Two teams brought joy to the English 2017/18 Premier League season. One did so with a profound combination of beauty and elegance; the other with a glorious, gung-ho buccaneering spirit.
Both have lifted the spirit: sport can do that. So it’s a shame that neither is playing in Saturday’s FA Cup final. It’s a shame that the biggest club-football occasion that terrestrial television will bring us all year doesn’t feature the two clubs every neutral wants to see.
There is glory in that, but you can’t help but feel that it’s a bit of a shame. Hamlet without the prince, and for that matter the King and Queen as well. Manchester City won the Premier League with the most skillful and effective domestic team England has ever produced. Liverpool won their way to the European Cup final, which takes place in Kiev on 26 May, with explosive, at times quite overwhelming, football.
But the FA Cup final will pitch Manchester United, the stodgy second-besters of the season, with Chelsea, who have been quite unable to cope with the unfair fact that teams around them keep improving.
For both, the FA Cup is a consolation prize: something to salvage from a season of disappointment. If that’s a bore for neutrals, there’s consolation to be found in sport’s eternal refusal to form itself into convenient patterns.
In football, and especially in knockout football, the best team doesn’t always win. An off-day, a bad quarter of an hour, or even a second’s failure by an individual, can bring about defeat against all the odds and all the expectations.
Throughout the history of sport, people have tried to organise things so that the most gratifying of results come about: the most lucrative money-spinning matches, the most prestigious opponents lining up against each other.
Time and again sport lets them down: the wrong people win and the script is ruined – because, of course, there is no script.
The most famous person to fall foul of sport’s ineluctable law of unpredictability was Adolf Hitler, who wanted the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin to showcase his ideology of Aryan supremacy. Black American athlete Jesse Owens – the outstanding star of the Games, with four gold medals and three world records – rather spoilt that script for him.
Last summer’s big cricket tournament, the Champions Trophy, was held in Britain, featuring an England one-day team of lofty competence and occasional brilliance. It was set up to provide an England win: but England failed and Pakistan eventually won as glorious underdogs.
We must celebrate the fact that the FA Cup final has the wrong teams, at least for neutrals. Football is volatile and alive, and the day it tries to fit itself round our whims is the day it dies.
Let’s celebrate Manchester United and their season of boring, unimaginative yet still bizarrely fallible football, a sulking Goliath giving every possible encouragement to those armed only with slings and stones.
And let’s celebrate Chelsea and their inability to deal with the fact that retaining the Premier League title is a whole lot harder than winning it.
Chelsea have at times basked in the position of being top dogs, Manchester United once assumed topdoggery lasted for ever. Now, after a draining season, they duel for the last prize in order to make everything slightly less disappointing than it really is.
There is honour in that: and maybe a little glory, too.
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