Back in the long hot spring of 2003, I took an American student, fresh off the boat, to watch his first live televised football match. He was a lacrosse-playing college sports fan with about as much interest in soccer as I have in ultimate Frisbee, so I was intrigued to see how he’d take to the beautiful game. He was gratifyingly enthusiastic about the whole affair and luckily the match turned out to be a top of the table cracker between United and Arsenal – it was the olden days when those two were of relevance in the title race.
After running through the basics of the sport with my yankee friend, we settled down to enjoy 90 minutes of typically frenetic Premier League football. United had the better of the opening exchanges and midway through the first half Van Nistlerooy escaped Sol Campbell and galloped free like a riderless horse in the Grand National to dink his team in front. Minutes later Arsenal’s own thoroughbred, captain Patrick Vieira, limped off to be replaced by perennial 500/1 shot, the unbackable Edu.
Despite this setback, Arsenal flew out of the traps in the second half and were 2-1 up thanks to a brace of offside Thierry Henry goals. The lead lasted barely a minute, however, as veteran Giggs nodded in from close range. Campbell picked up Arsenal’s customary red card for a silly elbow into the baby face of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but neither team could find a winner and honours ended even.
My man from Philly loved every minute of it but when I finished my pint and suggested we make a move, his face dropped. “Are we not going to stay to the end and see who wins?” he asked. “That was the end, mate” I told him, before going on to explain that the winner in a football match is often a subjective term but as United were away from home and remain top of the league with just a handful of games to play, they will be much the happier of the two. He listened to my reasoning in stunned disgusted silence before shaking his head sadly and muttering “all that and no real winner, just a goddamn tie”.
You see, Americans don’t do draws. They are like kissing your sister apparently. Fine if you are Jim Corr, but highly unpalatable to the rest of us. The North American psyche has been constructed around the ideal of there always being a winner and a loser, with nothing in between to muddy the waters. Any sharing of the spoils just freaks them out. To this end, the good old US of A has gradually rid the ignominious tie from their sporting events, with sudden death overtime now proving capable of separating the most evenly-matched of foes. Even honours in the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB today are about as common as a clean urine sample in the Tour de France. And as one commentator put it, ask a NASCAR fan about a tie and you’d likely get punched in the face.
As with much that is happening in the world, however, America doesn’t know what it is missing. A case in point has been the month of May in La Liga. In what has been the most intriguing season for as long as most can remember, five of the last seven games involving the top three have ended in draws (incidentally, the other two games were 2-0 defeats for Atletico and Madrid).
Last minute goals for Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and Getafe in the Camp Nou ensured 2-2 deadlocks before Madrid squandered their game in hand with a 1-1 result away to Valladolid. The penultimate round of games saw Atleti battle to a point against Malaga while Barça were grinding out a stalemate at Elche. At the same time, Madrid’s loss in Galicia against Celta Vigo ended their challenge and left the way clear for tomorrow’s Barça v Atleti clash in Cataluña to be the title decider to end all title deciders.
The assertive decisiveness of the game makes it practically Superbowl-esque in nature. It is as close to sudden death overtime as a league football match will hopefully ever be. I imagine my long-lost American buddy is sitting somewhere, draped in his stars and stripes, sipping an ice cold Bud, and looking forward to the winner takes all soccer extravaganza that tomorrow evening promises to be. Just like it should be he’ll think, before allowing himself a knowing smile at the quaintness of actually allowing 21st century sporting contests to climax victorless. I hope he enjoys it anyway, and so long as no one tells him a low-down, dirty, good-for-nothing draw is enough for Atletico to win it all, I’m sure he will.