Soccer's season of MAGIC BECKONS

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Manchester United has an Asian star in Park Ji-Sung.-

ONE of the most amusing, or most tragic, or most understandable, or most dubious soccer stories, a viewpoint depending entirely on how seriously you embrace football as a religion, was the one involving a fan of an English club side who named his son after all the players in his team.

Football tends to do this, perhaps more than any other sport it gives fresh meaning to the term "faithful supporter". It is an awkward tribalism, difficult to figure unless you have a Henry team shirt in your closet, know the car numbers of every Real Madrid "galactico", refuse to get married on any day that Manchester United is playing and take every loss as a personal affront.

But faith is routinely mangled, trampled over, flattened by the studs of opposing players evidently of no pedigree but owners of unusual luck. But if you go the distance, if you hold onto that bruised faith, if you believe, dammit, it is only then you understand magic.

Magic is winning three matches to escape relegation, it is an open goal missed by a rival star, it is the ball hitting the woodwork, careening into the goalkeeper and ricocheting into the goal in the final minute. And it happens all the time.

Magic is Arsenal needing a 2-0 win to claim the title in 1989 in the last match of the season, against leaders Liverpool, at Anfield, and leading 1-0, and 91 minutes and 22 seconds of the game played, the result surely decided, when Michael Thomas, incredibly, absurdly, coolly, scores the second goal and Liverpool fans shouting "Champions, champions" go as quiet as death.

Magic is lying in bed late into the night, Manchester United down a goal to Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, refusing to believe a clock that insisted no minutes were left, wanting to destroy the TV in frustration, yet waiting, hoping, believing, that a miracle was about to unfold. And of course it did.

That night Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored the winner and said: "The team spirit is unbelievable. Everyone works for each other." For that moment, like doesn't matter, rifts within teams are irrelevant, demands for higher wages are forgotten, a rebuke from the manager is ignored. This is one of the beautiful things about sport, men do not have to like each to play well together. Leander and Mahesh didn't speak for most of 1999, but got to four Grand Slam finals.

In football, no season is as special or as pure as now, the one that precedes the commencement of league play. Savings are collected to purchase season tickets, lovingly fondled when they arrive, as would any passport to heaven. For now at least, even for lesser clubs, hell is still a few games away, its taste unfamiliar.

Players don't sustain clubs, a spectators' hope does, his belief is the fuel for his team's survival. A season can hurt, for months, but why cheer if you don't believe in pots of gold at the end of rainbows.

Managers are alternately celebrated or vilified purely on the basis of signings. Team sheets are studied harder than algebra ever was and formations are examined like the Normandy invasion. The left flank is weak, it will be sagely observed, and the manager is a fool with the IQ of a rival striker. Scouts are just tired.

Alex Ferguson is an angel from heaven but some will insist the glue is coming off his wings. Arsene Wenger is a genius, but of course. Chelsea merely has everyone feeling blue because its chequebook has unlimited pages. Of course, those who leave your club for better wages are traitors, prostitutes, men of no honour, though when new players are lured away from other clubs by a fat cheque it is only good business and players are congratulated for seeing the light.

Thierry Henry wants to stay at Highbury because he loves it, because money isn't the issue. "I always say that I do something that I love. Even if I wasn't playing for Arsenal and I had to play in the back garden of my friend's house, I'd play the same way," he said. Fans will call for his statue; rivals will sneer.

Great players are vital, they sell tickets, shirts, shorts, but great players are not enough, the jigsaw must be assiduously put together. Real Madrid spent over $300 million over nearly five years for a succession of legends but its rewards have been less than legendary. Rivals cannot stop pointing that out with unrestrained glee.

Luis Figo is gone, to Inter, and if Madrid wins no one will miss his jinking runs that on occasion left confused defenders tackling air. No one is buying Michael Owen and this is plain strange. Man U has an Asian star, South Korean Park Ji-Sung, and Seoul will soon be wearing red. New love affairs are blossoming daily.

But there is more at stake this season than the various leagues, for the World Cup is a few free kicks away. There is almost a year to go, but of course Brazil has already been anointed champions, and the only debate is who exactly of Robinho, Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka will they leave on the bench. No one is talking too much about Africa as usual, victims as they are of a mostly uninterested media, and yet there is a strange surprise when they arrive and nonchalantly disfigure reputations.

Qualifying will do what it always does, play havoc with weak hearts and unstable bladders, and one thing is for sure, somewhere there will be mourning the morning after. France so stylishly brilliant once is flailing desperately but, wait, Zizou is back; Zidane's nickname appears borrowed from a catwalk blonde but then to the faithful he remains the model footballer. After all, it was said of him that he plays with such delicacy that his feet appear encased in silk gloves. Clearly this is a French thing, for Michel Platini's feet were once described as being able to think. I concur.

It is a valorous move by a retired genius, a comeback fraught with danger, for Zidane is daring to tamper with a grand legacy, could bruise a beautiful image. Can one man restore a team, lift a nation, construct the impossible for a side in fourth place in its World Cup group? It is a silly question. This is football, this is about magic.