Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer understood sport not as a metaphor but as revelation of human nature. When the sword goes in for the kill, no bullfighter can be certain that the bull will not raise his head as its horns pass the man’s body, no matter how well the bullfighter has done to control the muleta. At that moment the bull has his chance at the man. The matador who stabs the bull without ever bringing his body within range of the horn is considered a coward. In the grim dressing room after the fight in Zaire, Foreman sat, trying to remember the punch that knocked him out, trying to figure out how he got there, then, according to Mailer, he turned to the reporters and said, “I found true friendship tonight. I found a true friend in Bill Caplan,” the man who had taken the heat when Foreman had been temperamental and arrogant.
In the game of soccer, the ritual sublimation of war, exceptional athletes perform in extraordinary situations. They are tested constantly and they are judged without compassion. Two weeks ago Manchester United showed how to exploit Arsenal’s weaknesses. On Sunday Chelsea perfected it, and when all seemed lost, when it seemed that Le Professeur, the great coach of Arsenal, Arsène Wenger, didn’t have an answer, they defeated the resurgent Liverpool 1-0 with a crossed ball header, old school. It was an ugly game in the first half, with neither team finding rhythm and the second half was little better except the ugliness had a quicker pace, but in the end, a very young Arsenal team took three points against an experienced Liverpool team that has been tough to score against and spent a lot more money in the off-season. Importantly, the victory puts Arsenal five points behind second place Man U and six behind league leaders Chelsea, not bad for a team many claim is in a crisis.
If Arsenal can claim third place it will be in one of the toughest leagues in the world which, even for a big club, isn’t a crisis, especially if they can progress in the Champions League. It’s true that financially they’re at a disadvantage compared to Chelsea and Man U. Not every team is like Chelsea and has the luxury of being owned by a billionaire who will loan a hundred million to a team interest-free. Man U’s financial difficulties have surfaced which will lessen if they are able to secure low interest bonds to refinance the buy-out. Coach Wenger has played the transfer market masterfully, buying players low, selling high and putting the money towards paying off their new stadium. Arsenal players are paid high wages but Arsenal pays other teams some of the lowest transfer fees for those players. Thierry Henry and Patrick Viera, two of the greats, came at half the cost of Man U’s Rio Ferdinand or Chelsea’s Didier Drogba.
Injuries have also taken their toll on the team this year, but even more than that, the team does not have that searing iron in the soul that is required to win the biggest games. The team, with its technical mastery and skill, has no trouble handling the rest of the league, but they lost their nerve in the biggest games. They stood their ground against Man U until Nani’s speed and flair led to Arsenal’s goalie – unfairly to be sure — putting the ball in the back of his own net. Rooney’s counter-strike killed all hope and left Arsenal in a defensive daze that lasted through both goals Chelsea scored in the following game. Mistakes, confusion, missed assignments. Arsenal’s central defender and most experienced player, William Gallas was seen looking up at the big stadium screen after Chelsea scored their first goal, wondering how it happened.
Wenger’s eyes are on the biggest of prizes, the Champions League. He wants his Arsenal to be the best club team in all of Europe. A laudable goal to be sure but a focus that is so severe that he views the smaller silverware as unworthy. Instead of fielding his best team he fields his reserves, stating the League Cups are less important than finishing third in the Premier League. But it’s in those smaller cups where teams earn the battle wisdom they need for the wars. When Chelsea was sent packing from the Champions League and were out of contention for the league title they put everything into bringing home something silver, anything, and they became battle tested and more confident with each victory. Wenger has a young team and he’s molding them and his philosophy for the future. But he needs to let them scrap for the silver and get the scars they need for the biggest of games. As it is, he’s likely to go another year without a trophy, which when you consider that Beyoncé has a career total of 16 Grammy awards while Marvin Gaye had only two, proves that the accumulation of prizes does not necessarily correlate to the possession talent, it is what keeps the fans happy.