AVB and Avoiding Disaster

For some reason, Spurs are interesting [1] this year. That’s not to say that they weren’t interesting last year – or the year before, or during their glory days in the mid-60s – but just that there’s something weirdly attractive about the way their season is shaping up. Perhaps it’s the wonderfully Icelandic-sounding Icelandic international Gylfi Sigurdsson. Or perhaps it’s the unquestionable appeal of Andre Villas-Boas, the fist-pumping Mourinho protégé who steered Porto to a treble two years ago, then landed the Chelsea job, then fell back to earth five months later, haunted by John Terry’s menacing laughter. Of course, the real reason is probably a lot more mundane – probably something to do with Jermain Defoe’s goal-scoring streak.

Spurs aren’t the best team in the league, and they almost certainly won’t finish in the top four this season. Last summer, their best player, Luka Modric, sacrificed his status as one of the biggest stars in the Premier League for the chance to become one of the smallest stars in Real Madrid’s midfield. Harry Redknapp – part-time football manager, part-time Nintendo Wii poster boy, full-time hilarious-courtroom-quip producer – was sacked in May after putting Tottenham within a German-team’s-winning-a-penalty-shootout of Champions League qualification. But that’s just kind of how Spurs roll. They’re only stable when their backs are against the wall, only happy when they’re on the wrong end of a transfer tug of war, or when Daniel Levy gets to spend deadline day toying with Dimitar Berbatov’s footballing future. Spurs didn’t bother to wait for the advent of the Premier League before executing their slow drift from title contender to top four pretender. Their slide started the moment Bill Nicholson quit.[2]

Tottenham is what I like to call an “almost-super team,” a club that manages to pack stadiums despite the depressing inevitability of the fifth-place finish that, come May, coaches, players, and even a few brain-washed supporters will construe as some sort of come-from-behind, better-than-expected footballing miracle. In 2010-11, the season after Harry Redknapp miraculously engineered their Champions League qualification, Spurs lit up Europe for about two seconds, then used their moment in the spotlight as an excuse for a disappointing series of results in the Premier League. They had done something similar just a couple of years earlier, after winning the barely significant Carling Cup. That’s about where Tottenham stand in the European football scene: good, occasionally entertaining, but not that good or that entertaining.

If Tottenham were slightly better at playing football, then you could imagine them selling just as many jerseys in South Korea as the Manchester United of the Ji-Sung Park era used to do. Spurs are a recognizable brand with millions of supporters worldwide – including a kid in my second-period chemistry class who once wore a Gareth Bale replica shirt and a Michael Vick Philadelphia Eagles jersey at the same time (don’t ask) – but they lack the “We won the Premier League last season” effect that pretty much guarantees the loyal support of a generation of Asian teenagers.

Based on Spurs’ slogan — the obnoxiously bombastic “To dare is to do” — you’d think we’re talking sword-waving, chest-slapping Roman warriors here. Quite the opposite: every time Spurs dare to do anything, an annoying tentativeness consumes their subsequent play, the sort of meltdown that a logical observer might put down to an inferiority complex or a general lack of confidence.

No opponent takes more joy in mocking Spurs’ shortcomings than Manchester United. United are everything that Spurs aren’t: they’ve got money (Tottenham aren’t poor, but they’re poorer than Man U), they’ve got trophies, and a they’ve got a manager who has been around the block and back, then around it again. For the past 10 years, Spurs’ matches against United have ended in tears. There was the time Pedro Mendes’ last-gasp winner was wrongly disallowed, the time Spurs led 3-0 at halftime but wound up losing 3-5, the time Spurs led 2-0 at halftime but wound up losing 2-5, the time Carlos Tevez scored a stoppage time equalizer, the time Nani scored the weirdest goal ever, and the time Spurs pounded United for 90 minutes but somehow lost 3-1. “Bogey opponent” doesn’t do United justice: they’ve transcended bogey-ness, entering previously unexplored realms of comic invincibility.

Last weekend, Tottenham travelled to Old Trafford to play Manchester United — not a vintage United by any means, but a United that looked more than capable of prolonging the curse. But you know what? Tottenham won. They came, they saw, they dominated for 45 minutes, they desperately defended for 45 minutes, and they won, courtesy of a goal scored by super-cool Texas dude Clint Dempsey. At the final whistle, Villas-Boas, who replaced Redknapp at the end of last season, punched the air repeatedly while Sir Alex Ferguson directed equally violent gesticulations at the referee. A relieved Gareth Bale [3] just stared into space.

In the long run, the United match probably won’t make a whole lot of difference. The game was worth only three points, the same total that Everton secured with a prosaic win over Southampton the day before Tottenham’s triumph. (Nevertheless, rumor has it that AVB has already placed Breaking The Old Trafford Curse alongside Falcao’s Europa-League-clinching goal in his personal football scrapbook.[4]) Spurs still have a long way to go. Odds are that between now and the end of May they’ll have flirted with implosion at least once.

And that’s the beauty of Tottenham Hotspur. Living on the edge, battling the big boys, punching the air, and occasionally pulling off something spectacular. But always 90 minutes away from a total collapse.

[1] It’s never easy to tell whether an issue will spark football’s collective interest. Earlier this year, England was captivated by tweets about other people’s tweets about Anton Ferdinand, John Terry and the political incorrectness of the term “fucking black cunt.”

[2] Nicholson’s was a simpler time. Reserve players cleaned boots, pre-season consisted of lots and lots of running, and players like Joe Kinnear kicked everything that moved. Under Nicholson’s guidance, Spurs won the FA Cup, the old Division One, the UEFA Cup, and the now-defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup. He left White Hart Lane in 1974. Things just haven’t been the same since.

[3] Bale’s a man who knows about footballing hoodoos. At the beginning of his career, he played in a record 24 Premier League games for Spurs without ever finishing on the winning team.

[4] Yup, some people actually care about what AVB puts in his metaphorical scrapbook.

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