From: Stig Oppedal (
Subject: Four Matches And A False Idea
Date: February 5, 1997

Friday the 24th to Sunday the 26th of January, 1997. Not since the '94 Winter
Olympics had I experienced such a big-ass TV weekend: several movies (The Big 
Chill, Full Metal Jacket, Casablanca), four football matches (Australia vs. 
Norway, Manchester United vs. Wimbledon, Newcastle United vs. Nottingham Forest,
Chelsea vs. Liverpool), and Super Bowl XXXI (Green Bay Packers vs. New England 

Monday the 27th of January, 1997. My computer screen goes kaput as I start 
writing about the aforementioned big-ass TV weekend. Given that my previous 
screen caught fire only a short while ago, I'm sure you can appreciate the 
frustration I felt at seeing its replacement die on me. Around 13:30 GMT you 
might have heard someone shouting "fuck you, fuck you, fuck you... fuck YOU! 
fuck YOU!" - that was just me having an animated discussion with a very 
inanimate object.


The first match, between the Coca-Cola Socceroos (a.k.a. Australia) and Norway, 
was the final game of a four nation tournament down under. Earlier on South 
Korea had defeated New Zealand 3-1, which meant that Australia would secure a 
victory in the tournament with a draw, while Norway needed an outright win. I 
wasn't holding my breath in anticipation. It's only a misplaced sense of duty 
that'll get you out of your bed on a Saturday morning to watch Norway play a 
meaningless international. You just can't win. Either the regulars play, in 
which case you can expect zero effort, or, as now, the second-stringers play, 
in which case you'll see a team that looks as if it first met at the airport. 
But in Drillo we trust, and if pain (ours) = gain (his) then I suppose these 
winter migrations are worthwhile.

Norway are widely regarded as long-ball hoofers, and it's games like this that 
confirms that reputation. Scttr vwls 't rndm n ths sntnc & y'll hv th Nrwgn tctc 
vs. th Cc Cl Sccrs - hphzrd lng blls wth zlch ffct. Australia had this towering 
goalkeeper who, apart from a few early glitches, took everything in the air. 
Corners. Crosses. Free kicks. Long balls from the back four. _Everything_. 

Needless to say, Australia won the match, 1-0. Ironically enough, the goal came 
from a high cross from the right, which was headed in by an unmarked player.

Despite the overwhelming evidence I still think that Norway's problem _isn't_ 
overplaying the long ball, but rather inflexibility. The Norwegian players will
stick to a game plan eben when it's clearly not working. In the 3-0 defeat against 
The Netherlands in November 1995, for example, Norway based their attacks on a 
short passing game centered on Bohinen. He unfortunately had a very poor game, 
and the attacks inevitably broke down. It wasn't until the _last five minutes_, 
however, that Norway tried the long ball option, which in this case should have 
been used much earlier. Against Australia it was merely the same disease 
(inflexibility) with a different symptom (long balls).

The game at Old Trafford, a FA Cup 4th round tie between Manchester United and 
Wimbledon, promised to be more exciting. The game was broadcast both on 
Norwegian TV2 and Swedish TV4, and  I watched it on the latter for a number of 
reasons. The commentary is livelier, the noise from the stadium is louder, and 
they were running an advertisement featuring Eric Cantona. Normally I avoid 
commercials like the plague, but Eric Cantona isn't normal. The ad was for the 
Swedish 13-game football pool, where the punters mark off "1" for a home win,
"X" for a draw, and "2" for an away win. In "artistic" b&w we see the maestro 
about to take a practice penalty shot: 

"Hello! So, yoo like to bet on Inglish futtball. I will give yoo some advice. 
When United playz at 'ome: [cut to his 1995 header against Blackburn] 1. 
When United playz away: 2 [another spectacular goal]. Save ze X's for ze 
ozzair teams. 'ow do I know? Becuz I know. It iz mah job to know. Luck haz 
nuzzing to do wiz it." He turns up his collar, fakes the keeper into an 
early dive, gives us a knowing smile, and converts the penalty. Ooh aah! 

