As an old dog, the old line about tricks has special meaning for me. That’s why I’m glad to report I’ve learned a new one.
It’s a fondness for a team I’d guess few of you will recognize offhand—Tottenham Hotspur. It plays soccer (football to the rest of the world) in the English Premier League. Although I know none of its songs, don’t have a white-and-blue scarf and never have been to its White Hart Lane home in North London, I’m a fan.
I prove that by knowing that the team’s name is not plural but singular, as in “Miami Heat.” Collectively, however, they’re the Spurs. Curious, what?
Although I didn’t grow up with the sport, I’ve enjoyed soccer for some years now. My mild affection turned stronger when I covered the 1994 World Cup on these shores, and stronger yet during my attendance at the 1998 edition in France. The color, excellence of the games and passion of the crowds made that event the best I ever covered. The fact that wife Susie and I got to spend five weeks in Paris on the Wall Street Journal’s dime, with side trips to Lyon, Marseilles and Nantes, didn’t hurt, either.
Americans tend to scoff at soccer, finding it low-scoring and dull and and objecting to its numerous tied outcomes. Europeans and others tend to scoff at Americans, believing that our desires for action and finality are evidence of our national immaturity. “Life is a tie,” they’re fond of saying, and I can’t disagree.
But I think we Yanks would like soccer more if we’d glue ourselves down long enough to watch a top-level game from beginning to end. It’s played by average-sized men and thus emphasizes speed and agility, and the players’ skills are nothing short of marvelous. Soccerists can do with their feet almost what basketball players can do with their hands, even though it’s a lot harder. If you don’t believe me, try kicking a ball of any size with your “off” foot.
Soccer goals may be rare but good passes and goal-threatening situations such as corner kicks are frequent. Action is continuous, with little of the stop-and-go (mostly stop) that bogs down our Big Three team sports. Once you’re into the flow of a game it’ll start making sense. If you’re a typical, know-it-all American sports fan you’ll be hollering “Work the flanks!” in no time.
Liking a sport is one thing, though, and rooting for a team is another. I got to the Spurs through my son Michael, an ex-pat who now lives in Copenhagen and works in Amsterdam but lived in England long enough to become a subject of the Queen, and my Scottsdale pal Mike Levy, who has familial ties to fair Albion.
Assists go to ESPN and the Fox Soccer Channel, which broadcast most Premier League games into the U.S. “live.” The eight-hour time difference between London and Phoenix makes for 6 a.m. starts, but through the miracle of TIVO I can tape the games for anytime viewing. I’ve been reserving Sunday mornings for watching Spurs’ replays.
Son Michael generally phones later on Sunday, and we rehash the action. As he puts it, it’s a “quality bonding experience.” Friend Mike and I also compare Spurs notes. He’s more critic than lover—often down on the team even when it wins—but I enjoy his contrarian viewpoints on many subjects. I mean, how many left-wing gun nuts do you know?
I have a further bond with the Spurs through religion. That’s because much of the London neighborhood in which they’re based is (or was) Jewish, as am I, and Jews make up such a large part of the team’s fan base that it calls itself the “Yid Army.” Europe isn’t PC the way we are, so that sort of thing goes over there. Still, like Levy’s rye bread (no relation to Mike), you don’t have to be Jewish to love the Spurs and many goyim do, including actor Kenneth Branagh, rocker Phil Collins, basketballer Steve Nash and WWE wrestler John Cena. My heroes all.
What really defines Spurs fans, though, is their tolerance for failure. In that way they’re like fans of my Chicago Cubs, so I suppose it was fated that I’d join them eventually. Like the Cubs, the team has been in existence for a long time (since 1882) but has little to show for it. Its last Premier League championship came in 1961, when the circuit was called the First Division. The title before that came in 1951, and its previous history wasn’t more illustrious.
English soccer is like American baseball in that both have a monarchy. In baseball it’s the New York Yankees and in soccer it’s Manchester United. Actually, the Yankees wish they were Man U because that outfit rules as well as reigns, having won 13 crowns in the 21 seasons since the 20-team Premier League was rebranded in 1992-93. Chelsea and Arsenal each have won thrice in that span, leaving little hardware for the rest.
The Brits keep interest up in the face of such hegemony partly by awarding consolation prizes. The top four Premier League finishers get to play in the Champions League, a lengthy tournament matching the best European clubs, and the top five qualify for the Europa League, a less prestigious go-round. With fourth-place finishes in 2012 and 2010 and a fifth in 2011, Tottenham has been in the mix for such places in recent years, pleasing its fancy.
This season promised to be a good one for the Spurs, but results have been mixed. The year’s highlight has been the blossoming into stardom of Gareth Bale, a tall, 23-year-old Welshman whose specialty is curling long kicks into small corners of the net. His goals have made up a one-man highlight reel and propelled him into election as the Premier League’s Player of the Year, a signal honor. With help from American National Team forward Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Defoe, a flashy but self-regarding scorer (I admire him more than Mike Levy does), the Spurs staged a mid-winter run that gained them a heady third place, behind only Man U and Manchester City, last year’s 2-1 finishers. A third would have been the Spurs’ best standing since the BPL was formed.
Sadly, they’ve staggered since, rallying to beat Man City with an awesome three-goals-in-seven-minutes flourish in April but coming up short against lesser foes. With one game left to play (Sunday against Sunderland) they’re in fifth place, needing a win and a loss or tie by fourth-place Arsenal to land a Champions League spot. It’s a dim possibility.
Bale’s emergence presages better things ahead for the Spurs, but only if he sticks around. Middle-and lower-level Premier League teams long have made a living by developing young stars and selling their contracts for big bucks to the likes of Man U and rich continental powers such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, but the Spurs say they’ll pay up to keep the young man. Stay tuned.
Meantime, I’m adopting a favorite saying of Spurs’ supporters: Wait ‘til next year.
Sounds familiar, huh?