Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

No sooner is it Saturday and there goes the nutter, rambling about his obsession for football yet again. It isn’t hard to imagine such observations from people around me, especially the ones who’ve grown to know me all too well. And as football hibernates for three agonizing months after today’s FA Cup decider between Everton and Chelsea (which Chelsea won 2–1), and as symptoms of football withdrawal kick in, I couldn’t help but write something about an obsessed football fan’s account I finished reading today.

I laugh at the thought of labelling myself an obsessive. If I’m a Manchester United fanatic by merely restricting my view to a measly television box or an Internet location streaming live games from halfway across the world, and concerning my sense of gratification with a team’s exploits that I have never witnessed in person, then Nick Hornby is nothing short of an all-knowing guru (and by that same analogy, most of Britain a land riddled with soccer-snuffing, foul-mouthed addicts). He’s someone who has seen it all—home, away, and at neutral territory (a feat I can only dream of)—as an ardent supporter of Arsenal his entire life and lived to recount his tale firsthand in the gripping football memoir, Fever Pitch.

The book is a fascinating extract of Hornby’s fixation with football and all-things Arsenal. Right from the moment he went to attend his very first game at Highbury (the original hallowed turf, today’s Emirates Stadium is just an imitation) to the dull nil–nil draw against Aston Villa in the post-Championship winning season of ’90-91, a performance that epitomized the under-achieving, boring Arsenal he grew up to love, Fever Pitch has all that and more. The abundance of heartbreak that comes with the territory of a sports fanatic, those rare moments of sporting triumph catalyzing tumultuous fan euphoria (and erasing memories of all past shoddiness), and most importantly the inner turmoil of a fan coming to grips with his obsession—Hornby captures the quintessential football fanatic and relives his life not in years but in seasons. And with a good bit of humour, too.

Seventeen years after it was first published, it will be fair to say that Arsenal’s fortunes have changed since Hornby penned down his essays that comprise Fever Pitch. But a recent five-year streak in the Premier League’s wilderness, with no silverware to boast of, Arsenal might have re-entered the barren mould Hornby grew up watching. The book is still a hit, though, and a must read for anyone loosely interested in football and the emotions it evokes.

Originally published: May 30, 2009

Football Sports

A Catalan fairytale

Ah, well, a disappointing end to the season. Manchester United went to Rome with great expectations and a chance to create history. Barcelona had a similar agenda, trying to be the first Spanish club to win the treble. With the La Liga title and Copa del Rey already in the bag, they capped off a fairytale finish to a historic fortnight by winning the Champions League final in Rome 2–0, and, in the process, thoroughly outplaying their opponents. The prospect of making history proved too much for United on the night.

It wasn’t a vintage United performance by any means. Apart from a cracking start in the opening ten minutes of the game, they conceded a soft goal against the run of play and never recovered from that initial blow. Samuel Eto’o went past Vidic far too easily and beat Edwin Van der Sar—despite getting a touch on the ball—at his near post. Panic set in, far too many passes went astray, and we never had much possession. Ronaldo was the only United player who provided a few sparks on an otherwise forgettable night.

Having said that, I don’t want to take anything away from Barcelona’s performance. They were simply spectacular on the night, making life difficult for United’s stars to flourish. Much was made of their depleted back line, and United’s stellar pair of Ferdinand and Vidic were expected to be the telling difference between the two sides. And in a way they were, only opposite to expectations. Apart from a few half chances, United never really posed a goal threat, and I don’t remember Victor Valdes—the Barcelona goalie—ever making a save throughout the game. On the other hand, Barcelona’s attacking prowess was a treat to watch. Henry, Eto’o, and Messi—the holy trinity—hovered around United’s penalty box like hungry scavengers, and Iniesta and Xavi constantly kept feeding them with an endless supply of passes. The second goal, a brilliant header from Lionel Messi, where he seemed to be airborne forever, underlined Barcelona’s overall supremacy in the game. The scoreline could’ve been 4–0 but for a couple of very good saves from VDS.

What went wrong for United? The tactic of playing Rooney on the left flank just didn’t work, as he was severely under-used and failed to make any impact. He should’ve partnered Ronaldo as the second striker, and Fergie realized this a touch too late. The crucial difference between the two teams was the midfield, in my opinion. Barcelona’s pair of Iniesta and Xavi were unstoppable and almost telepathic in their passing, while their United counterparts in Giggs and Carrick completely lacklustre. They gave too many balls away far too easily, and United never really came to the party, forced to chase the game by Barcelona.

