The Last Word: Underdog or top dog? Sometimes it's a moral maze
At Wigan, Martinez does not ask his players to extinguish the stars, but to reach for them
They say the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who pronounce themselves "neutral" when the chips are down. To admit their betrayal, these need only consider their instincts when the stakes are most frivolous.
For sport shows that it is beyond even the idlest conscience not to take sides. As couch potatoes, too lazy to reach for the remote, we reduce to the screensaver version of Homo sapiens. Yet no matter how ignorant of players or teams or even rules, we find it impossible not to develop some gradual moral affinity. And, almost invariably, we find ourselves rooting for the underdog.
There are times, however, when this kind of allegiance can itself be pretty gutless. Some underdogs, after all, just snarl and snap and slobber. Some are barely house-trained. No less than when the strong oppress the weak, surely we should also have the courage of our convictions when the great exemplars are opposed by rivals meaner not just in resources, but in endeavour.
It is alarming, for instance, how people seem infected by a desire to see Barcelona brought down a peg or two. The scrupulous elegance of their football is increasingly depicted as ostentatious, even sanctimonious. This week the faintly ludicrous corollary was that a team as opulently assembled as Chelsea, playing at home, could be represented as underdogs. As a result, people even indulged the pantomime deceits of Didier "peek-a-boo" Drogba. Get off your high horse, they said. You don't expect anyone to try and beat Barcelona by playing better football, do you?
There is a paranoid margin, of course, to underdog status – one usefully exploited, over the years, by a former Chelsea manager. Jose Mourinho's men always thrive on a siege. In fairness, it should not be forgotten that his Internazionale knocked out Barcelona a couple of years ago by dint of a highly positive, dynamic home leg. Sadly, Mourinho is unlikely to sponsor such adventure against the same team tonight. And if they happen to lose, you already know that Real Madrid, these sultans of the world game, will somehow end up depicting themselves as victims.
The ideological subtext – all this business about forces of darkness and light, and the associated resentments – is so poisoning El Clasico that you nearly dread another one on neutral soil next month. The dream Champions League final is surely Bayern and Barcelona. It has long been clear that only Munich, above all in their home stadium, would be prepared to take on the holders at their own game.
And that is the point, really. The underdogs whose cause we should espouse are those who reject disparities in status by pure class – and do so, unswervingly, even when the odds against them are compounded by misfortune or prejudice.
When he smeared that drive into the trees in the Masters play-off, everyone except Bubba Watson knew how the story must end. His opponent, already a major champion, was strolling around with a smile of terrifying insouciance. Bubba's twitching limbs and features betrayed the imminent collapse of even basic motor skills. You could almost see him muttering: "OK, Bubba. Now you gotta walk up this fairway. Come on, Bubba, try to remember. It's one foot there, right? And the other one, what – here maybe? OK. Now, what about the face? Where does the skin go? Oh Lord, just tell me when I'm allowed to cry." And he promptly pulled off such an impossible shot that he could have closed out with a cue. He was the underdog, all right, but won by playing the better golf.
In the same way, those of us privileged to witness their defeat of Manchester United last week marvelled that only the Wigan players appeared not to know the inevitable denouement. At half-time, everyone in the stands was remembering what had happened at Stamford Bridge five days earlier, when Wigan were beaten in the last minute by a second offside goal. Now a perfectly good one of their own had been disallowed.
In some countries, we might even have entertained dark suspicions about that decision in tandem with the recent larcenies suffered against United by Fulham and QPR. (Not to mention Ashley Young's latest infamy, against Villa, which maddeningly permitted some to renew the pernicious notion that "contact" is itself sufficient cause for a penalty).
Wigan, however, succumbed to no such delusions. They simply came out for the second half and outplayed the champions, who did not force a save until the 83rd minute. By that stage, the most successful British manager of the modern era had resorted to Phil Jones at centre-forward. Sir Alex was utterly baffled by the tactics of Roberto Martinez, who has transformed the Premier League's ultimate underdogs by sheer innovation.
Sure enough, Martinez's players have discovered such conviction and composure in their new formation that they have since proved too good for Arsenal, as well.
Things barely become easier, in Wigan's next couple of games. They go to Craven Cottage today, and host Newcastle next week. If they hold their nerve, however, they will pull it off. In the meantime, there can be no neutrals. For their survival is about more than mere bulldog spirit. Martinez does not ask his players to extinguish the stars, but to reach for them.
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