A night to rekindle passion for the game

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The Independent Football

Let me be brief, and frank: I do not like football. It bores me. This is partially because I am a QPR supporter, thus have not watched a decent live match since I was about 22. It is also because I am 48 years old; my rages, loves and passions have either ebbed into different channels or been dampened altogether.

Attending the Champions League' match between Chelsea and Arsenal was not a matter of a connoisseur appreciating the qualities and subtleties of the beautiful game. On the contrary - of the 40,000 odd people in the stadium, I could quite confidently assert my claim to being the most ignorant and the most disinterested of all the spectators present. I was a blind man in a vast art gallery thronged entirely with seeing eye critics. I just wanted my eyes to open again, to re-kindle the ashes of my interest in a game I had consigned to the past with other childhood things.

It was not quite the first big match I'd attended for the last 25 years. As fortune would have it, someone gave me a free ticket for Arsenal's qualifier against Lokomotiv Moscow earlier this year. I arrived late, missed the first goal and spent the final 80 minutes watching the East Europeans roll over in exquisitely tedious fashion. The game was as sour and unsatisfying - resurrection of my enthusiasm seemed more unlikely than ever.

Then last night came the opportunity from this newspaper for a much hotter ticket - Chelsea v Arsenal. This was a match actually big enough to register on my flickering, failing radar. Yet I expected it would be another damp squib, a 0-0 draw masterminded by the beleaguered Claudio Ranieri in an attempt to save as much face as possible before he was canned. I thought I'd give football one final try before filing it away under ever lengthening list Things I Once Cared About.

The first thing that struck me walking into Stamford Bridge for the first time in my life - one minute into the game - that this was a very different business from the dog's dinner I'd seen at Highbury. The air was charged, and not merely with the full turbo masculinity that had hitherto accelerated the waning of my interest in football. Anticipation was here, and delight, and violent, positive energy. I recognised the possibility that I could actually enjoy myself. But firstly I had to decide which team to support. That was the point of the whole thing after all.

This was settled for me simply by observing the managers behind whom I was sitting. I was taken aback by how depressed they both seemed, given the electric charge in the stadium, Arsène Wenger hunkered down in his seat, Ranieri marching up and down the touchline like a traffic policeman trying to avert a 50 car pile up. Wenger glanced at him from time to time like a concerned uncle, or perhaps a Zen master. I thought I understood why; Ranieri seemed genuinely sad, Wenger merely bearing the professional gravitas of a funeral director. It was then that I threw in my lot, my sympathy vote, with the Blues.

The first half rushed by and I was taken by something I hadn't recognised about modern football. That at this level, there was beauty, and not just the elegance of the game itself. The green of the pitch, the physique of the players, the rise and sob and yelp of the crowd. The subs and officials around the managers like minor mafiosi jostling around the capo di tutti capi. It all harmonised somehow into one unified spectacle of which the playing itself was just a part. I could barely make out the secret structure of the play; for me it was all piecemeal, moments of drama, a swivel of foot, a nod, a nudge.

It was entertaining - but nothing really seized me until a moment in the 40th minute when, banally, Thierry Henry stopped a ball going out of play. But the way he did it, the style with which he stopped, then captured, then redeployed the ball, made me gasp. It was nothing, a moment, yet all the joy of football was there in that trap and touch.

After four minutes of the second half, the first goal was scored by Eidur Gudjohnsen. I was a supporter now, and transported, on my feet. Ranieri was momentarily pleased before sinking back into his depression. Then Wenger did something that, I think, unnerved Ranieri. He got up, more or less for the first time, and began his own secret semaphore on the touchline. As if Ranieri was the apprentice and Wenger was the sorcerer.

The Arsenal goal, from Robert Pires, a few minutes later, seemed perfectly and absolutely willed by Wenger. Then he sat down again. And Ranieri started directing traffic once again, more desperately this time, trying to direct it away from that 2-1 scoreline that had haunted him three times this season.

Now with one goal apiece, the magic of football fell like a thin silver dust over the stadium. I could make no more notes. This was what I remembered from being a 22-year-old, the loss of myself, the delightful sinking into the anonymous turf. I was a football fan again, a grin like a big stupid monkey across my face. Monkey was right. I had achieved de-evolution, the merging of the individual into the ecstatic mass. And it felt great.

When the final whistle blew, it was 1-1. It felt like a victory. Ranieri seemed mysteriously crushed, but then so did Wenger. I didn't care. I understood again, or at least, remembered. Remembered what it was to care. And that was enough, even if it was for only one night.

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