They were well and truly outplayed on the night, and the players accepted the fact at the final whistle. Not a tear was shed, their faces shell-shocked more than anything else. Fergie had a melancholy look on his face. Personally, it was sad not to see United lift the trophy, but Barcelona were deserving winners on the night. And as Carlos Puyol lifted the most coveted trophy in European football, even Fergie couldn’t help but stand and applaud the new European Champions.

Congratulations to Barcelona! I would’ve enjoyed the game a lot more had I not been tense with nervous anticipation for the whole length of it. Pep Guardiola deserves every accolade in his favour, delivering a season that is nothing short of magical for a rookie manager. Lionel Messi was better than Ronaldo on the night, and his goal was a true masterclass. I should also mention the solid performance of Gerard Pique in defence, his was simply outstanding, and obviously thrilled for winning the trophy twice in two years with two different teams—he was a United player until last season, if any of you don’t know.

Knowing Manchester United, they’ll bounce back after this defeat. They always do. Until next season then, aye?

Originally published: May 28, 2009

Cricket Football Sports

Foot over Bat anyday!

A thankful break from a monotonous Sunday evening—which usually begins with an abrupt end to extended siestas, closely followed by EPL’s Super Sunday (minus John Dykes’ prematch sound bytes), only to conclude with open-ended conversations with online friends, deep into the night—I found myself skipping my habitual weekend football fodder, getting dragged into witnessing the IPL Twenty20′s finale between Deccan Chargers and Bangalore Royal Challengers instead.

Was I excited? Not really. I was looking forward to a cosy evening with some good friends more than anything else. To be honest, this was the first game I watched in IPL’s 2009 season. While sitting in the stands, witnessing the first test between India and Australia, back in last October, I remember being all amped up over the prospect of watching some of Royal Challengers’ home games at the Chinnaswamy. I wasn’t prejudiced against watching the IPL from the beginning, just felt disappointed and robbed over the tournament’s hosting in South Africa.

When I ended up at my friend’s place, who was kind enough to host the evening’s get-together, I was looking forward to some good cricket. Food and drinks accompanied the festive spirit (Go Challengers!), much to my surprise; and with likeminded sports-loving, couch- and beanbag-hugging maniacs, what else did they mean in the “Watching the game, having a Bud” adverts? Perfect setting. All the game needed to do was match the expectations.

Deccan were asked to bat by Kumble, whose second-ball dismissal of Gilchrist was flukely predicted by yours truly, moments before the delivery, and followed by an uncontrolled tizzy immediately after. But that was all the excitement as far as cricket was concerned. The rest of the game was hopelessly lackadaisical, and failed to keep my attention. And others around me felt much the same—in varying degress, of course—peeling their eyes off the television screen, allowing themselves to get distracted easily—whether it was a song, a joke, or the long line of adverts that filled gaps between overs.

At some point, I realized that curtains were also falling on the current Premier League season, and that United were away at Hull City—who still weren’t completely safe from relegation—fielding a reserve team, with both eyes firmly set on Wednesday and Barcelona at Rome. I later found out they won the match 1-0 despite fielding a weak team, and that Hull were safe. Weird not to see a football game on its last weekend.

But as I left for home past midnight, watching Akon lip-sync his own number at the Wanderers, I couldn’t help thinking—what if we had switched sports, opting to watch football instead of cricket? Somehow I get the feeling it wouldn’t have been such a bad proposition, and Blueberry—my new best friend—seemed to agree.

Note to self: try to convert your friends into watching more football.

Originally published: May 26, 2009

Bengaluru Places

Dinner at Zoe’s

It finally happened this week. A canopy of clouds—menacing and full of purpose—gathered out of nowhere, overshadowing the sun. Only this time they weren’t kidding around, delivering on their promise. The wind picked up, out rolled the thunder, flashes of light ignited, and the dam in the sky finally broke. For about a couple of hours, on two successive days, there was hardly any respite from the rain pounding on rooftops. Muddy pools of water sprouted all over the place; the gutters overflowed, overwhelmed and unable to contain that leak in the sky. And just like that, the monsoon had arrived. Despite my wardrobe’s complaints over the weather, I couldn’t be bothered. I was too happy soaking it all in.

