Hellbent and heaven sent

Football, bloody hell.

Hellbent and heaven sent

Football, bloody hell.

After a month, but what already feels more like a year, of business and politics colonising the back pages as well as the front, of innumerable news stories and opinion pieces struggling under the weight of references to governance and company law, credit cards and expenses, committees and sub-committees, and reports and reviews, it was beginning to get damnably hard to see the woodwork for the fees, to remember that, at the beginning and whatever will constitute the end of FAIgate, right at the very beating heart of it all, is the eternal stuff of childhood dreams.

And then, right on cue, along come Manchester City and Spurs in the Champions League to serve up a sensational reminder that, whether it’s the frugalities endured by the local grassroots or the obscenely high living of the global elite, there is nothing ailing the game of football which can’t be redeemed by, well, a game of football.

Even if it’s just for one night only.

On the box on Wednesday, Graeme Souness, hardly one of the sport’s sentimentalists and a notably hard man to impress, summed up what he’d just witnessed as:

Unbelievable entertainment, up there with Istanbul for me. OK, no trophy at the end of it but in terms of drama and entertainment, that was up there.

He’s probably correct is suggesting that ‘The Miracle of Istanbul’ remains the gold standard as a Champions League/European Cup spectacular – with Barcelona’s comeback against PSG a couple of seasons back not too far behind – and not least because that marathon night 13 years ago in the Ataturk Stadium (have I ever mentioned in passing that I was there, by the way?) did indeed conclude with one side getting hands on the ultimate prize.

But in one particular respect, City v Spurs trumped Liverpool v Milan. Where the latter was almost a textbook game of two halves, Wednesday night’s seesaw dynamic came as if with a rocket booster attached, from the almost bewilderingly quick-fire exchange of five goals in the breathless first 20 minutes to that brain-scrambling, heart-stopping injury time denouement when, in what felt like the blink of a disbelieving eye, the sporting extremes of agony and ecstasy were alternately visited upon both teams, both managers and both sets of supporters.

Not that I can imagine there were too many neutrals left standing at the end of it all, the pull on the emotions generated by the relentless drama simply too intense to leave anyone feeling indifferent.

Still, whatever your inclination, only the stoniest of hearts could lack genuine sympathy for the brilliant Raheem Sterling whose composure in finding the net with time and hope running out for City was simply magnificent, only for the poor guy to see what was surely the game’s decisive goal – as well as his joyous, match-winning celebrations – suddenly and rendered null and void, his club’s Champions League dream turned to dust (again) and Spurs, experiencing the most improbable of reprieves, resurrected from the dead.

A comparison? Well, just imagine if, in an alternative universe, City’s last-gasp title winner against QPR in 2012 had been chalked off for some infringement or other. With AguerDOH duly replacing AguerOH in the history books, that might have come pretty close, right enough.

Of course, there was nothing wrong with that famous goal and, even if there had been and it had gone undetected by the officials on the ground, VAR would not have been around to right the wrong and wreck the mood. But in the Champions League, in 2019, there is no escaping the all-seeing eye.

When VAR was first floated, one of the loudest and most emotional arguments against this appliance of science was that it would simply ruin the game as a spectacle. But surely not even its most entrenched opponents could argue that it did anything but enhance, to the highest degree, the drama of an already extraordinary occasion.

But more importantly, in my opinion – and, yes, contrary to that other great misgiving, VAR clearly does still leave space for opinion – it got both the big decisions right at the Etihad.

It might have been the ugliest goal of the night but what turned out to be Fernando Llorente’s ‘winner’ had about as much in common with a common-sense understanding of a handball offence as the hip and/or elbow have with the hand. And if, in the build-up to Sterling’s ‘non-winner’, Aguero was only marginally offside, well, sorry Blue Moaners, I feel your pain, but ‘marginally’ is neither here nor there.

A player is either onside or offside and, as with the long-accepted use of the photo finish in so many other sports, if VAR is in a position to clarify the distinction, however fine, then it means that the cause of sporting justice is ultimately being served.

Meanwhile, as we await the news that VAR has now been invited to join the queue of all those other investigative entities who are currently taking a forensic look at the workings of the FAI, let’s be grateful this week to Manchester City and Spurs – and, while we’re at it, to Liverpool and Barcelona and the incomparable Messi – for taking us to that better place where football is making the headlines and dominating the watercooler conversations for all the right reasons.

Sure, as already stated, it might just be for one night only but when it’s also a night for the ages I reckon we can happily live with that. Football, bloody heaven.

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