My expectations for the match itself were lowered when I saw the United team. 
Now, I love Brian McClair like a second-cousin (once removed), and his gradual 
transition from star striker to midfield workhorse to squad player is an 
outstanding example of team loyalty. That said, his inclusion in the starting 
line-up always means that somebody a bit cooler is either on the bench or in the
stands, which today meant Solskjaer, Beckham, and Butt. The defense had a 
similar unfamiliar look, with no Pallister, May, or Johnsen, and Alex Ferguson 
opted for what looked like an unorthodox 5-2-3 formation with Roy Keane as 
sweeper. Wimbledon are Wimbledon regardless of what their line-up is.

All in all it was a fairly entertaining 0-0 match, with chances squandered at 
both ends. One of the best moves was when Cantona put Giggs through in the 
penalty area with a gentle flick before Giggs picked out Keane with a simple 
cross, but the newly converted sweeper thumped the ball over. Gayle hit wide 
for Wimbledon, as did their keeper when Poborsky was mangled just outside the 
penalty box. Unlike the other United fans I know, I think Poborsky is cool. 
He hangs on to the ball too long, but there's something there that reminds me 
of the great Andrei Kanchelskis (grazie, Fiorentina!). Poborsky is more of a 
displaced central midfielder than a genuine winger, but like Kanchelskis he 
enjoys challenging his defender one-on-one, which is something I love to see.

In the second half McClair had a great chance but muffed his line - he tried to 
head the ball one foot in the air, instead of using one foot to put United ahead. 
In the end this scoreless game felt like disguising itself as a 1-1 draw. With a 
minute to go, United's brilliant left-back Dennis Irwin drove forward and 
nutmegged Vinnie Jones, before the ball was sent via Giggs and Solskjaer to 
Cantona on the left. The Imperious One took his time, picked out Paul Scholes's 
run in the penalty box, and turned in the cross for Scholes to head home. The 
crowd started singing "Que sera, sera", which is never a smart thing to do with 
a slim 1-0 lead. Sure enough, Wimbledon equalized in injury time when Robbie 
Earle headed in from a free-kick. "Que sera, sera", indeed.

After eight hours of TV, and about ten more to go, it was time for a brief 
return to that twilight zone known as "the real world". I visited my friend Nina, 
who sensibly insists on living without a TV. Imagine my surprise when it turned 
out she not only had the flu, but had just installed a television set and was 
hopelessly addicted. I'm telling you, "ironic" doesn't begin to describe the 

Sunday there were two more FA Cup matches, and first up was Newcastle United vs.
Nottingham Forest: title-chasers vs. relegation-battlers, spendthrifts vs. 
penny pinchers, the experienced Dalglish vs. the inexperienced Pearce, 
pyrotechnic offense & leaky defense vs. laughable offense & solid defense, a 
team out of form vs. a team on a roll. In the end it was the latter that 

60th miunte Poe M, "N'castle's generic goal": "Cross was pumped, Ferdinand 
jumped, heading thumped - Crossley stumped." Ape laws! But soon a signed again 
sigh lens, as things Gott verse, i.e. "N'castle's genetic gaol": "Peacock's 
feathers ruffled, the ball to Woan shuffled, two twists left Hislop baffled, 
Toon Army was then muffled." Dogleash shouted "Objection, y'r honor!", but the 
N'castle defenders just banged their gavels (oo-er!) and cried "Disorder in the 
court!". I.e. too won Forest: Bartman's clearance sale went bachwords not 
fourwords, Woan allowed one bounce and one bounce lonely, then let R.I.P. a 
stunning volley. _Real_ poetry.

In the wacky world of St. James's Park, you could say that Newcastle couldn't 
see the Forest for the trees. Or that Forest's bark is worse than Newcastle's 
bite. Or that Forest, with Stuart Pearce as player-manager, are going back to 
their roots. The preceding sentences are all poor variations over a single joke,
and the Newcastle back four operates in a similar fashion. Albert, Peacock, 
Barton, Beresford, Elliot, Watson - Kenny Dalglish can take four of these guys,
mix them with either Hislop or Srnicek, shake them all around, and he'll still 
only get a Newcastle defense. Class will out, but goals will in.