The merciless shower led to an unintended discovery. Homesick and hungry, and trapped after work, late Tuesday night, a couple of friends and I escaped to where we all felt instantly at home: a restaurant-cum-cafe called Zoe’s. The prospect of choosing my first Italian meal, through the endless list of mouthwatering dishes, proved too much for my appetite. While sipping some hot cappuccino, I settled for a plate of spaghetti bolognese and some good conversation, watching the raindrops trickle away into the night. Had my first glass of cherry coke there as well, along with a customary dollop of ice cream melting over a chocolate brownie for dessert. Heaven!

Great food, good ambience, and prompt service, on a cosy, rain-slicked night—with Zoe’s, it was love at first sight.

Originally published: May 23, 2009

Football Sports

Coronation at Old Trafford

Coronation day couldn’t have been better. There was a sprinkling of sun, a brief downpour, and in classic Manchester United fashion the team tortured the faithfuls to no end before delighting with a moment to cherish and savour. The Mancunians were ecstatic not only for the third premier league crown in as many years, but United drew level with Liverpool’s historic all-time record of 18 titles in England’s top division. Sir Alex Ferguson notching up a phenomenal 11th title in his 23rd season in charge. His family attended the presentation ceremony; one of his grandsons proudly kissing the United crest on his jersey, throwing caution to the wind much like Gary Neville would in front of the Liverpool supporters.

After a comfortable derby win against Mark Hughes’ Manchester City, last weekend, and a last-gasp win against Steve Bruce’s Wigan Athletic midweek, United needed just one point to clinch the title against the visiting Arsenal at Old Trafford. The Gunners played fluently with hardly any hint of pressure, having cemented 4th place in the table, dominating the game throughout. On a day that didn’t warrant their best performance, and in a way that has defined their defence of the title this season, United got the job done with a goalless draw. Not without trying, though, as Rooney and Ronaldo came close to hitting the back of the net.

But goals were hardly what the 76,000 assembled longed for. In all their past successes, United had won the title at Old Trafford only once in the historic treble-winning season of ’98-’99. Ten years is a sore trial for the loyal supporter who throngs the Theatre of Dreams every weekend, ten-months-a-year. Little wonder then at the final whistle when a roar resounded throughout the ground to spark the celebrations. As they emerged onto the pitch to receive the trophy, the players and staff couldn’t wipe the broad smiles off their face, having played their part in the historic scenes in front of their own supporters to behold. Gary Neville went on to describe the current squad of players as the best to have graced the club. I think he will be proved right with victory over Barcelona in the Champions League Final on May 27.

However, Carlos Tevez surely seems to have called it a day at the club, bidding farewell to the capacity crowd who gave him a standing ovation as he left the pitch midway through the second half. That was the only blemish on an otherwise vintage Old Trafford mood. The joy and revel in the club’s achievement, a hunger and desire conveyed by the manager to build on the success. This isn’t the pinnacle just yet, said the boss.

But future exploits are for another day; for one day they all basked in glory. Celebrating with friends and family on the pitch, enjoying a hard-fought title race. And even as Gary Neville lifted the trophy above his head, the champagne fountains were overflowing in the streets, cementing United’s position as the undisputed kings of English football.

With success in Europe to look forward to, there’s little doubt where all the focus is now shifted. They won the premier league and champions league double last season, who’s to say they can’t do it again this time? Victory in Rome will forever etch the name of this United team as one of the best to have ever graced the game. Bring on Barcelona.

Originally published: May 17, 2009

Football Sports

Mayhem at the Bridge

The two semifinal second-legs played in London over the past couple of days couldn’t be more contrasting. If United were clinical in their performance at The Emirates on Tuesday — maximum damage with minimum fuss, an explosive finish was in store for the cliffhanger at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea and Barcelona squared off to decide who deserved to meet Manchester United in the final at Rome.

The game had a little bit of everything: a brilliant display from Chelsea, an out-of-sorts and depleted Barcelona’s never-say-die attitude, two outstanding goals, controversy, shock, disbelief, and unbridled joy. In the end, Barcelona went through on the away goals rule, as the match finished 1-1. Andres Iniesta sending the Catalan dugout in manic frenzy with his inury-time leveller to cancel out Essien’s early left-foot volley.

