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Football is much more than life and death

As the most important game of the season rolls around tonight, a reminder that this is not just a game

Real Madrid v Manchester City Semi Final Leg Two - UEFA Champions League Photo by Berengui/vi/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Football is much more than life and death*

As the second leg of the blockbuster Champions League tie between the two best clubs of the past decade draws near, Real Madrid find themselves needing to do something they’ve never done before in their illustrious history: make it to the final having drawn the first leg at home.

The tie is evenly-poised: two outside-of-the-box stunners from two of the world’s absolute best cancelled each other out, which now means that the second leg is akin to a game 7 in the NBA playoffs: win or go home. Are you ready for the drama? The emotional rollercoaster? To feel the kind of stress, agony, and elation that is (hopefully) rarely ever experienced in our personal lives?

Some of the more sensible people in my life occasionally ask me... why? Why do I care about the outcome of a game that is impossible for me to affect and that is played by athletes that I have nothing in common with?

The way I see it, the reason we support our teams so fervently is quite simple: despite the grief and frustration it will undoubtedly put us through at times, football not only allows us to dream, but it has the rare ability to connect us. It can spiritually move an unconnected group of people — a group that is made up of any and all types of humans, binding them not through society, or economics, or race, but through something more personal than any of that: our emotions.

As a Madridista, the most recent example of feeling such shared emotions occurred last year. We all remember the scene. As the end of Real Madrid’s 2021/22 Champions League campaign drew to a close at 22:45 local time on 4 May 2022, Jack Grealish terrorized Madrid’s backline with his dribbling and direct approach, slaloming his way into the box before directing a shot past Courtois and onto goal. The defensively-oriented but offensively-limited Mendy made a heroic block on the line, flinging his foot at the ball to try and make any kind of contact. Since his momentum was taking him into the net, he could only delicately push the ball towards Phil Foden, who was only a few yards behind Mendy. On another day, the Frenchman’s clearance would have struck Foden and rebounded into the net, but on this occasion the ball deflected off the City forward and bounced to safety.

Less than 30 seconds later, a second scarcely believable sequence kept City at bay once more. Grealish, again the instigator, tore into the Madrid penalty area, twisting and turning and forcing a save from Courtois. On second viewing, the save was scarcely believable -- Courtois, all 6’7” of him, was fully outstretched and managed to deflect the ball with a stud, conceding a corner instead of a goal that would have given City an unassailable three goal aggregate lead. A fortuitous stud, combined with Courtois’ excellent reflexes, unnatural height and commendable effort, forced City to wait a few more minutes before they could celebrate making a second CL final in a row.

As with the Mendy clearance a minute earlier, a Madrid player gets a huge slice of fortune; but give credit where it’s due! Without the last-ditch efforts that Courtois and Mendy gave, fortune would not have even factored into it at all.

Sat at home and watching this game alone (something I usually do as I learnt long ago that it’s not healthy or fair to subject my friends or family to the wide range of emotions I may experience throughout a Madrid game of such magnitude), these back-to-back goal denying efforts stirred something within me.

As the game clock read 89’, the home team advanced the ball towards the halfway line and I found myself breaking the silence at home, quietly singing ‘Asi, asi, asi gana el Madrid’. Not because I felt that we could score twice in the remaining few minutes (indeed, getting into Man City’s defensive third would be an achievement in and of itself considering how dominant the English side had been), but because, even in what seemed like certain defeat, our players had given it their all.

Breaking out in that chant was borne out of a sense of pride, one that stemmed from a love of the players representing the club, and that I inherently felt all other Madridistas would be feeling at the same time. Having watched this team of ageing greats (Carvajal, Marcelo, Casemiro, Kroos, Modric and Benzema all have strong claims to be in the top 3 players at their respective positions over the preceding decade) and promising talent (Militao, Camavinga, Valverde, Rodrygo and Vinicius Jr may prove to be as successful over the next decade) pull off astounding comebacks against PSG and Chelsea in the previous rounds, the semi-final tie with Guardiola’s juggernaut of a team was always going to be a step too far.

And yet, despite being completely outplayed for 179 minutes of the tie to that point, Madrid were somehow only down 5-3 on aggregate (it would be fair to say that a 5-1 scoreline would have been a truer representation of the Mancunian side’s dominance).

What happened over the next 120 seconds was, as one commentator put it, Bernabeu bedlam. Madrid sprinkled a handful of their black magic in stoppage time and then again in extra time, completing the remontada by 23:40 local time and launching themselves into the Champions League final.

Despite the ecstasy, delirium, and overwhelming gratitude I felt during the final act of that tie, what I hold onto the most from that evening is the feeling that moved me to start that song. The fact that football can grace one with such powerful emotions, whether positive or negative, gives us the opportunity to be inspired. What we do with that inspiration is obviously up to us, but the hope would be that it would motivate us to make improvements in our personal lives, and, by extension, to help those around us. Long may it continue.

*One of Europe’s greatest ever managers, Liverpool’s Bill Shankly: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

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