Next to Stamford Bridge for Chelsea against Liverpool. They had met in the League 
as recently as New Year's Day, with Chelsea winning 1-0 in a dreary encounter. 
The midfield had been strangled by the two team's 3-5-2 formations, and it was 
only in the last ten minutes that the game came alive. The question now was: 
would New Year's Day come twice in three weeks, or would we see the exciting 
game these teams are capable of? Answer:

10' 0-1 Fowler (tap in from Bjornebye's shot/low-cross) 
21' 0-2 Collymore (one-on-one with the keeper after a mistake by Zola & Newton)
H/T  -	Hughes, the renowned Liverpool opponent, comes on
50' 1-2	Hughes (low shot from the edge of the box after turning Wright)
58' 2-2	Zola (20-yard screamer after Hughes' aggressive tackle of Barnes) 
63' 3-2	Vialli (low shot past the keeper after Petrescu's beautiful through ball)
75' 4-2	Vialli (header from Zola's free-kick)

It was apparently the first time since 1964 that _any_ team had come back to 
beat Liverpool after going two goals down, so Hitchcock, Sinclair, LeBouef, 
Clarke, Petrescu, Newton, Di Matteo, Wise, Minto, Zola, Vialli, Hughes (& 
Gullit) - take a bow. The match was the type of timeless classic you can only 
see once. Watch it again, and you'll only see the tangible aspects of the game. 
The inexplicable half-time feeling that the game wasn't lost for Chelsea; the 
magical transformation brought by Hughes' controlled aggression; Chelsea being 
lifted by the crowd's passion; the constant danger that the tension might boil 
over; the sense of inevitably when Vialli put Chelsea ahead. These were the 
circumstances that raised the match from extraneous to extraordinary, and they 
could only be experienced once. 


"We're going to New Orleans, baby!". 

These sage words were uttered by every member of the Green Bay Packers and the New 
England Patriots after they clinched their places in this year's Super Bowl. The
NFL showpiece occasion was watched by an estimated world-wide audience of 800 
million, which seemingly makes it the largest annual sporting event in the world.
_800_ million - how on Earth did they arrive at such an outlandish figure? Does 
it include people who only who tuned in for a few minutes, or who only watched the 
half-time show? The expected number of American viewers was 128 million, while 
the actual figure was 128.9 million. This makes you first of all wonder whether 
people are that depressingly predictable, or whether the TV numbers have been 
doctored. In any case that leaves 650-700 million world-wide viewers to be 
accounted for, or roughly one in eight of the global population. You could expect 
_some_ interest in Canada and the English-speaking rugby world (UK, Australia, 
South Africa maybe), but I can't imagine that people were huddled around their 
TVs at odd hours in China, India, Nigeria, Italy, or Brazil. 

As to the event itself, I had some serious misgivings from last year. The 
match-up between the Steelers and the Cowgirls was highly entertaining, but I 
was put off by the overwhelmingly banal pre- and post-game hype, the endless 
stats and stupid graphics that were flashed during the game, the zillion 
commercial interruptions, the thirty minute wait for the second half to get on, 
the arrogance and inane posturing of the most of the players, and so on. 

The reason I still watched Super Bowl XXXI was that I am long-time fan of the 
New England Patriots. It started way back when I was, oh I don't know, eight 
years old or so, around 1979. We lived a few hours outside of Philadelphia, but
most of the kids either went for the Pittsburgh Steelers (the Pennsylvanian 
team that didn't suck) or the Dallas Cowboys ("America's team"). I thought the 
LA Rams were pretty OK, for reasons I have long since forgotten. Then one 
fateful Sunday afternoon, I saw the New England Patriots play at home against 
the Houston Oilers. The Patriots had this awesome QB named Steve Grogan, who 
masterminded them to a 23-0 half-time lead. By golly, here was a team that 
could satisfy my hunger for world domination! There was but one nagging doubt - 
what if the Rams were better? I needed parental guidance in this momentous 
decision, so I went out in the backyard to consult my Dad. Alas, it turned out 
he didn't have any strong opinions on the matter, so I followed my instincts 
and proudly swore allegiance to the Patriots! My new heroes swiftly proceeded 
to lose the game, 26-23. 

