year’s did. Until August, then.
Photo credit: The Lion’s Pitch