The European soccer season comes to a climax tonight in Rome when Europe crowns a champion. And after a season of odd bounces and iffy officiating, fans have a dream final between two teams capable of transcendent soccer—English champion Manchester United and Spanish champion Barcelona.
But yesterday, the final Sunday of Premier League play, transcendence was hardly the focal point. Rather survival was.
The top of the league has been settled for a while, with the big four—Man U, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal—once again securing the four English spots in the Champions League.
The drama, however, was most compelling at the bottom of the standings.
Newcastle United, a Premier League power early in the decade, has declined steadily in recent years. This season, one final loss and it would be relegated to the English League Championship, which is fancy Brit talk for the minor leagues.
For a team already in deep financial trouble, this would mean a huge loss—namely, some million dollars a week in TV revenues that accrue to the 20 teams in the elite division. But to the passionate Newcastle fans, it threatened something even worse—an emotional blow equivalent to the economic devastation that has been visited upon the northeast region of England.
Early last month, recognizing this potential denouement, Newcastle turned to a local hero, Alan Shearer, who as a player had rescued the team innumerable times over the space of a decade. A Newcastle native and former captain of the English side, Shearer—dressed in the black and white—made the Newcastle goal as celebrated as the Newcastle coal. His 260 scores, first with Blackburn then with Newcastle, stand as a Premier League record—a whopping 73 more than any other player in league history.
But at 38 and three years retired following a serious knee injury, Shearer is no longer capable of helping the team as a player. Newcastle's last hope was that just having Shearer on the sidelines as coach would inspire the team to compete with—if not the same level of skill—the same grit and ferocity, and so help salvage the season.
There is an American sports maxim, mostly heard in baseball, that great players don't make great coaches and managers. The notion is that the game came easier to them and thus they can't relate to the struggles of the average player and may not be quite as attentive to strategic detail as those less gifted.
Soccer has produced some notable exceptions. But, of late, the maxim has been dead on. Bayern Munich fired Juergen Klinsmann, the great German striker, as its manager after the team faltered in the Bundesliga and suffered an embarrassing exit from Champions League. (His successor, Louis van Gaal, rallied Bayern Munich but the team still fell short, finishing second behind upstart Wolfsburg.)
And then there is Diego Maradona, the legendary Argentine who was the bizarre choice to take over as coach of his country's national team. (One blog, FANIQ, greeted Maradona's selection with the headline: "This Should End Well: Argentina Hires Fat, Debt-Ridden Cocaine Addict As Their National Soccer Coach.") After only two games, many fans and journalists were calling for Maradona's head. In one of those games, Argentina was thrashed 6-1 by Bolivia—a performance that seemed to reflect Maradona's lack of discipline off the field far more than his talents on it.
Shearer didn't appear to provide any lift either, as Newcastle continued its plunge. In the seven games after he took over, his team has won just once, over lowly relegation-bound Middlesbrough, and had demonstrated none of Shearer's scoring instincts, with but a single goal in those other six games combined.
So on Sunday, Newcastle traveled to Birmingham with absolutely everything at stake. Newcastle required an unlikely parlay to stave off relegation: a rare road win (or possibly a tie) against a strong, but, of late, struggling Aston Villa team as well as an unhappy result for either Hull City or Sunderland, both of which were at home playing league powerhouses, Man U and Chelsea respectively.
Both Hull City and Sunderland cooperated by losing their matches. And Newcastle did manage to score a goal; unfortunately it was an own goal, which accounted for the lone score in its 1-0 loss. The team, indeed the city, will have to claw its way back next season if it hopes to play in the Premier League again.
I only got to see Alan Shearer compete live once and it proved to be one of the most ignominious games of his celebrated career. Harassed by Leicester City's pesky Neil Lennon, Shearer spilled him and added a boot to the head for good measure. The ref looked the other way and the Football Association never punished him—Shearer would later apologize and insist it looked worse on video than it really was—but there was a huge outcry. For a while it looked like Shearer might be forced to relinquish his English captaincy.
Sunday, however, was the worst of all days. And I have no doubt Shearer would gladly accept the scorn of English fans, if he could have only returned home to Newcastle with his team still a fixture in the Premier League.