After moving to Norway in 1983 it was hard to keep track of the NFL. Out of 
nowhere the Patriots made it to the 1986 Super Bowl, where they faced da Bears. 
A friend of mine managed to get a video of the game, but it proved to be grim 
viewing. The Patriots were utterly demolished, 46-10. To top it all off the 
great Steve Grogan was merely the back-up quarter-back. Sniff!

Eurosport broadcast weekly NFL highlights in 1993, which meant frequent visits 
to people who had cable TV. AARRGGHH! The old red, white, and blue uniforms had 
been replaced by ghastly shades of gray! Also gone was the cool logo, a 1776 
rebel ready to hike the football. As part of the "image boost" the Patriots had
changed to the dynamic, tapered triangle design that half the NFL teams use 
(the Seahawks, the Vikings, the Jaguars, etc). Seeing as how players and coaches 
are little more than mercenaries who will switch teams at the drop of a million 
dollar check, it's hard not to agree with Jerry Seinfeld when he says that 
what you're really cheering for is the team's shirt. The logical conclusion of 
this is that when you change the uniform you change the team. My interest in 
the Patriots chilled to an all-time low.

This December I was stunned to find out they had actually won the AFC East. 
Ignoring my dislike of those souped-up uniforms, I unashamedly jumped back on 
the bandwagon, hitching a ride all the way to the Super Bowl. The only players 
I could name were Drew Bledsoe, Curtis Martin, and Otis "Big Play" Clay (whose 
only big play in the Super Bowl itself was to punch a wide receiver and get 
penalized 15 yards). I had no affinity with the team's uniform, nor even with 
the team's players, so the only thing I was really cheering for was the teams' 
name, "the New England Patriots".

TV3 sent the game for the ninth straight year, with play-by-play in Swedish and 
color commentary by expatriate Norwegian Jan Stenerud (the old Kansas City 
Chiefs kicker). BBC Radio 5 transmitted the game with American commentators, 
so I muted the TV and tuned in to the real thing. The constant commercial 
interruptions were happily no longer a factor. During the breaks the BBC guys 
would chat about the game, send over to New Zealand for live cricket up-dates, 
or play jazz records by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. 

Two of the commentators were named Todd Ant and Alton Byrd, the kind of names 
only zoologists or American sportscasters could have. They sounded like the 
Reduced Shakespeare Company (RSC) doing their gridiron football version of the 

"King John is in the clear! He's at the 35, the 30, the 25, the 20, the 15, the 
- oh, he's been poisoned on the 10-yard line! It looks like he's out for the 
game... Replacing him is # 72, King Lear... Wait, there's a penalty marker 
down... 'fictional character on the field'... King Lear is disqualified, and 
he's not happy about it."

For reasons best kept to himself, it wasn't until late in the 4th quarter that 
the Antman discovered that _both_ quarterbacks weren't named "Drew Bledsoe". 
One of them was, unfortunately, named "Brett Favre". The Green Bay quarterback 
is apparently something of a slow starter, or rather a wild starter, with a 
tendency to overthrow passes or get intercepted in the 1st quarter. The pre-game
gist of the RSC was that New England's hopes lied in getting off to their usual 
strong start and putting Favre under early pressure. Can you imagine, then, how 
down-heartening it was to see New England move the ball about six inches on 
their first possession, have Brett Favre throw a 50-yard TD pass on Green Bay's 
_second_ play of the game, and then watch Drew Bledsoe get picked off in his 
own territory? 10-0 Green Bay.

But who cares, as it merely proved to be the prologue to the highlight of the 
game. On their next possession, the Patriots moved the ball to around their own 
40-yard line. It was 3rd and 1, and the RSC stressed that the Pats had to "keep 
the drive-alive". If they were forced to punt, they faced the definitive 
prospect of going 17-0 down - midway through the first quarter. The game would 
have been dead and buried.

So they needed a first down.

Drew Bledsoe went back in the pocket. Nobody's open. The offensive line was 
giving him great protection - so great, in fact, that a huge vacuum developed 
to the left of him. Though Bledsoe is not what you would call a mobile 
quarterback, he could still _easily_ have picked up a few yards.

