20 years ago we privileged fans of North London’s finest football club were fortunate to acquire the gifted feet and artistry of Thierry Henry. He was the revolution incarnate for the premier league. Such grace. Such power. Such beauty he brought to the field of play. This image was captured after his famous goal against Real Madrid’s galacticos (Zidane, R9….) at the Bernabeu. Watching it in real time in 2006 was such a thrilling experience. We had a young team. Fabregas was the prodigy. Our defence was really our attacking style of play though we didn’t conceed goals as cheaply as we have done in the last decade. But we were still the underdogs on route to a first Champions league final. Real Madrid on paper were Goliath but we had our David in the form of Henry. Our giant slayer.
This was the pivotal year of the Wenger era. A chance to fulfill the promise that 2004’s invincible season teased. We would lose the last piece in the core of a great team with Henry’s departure to Barcelona in the following year. We should have won it all between 2004-06. It wasn’t to be. But the solitary goal at the Bernabeu and Henry’s celebration is still a memory to cherish. It was a shot in the arm that we and our national phyche needed. On that night Arsenal became the first English club to beat Real Madrid at their home ground. It reaffirmed the idea that greatness can prevail against the odds. In the final we faced another great team. The Barcelona of Ronaldinho and Eto’o. Our team competed valiantly and tasted an inglorious defeat. Henrik Larsson was the surprising game changer, coming off the bench. That was a hard one to swallow. I suspect Henry’s decision to leave was partially the result of that defeat. He would go on to greater accomplishments along side Messi and Eto’o. It was the right decision to leave. We would sadly regress and are still in rebuild mould in 2019. But at least for a while we had the poetry of Henry.
I don’t remember when I first became aware of Daley Thompson. Somewhere in the timeline of my childhood it would seem that I would chance upon him either through my own research and the footage of his exploits on replay at every global Track & Field championship aired by the good old BBC. Old commentators whose prime like Daley’s was behind them, would remind the nation that he was once the world’s greatest athlete. They wouldn’t say arguably, though they knew that Carl Lewis amongst others had a legitimate claim to that unofficial title, but it was merited. He was an imperious performer on the biggest stage when the Decathlon determined who was the heavyweight champion allrounder of athletics on the ground. It wasn’t just winning, but the glory was in the audacity and cheek of his dominance. There is the iconic image of him standing over the field of his adversaries who all lay prostrate on their backs after a race at the end of a grueling competition. Thats the Daley Thompson who merited the moniker, ‘world’s greatest athlete’.
For his 60th birthday, he launched a pop up gym session in the Southbank and as coach and co-host he drilled amateurs like myself in one hour sessions to push ourselves physically and mentally with the emphasis of dream chasing. My patched up body took on the challenge aided by the might of spirit and temperament. I took it all in as I gave it all up. He chastised me and I smiled warmly. He mocked and scuffed at my ruined rotator cuffs that limited my mobility and I smiled harder and kept on pushing through my pain threshold till it could not go any further. My partner was equally game and exhausted at the end though she faired better than I. The experience was pleasurable after a bit of rest and recuperation. Daley challenged my manhood as if I was an inferior rival from his glory days, but it was good natured and as much about entertainment than anything else. His charisma and machismo is still in play mode and its good to see that he has not let all those years of input and endeavour go to waste. It was a privilege and honour to train with him and see where i’m at. Then Pizza, Belgian Waffles and Hot Chocolate restored vitality to my bones. A lot of water too.
It’s been interesting to observe the H words of our national team’s advancement to the semi-finals of the Russia 2018 World Cup. The England national football team has been host of a peculiar neurosis that our collective psyche has suffered for many moons and tournaments. I do recall the last time the boys hustled their way into the semi-finals in Italia 90, and though our national team extoled all the virtues of our notion of greatness, we lost to a dogged German team in a contest of heightened drama. Tears we did sow. Sweat and a little blood too.
A new era of English football would follow on the heels of the romance that was our Italian adventure. In my head I hear Pavarotti belting his tenor of dreams through Nessun Dorma. My introduction to Opera. I can still vividly see Maradona imposing his will on an Argentine side that didn’t have enough to go all the way on paper. His presence on screen had an aura which abides with me. Its strangely Chaplinesque. I can recall the colour and polyrhythms that Roger Miller and his Cameroon brothers entertained us with. I can see the outpouring of emotion in the light of Toto Schillaci’s eyes, and the passion of his goal celebration. You know the one. The soul of Italy was summed up in that moment. He seemed to me much like the spiritual twin brother of the character, Mario Ruoppolo, in the film, il Postino.
After the trip of nostalgia I’m always brought back to the H words. History. Hysteria. Hype. Hypocrisy. Hope. Our national game’s national team embodies all of that. All of that and much more.
In my head there is also the image of a fleet footed Des Walker. So swift and precise in the tackle. So dependable. So determined. I had never heard him speak until today. Old footage on Youtube. Old news that is new to me. I was thinking about him and realised he was the most silent of the moving images in my mind. There is a poetry about his presence in that team and yet he was the personification of England’s footballing ethos in the nochalance of fulfilling a duty. For country. For Queen. For self?
28 years later a nation once again measures its sense of self worth and identity with all the H words and sibling alphabets. Alpha but no omega. And a longing for football, their prodigal son, to return home. With such high stakes, it is more than a game. England is perpetually in search of its soul. And perhaps that is true of all nations.
Last year in the same stadium where Usain ran his last individual race tonight, I watched him run a pedestrian time (by his standards) in his favoured sprint event, the 200m. Then I looked at the awe filled faces around me after he had won less emphatically than he was accustomed to. Old and young faces of various shades wore identical expressions.The after glow illuminated those same faces that perhaps had more in common with the grey of London than their sunny disposition . They had seen the fastest man in recorded history do the inevitable. Winning was never in doubt. I left the stadium with a sense of an ending. I had watched him run well enough to win another race and it couldn’t last forever. Not long after that night, he added three more gold medals to his tally of nineteen (Olympic and World championship). A flawless resume, untainted by missed or failed drug tests. It was time to go. The body knows best. But in some peculiar way, the fact that he didn’t win tonight will endear him to the world even more so than a 20th gold medal might have done. We finally got to see him face defeat in a major championship final and he handled that adversary with grace. How we lose is just as significant as how we win.
We like our superheroes to have some semblance of weakness to remind us that they do exist on the same surface of the earth that we bestride. Father time is krypton’s leveler restoring balance and the order of things. I’m glad that I am a witness to his boundary breaking efforts. He kept the sport of Track & Field Athletics alive at the worst of times and I’m sure there will be a lot of new borns named Usain in Jamaica for years to come. In defeat he remains very much a champion of a medal far more illustrious than gold. He won the hearts and minds of the people. Common folk from all walks of life. He will remain the people’s junk food loving and living champion. He leaves the track as arguably the greatest sporting phenomenon of my lifetime.