The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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Let’s Be Servantless

Well, here we go. 365 days, 524 recipes. Time to learn a little something about life.

Operating assumptions for the start of the season: Spain is more interesting than England. All good souls should want Arsenal to win the Premier League. (I will be unabashedly wanting that this year, thanks very much.) Serie A is a ghost town, and it has a ghost town’s rickety appeal: good for hideouts, rendezvous, creepy scenes in the middle of Hitchcock movies, gunfighters, preservationists, and cacti. Folks in these parts say that if you put your ear to the old well at night, you can still hear the moaning of José Mourinho’s ego.

So…this weekend was fun, wasn’t it? For all the revving-up of egregious military metaphors and huge-stakes dramatic signifiers that comes with the start of a new (ahem) campaign, things got off to a pretty mellow start. Maybe that’s just the summer talking, or the fact that I probably missed 100 camera shots of agonized children sweating out the end of Chelsea-Hull. And I’m not going to say I never once yelled at the TV. But what I mostly felt watching the games—in place of terror or hard adrenaline—was a very low-key exhilaration, like, “Yeah, this is fun, this is good.” A useless feeling if you have to fight the Crusades, but I’m not going to close the door on it in sports. So here’s to beginnings that remind you why you do the thing in the first place, without making you feel like your head is about to disintegrate.

Other things I liked about this weekend:

  • Tottenham. I barely thought about them in the offseason, so it was a little shocking yesterday to remember what a fun team they’ve turned into. Actually, they’re not just fun; they’re pretty good, only they seem to lack the element of grim willpower that drives the really successful teams to be really successful over the course of a 38-game season (think of Steven Gerrard’s sniffs, or of the late Ryan Giggs). They’re talented, but (like you) they have no idea what’s going to happen, and (like you) they’re just going to watch Aaron Lennon run his legs off while they wait to figure it out. Defoe/Crouch is as crazy as it was at Portsmouth, Harry Redknapp is still as big as the sky, and rich people could sleep under Luka Modrić. This obviously isn’t “the year they finally break into the big four,” for one thing because their goalkeeper has the nerves of a feral mare, but I’m looking forward to seeing where this is going.
  • Stephen Ireland. He’s not crazy, he’s touched. How often do you see a player trick the goalkeeper into falling down, hold the ball patiently while he gets up and gets back in position, and then score past him anyway? Lionel Trilling would frown at me for saying this (“In recent years the connection between art and mental illness has been formulated not only by those who are openly or covertly hostile to art, but also and more significantly by those who are most intensely partisan to it”), but this is the flip side of the Superman underpants and the imaginary dead grandmothers. Yes, the defending was terrible, but what other player would have played this moment that way?
  • Further evidence for the dissolution of the perceived alliance between intention and success. The idea is that you win in sports by doing what you mean to do. If you don’t do what you mean to do, or if you do do what you don’t mean to do, you do the wrong thing, you fail to execute, and you lose. But sometimes you do something you didn’t mean to do, and it works better than the thing you meant would have worked, even if you’d done it. That we call getting lucky, and it’s a possibility we usually treat as a sort of invisible satellite of sport, until suddenly it throws everything else into eclipse. I’m talking about Drogba’s cross, of course, but Y.E. Yang also has something to do with this.
  • Storylines. Somewhere around the middle of last season the groundwork started being laid for something more interesting than “will Liverpool do it this year, again, finally.” It’s not just that Manchester United are as weak as they’ve been since 2004 (though I still think the Michael Owen signing was a brilliant move that had nothing to do with Ronaldo), and it’s not just that Arsenal are on the threshold of some kind of dead zone in the culture of modern expectation (though everyone should be hoping they don’t fall into it), and it’s not just that Manchester City are rich (though that’s interesting, too), and it’s not just that Chelsea are roughly one giant wooden horse away from the wrong side of an epic conclusion (though that’s interesting, too).

    It’s that the hegemony of the Big Four isn’t scary any more. That is, it’s still a hegemony, and they’ll of course probably finish 1-4 this season for the billionth time in recent memory. But without actually losing their dominance, they’ve somehow stopped seeming like the unquestioned center of everything. There are a lot of mid-table teams that won’t be afraid to play them on a given day—they’re getting outspent by Man City, nipped at by Aston Villa, stared down by Hull, and actually beaten by Tottenham—and how both sides cope with that surprising new reality will be fascinating to see. Anyway, I’m looking forward to next week.

In other words, bon appetit.

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Let’s Be Servantless

by Brian Phillips · August 17, 2009

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