There's a scantily clad temptress of an open area in front of him, and the 
Patriots needed the first down.

But Drew said "Screw the safe option!" and threw a beautiful 60-yard pass that 
was caught at the 4-yard line. New England scored on the next play, but more 
importantly Bledsoe showed that he had the necessary self-belief, nerve, and 
will to win. And by the end of the 1st quarter the Patriots were in the lead 
14-10, from a 1-yard Bledsoe pass after interference had been called on the 
previous play. 

But that was it. Brett Favre effectively ended the game with an 80-yard TD 
pass and then later on an athletic scramble from two yards out, so that at 
half-time the Packers led 27-14. At the end of the third quarter Martin rushed 
20 yards for a Patriot TD, but my hopes lasted a mere 2 minutes and 17 seconds. 
This was the time that was needed for the sponsors to fool some of the people, 
the RSC to declare that "We've got a ball-game on our hands!", and Desmond 
Howard to take the ball-game _out_ of our hands with a 99-yard kickoff return. 
After a 2-point conversion it was 35-21. Then in an amazing 4th quarter, Drew 
Bledsoe threw 3 TD passes as the Patriots came back and... Actually, the Packers 
won 35-21, and either you know this or you don't care. Besides, it's been over 
a week, so why are you even reading this? Get a life!

Desmond Howard's 99-yard kick-off return was a Super Bowl record, in comparison 
with the previous record of 96-yards. Now, if the record in javelin throwing is 
96 yards, it makes sense to say that a throw of 99 yards is a new record, since 
99 > 96. But I ask you - what is the difference between a 99-yard kick-off 
return and a 96-yard kick-off return? Answer: The _only_ difference is that one 
kick-off landed three yards shorter than the other one! This so-called "Super 
Bowl record" illustrates the meaninglessness of all those facts and figures 
they bombard us with.

So it comes as no surprise that the game's overall stats are useless if we want 
to see why Green Bay won and New England lost. The main distinctions were that 
Green Bay rushed more, which could be expected, and that Bledsoe threw four 
interceptions, but two were at the end when the game was essentially lost. The 
banal explanation of the outcome seems to be that the Patriots were less 
successful than the Packers with their "big plays". On one third down, for 
example, Bledsoe faked a hand-off to the right before faking a hand-off to the 
left, and the Packers had no idea where the ball was. Bledsoe then passed to an 
open receiver - but the pass was incomplete, and the Patriots had to punt. The 
plan was brilliant, but the execution let them down.

While I completely ignored the pre-game hype this year, I somehow got sucked 
into watching the post-game clichés. "Oh man, I can't describe how it feels to 
win the Super Bowl". "It's all down to hard work, commitment, and team spirit 
[plus loads of money]". "We're finally the world champions! [What do the 
champions in Canadian, Australian, and Gaelic football call themselves?]". "I'm 
just proud of everyone in this organization". "We couldn't have done it without 
the fans [or the drugs]".

The more religiously inclined were keen to "thank the Lord" for the victory, as 
if God would actually care who won the Super Bowl. "High-level corruption? Yawn. 
Inner-city poverty? Snore. What - the Pack are 14-10 down?! Michael, get down 
there and do something about it!"

Then there were the countless references to the late Vince Lombardi, the 
legendary Packers coach whom the Super Bowl trophy is named after: "Vince, I 
know you're watching... this one is for you - your trophy's safe now", etc., 
etc. You can but wonder whether this seemingly omniscient figure was watching 
during some other, less glorious moments: when a linebacker took steroids, or a 
wide receiver snorted coke, or, even worse, when the team lost twice in a 
season to Tampa Bay.

The fans mainly dittoed what the players were saying. An exuberant Green Bay 
hick exclaimed: "Winning the Super Bowl - it's such a great feeling, I can't 
describe it. It's even better than 'you know what'!" No, I don't know what - 
milking a cow? spying on the neighbors? ogling jiggle-bounce sitcom babes? 
Sexed = vexed!

The Reduced Shakespeare Company had hyped up the Super Bowl's half-time show to 
such an extant that I actually gave it a look. It's not like The Fall or My 
Bloody Valentine are ever going to be invited to perform, so I figured that the 
Blues Brothers, ZZ Top, and James Brown were as good as it was ever going to get. 
I lasted about three minutes. 

So I wondered what I'd do in the mean time. For some reason I remembered 
something I had realized while in Athens: I knew who Socrates was, and how he 
died, before I knew who Jesus Christ was, and how he died. My parents weren't 
exactly religious fanatics, so I had only a vague notion about who JC was, 
knowing him chiefly from expressions such as "Jeee-zus!", "Jesus H. Christ!", 
etc. It was first during a book assignment in the spring of 1983 that I found 
out that he was this guy who claimed to be God's son, that he was nailed to a 
cross at Easter, and that he supposedly thereby redeemed our sins. As an aside 
note, it took me a few years to realize that God's original plan with sending 
his only son to Earth _wasn't_ to get him crucified.

Socrates had come to my attention a few months earlier, in the December 1982 
issue of "Games" magazine. During the half-time interval I rummaged through my 
closet, found that particular issue, and re-read the pulp fiction pastiche "The 
Hemlock Kiss-Off". Sledge Hammer, time-traveling private eye, gets sent back to
399 BC Athens to find out the real story behind Socrates' death. Hammer 
discovers that Socrates was actually acquitted of the impiety charges, but the 
philosopher gets poisoned during a symposium - and the prime suspects are 
Xanthippe, Alcibiades, Hippias, and Plato. "'Did anyone inform the police?' 
'The _polis_? Sure, the whole city knows about it.'... I looked out across the 
slumbering street and realized once again that history is a sewer that flows 
from the past to the present. Sometimes you need a plumber's helper like me to 
unclog it.". With great stuff like this, who needs a classical education?

In his dialogues, the real Plato expressed his so-called Theory of Forms in 
different guises. One variant orders objects in a four-tiered hierarchy: 
shadows, real objects, abstract models, and eternal ideas, the only true 
reality, of which the other forms are but pale imitations. At that early hour 
in the morning, it struck me that the weekend's football matches reflected this:

1. Australia vs. Norway: a shadowy glimpse of what football is about - a playing 
field, a ball, two sets of players, three match officials, and some fans.

2. United vs. Wimbledon: a football match - two teams who at times played 
attractive football, a packed stadium, and an external context that made the 
game meaningful (the FA Cup). However, an unfamiliar 5-2-3 formation was in 
place of the "real" Manchester United, and the 1-1 draw meant that nothing was 

3. Newcastle vs. Forest: a decisive football match - full-strength teams, a 
sell-out crowd, a spectacular goal, and a definite, meaningful result (Newcastle 
denied yet another trophy, Forest kept up their good run).

4. Chelsea vs. Liverpool: the genuine, beautiful article - two attack-minded 
teams, brilliant individual skills, a passionate crowd, a breathtaking comeback, 
and a result that will be remembered for a long time. This is a game that is 

In the Platonic scheme of things I'd say the NFL is a false idea, or unreality: 
"teams" are really business franchises, televised games are little more than 
commercials interrupted by some football, drugs are a major problem, the 
mercenaries (a.k.a. players) act like they come from another planet, etc. It 
may be because I grew up with it, but I personally think that the basic concept 
of American football is an exciting one. There are a variety of plays and 
strategies, the system of four downs gives a team many tactical options, and 
the field position roughly indicates how close a team is to scoring. The points 
system adds to the excitement, since for instance a team that is down by three 
can either tie the game with a field goal or go ahead with a touchdown (unlike 
soccer, where a losing team must equalize before they can win). On the other 
hand, it's  too complicated to become a world sport, and there is little room 
for individual brilliance. Some players are obviously better than others, but 
American football is based solely on collective performance. Why else would 
every single NFL coach talk about "team effort" and "hard work" and "commitment" 
and refer to the team as "the organization"?

Soccer, on the other hand, encompasses both collective _and_ individual 
brilliance, a multitude of culturally influenced styles, and a variety of skills 
and player-types. It is simple enough to be played by anyone, anytime, anywhere. 
An Indian expression states that "chess is a jar that a mosquito can drink from 
and an elephant can bathe in", and I think the same applies to soccer.