That wasn’t the end of the drama on a controversial night as Chelsea were denied four penalty claims (two of which they deserved) by the Norwegian referee. Chelsea felt robbed and unduly penalized, and Drogba, who was subbed earlier in the game, emerged in his flip-flops onto the pitch, shouting obscenities at the referee and the television cameras. The scene was shocking and totally unconceivable from a professional footballer, and the Chelsea bench had a hard time restraining him. Although Drogba threatened a lot, only Ballack came closest to smacking poor old Ovrebo. Terry, Lampard, and coach Guus Hiddink, all voiced their disappointment over the sub-standard refereeing, and I think they were right in doing so.

I like watching good football, irrespective of the teams that are involved, and Chelsea played really well and were unfortunate to not progress through to the final. And Drogba losing his cool, and doing what he did in front of the referee, sadly, took the spotlight away from the good football Chelsea produced against Barcelona.

It would’ve been a special night in Rome to see United lock horns with Chelsea again. Would Terry redeem himself? A question we’ll have to wait for another year to answer.

Originally published: May 9, 2009

Football Sports

Rome awaits!

Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United

What a match! One of those old gems in the pantheon of European matches which you eagerly look forward to, and where all the hype and buzz surrounding two massive clubs actually lives up to its prematch expectations. Manchester United put on a devastating display of football against Arsenal at The Emirates, and emerged comprehensive 3-1 winners thanks to goals from Ji-Sung Park and Cristiano Ronaldo.

First half: Before the kickoff, the mood inside The Emirates was one to behold. The massive crowd was singing, chanting, and waving the Gunners’ flag. The atmosphere was electric, and what an encouraging scene for the players to walk into. Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s manager, had adamantly proclaimed his young team had the mettle to turn around a one-goal deficit from the previous leg to knock United out of the competition. And his prediction seemed valid for the first seven minutes of the game. Arsenal took the game by the scruff of its neck, playing at a fever pitch in the early minutes of the game, and completely dominating Manchester United. But an unfortunate slip by Kieran Gibbs, as he tried to check his run inside Arsenal’s box, dropped the ball at Park’s feet and the South Korean coolly finished it past Almunia into the back of the net. Arsenal were shell-shocked, conceding the goal against run of play. But United were well and truly away at this point.

If the first goal dropped decibels level in the stadium, then Ronaldo’s screamer of a freekick from 41-yards struck the crowd dumb! Ronaldo unleashed a thunderbolt from the right side of the pitch, leaving Almunia beaten at his near post. The Arsenal faithfuls couldn’t believe what had just happened. Credit to Ronaldo for the strike, but a goalie of Almunia’s class should’ve done better. Arsenal were disappointingly out of sorts at home and lacked the spark in their passing gameplay; despite Robin van Persie’s return to the team, they never posed a threat to Van der Sar’s goal.

Second half: If Arsenal thought the break would upset United’s rhythm they couldn’t have been more wrong. The Mancunians continued to dominate and create enough problems in Arsenal’s half to pose a goal threat. It didn’t take long for them to net in their third on the night, in what was clearly a brilliant display of counter attacking football. Vidic headed clear Arsenal’s corner and Ronaldo darted back from the half-line to retrieve it, deep into United’s half,  and flicked it to Ji-Sung Park, who threaded a clinical pass over to Rooney who was breaking away on the left wing. Rooney unselfishly passed the ball back into Arsenal’s box and found Ronaldo who toed the ball into the net. Arsenal had the wind knocked out of their sails, and had to settle for a consolation by van Persie, when Fletcher was wrongly sent off by the Italian referee for bringing down Fabregas in the United box.

Although I’m delighted for United who booked a consecutive final’s spot, I feel for the lad, though; Fletcher who’s been an inspiration this season, backing up his commendable work ethic with form on the pitch. He will be missed in the final at Rome. Let’s hope the rest of the guys win it for him!

Originally published: May 7, 2009


Titan Quest: Immortal Throne

Point-n-click action RPG returns with a vengeance, folks! That’s right. After a self-enforced hiatus from both PC and console gaming, the stars aligned favorably and twinkled me a “thumbs up” a few nights ago, as I embarked on this virtual odyssey into ancient Greece, a mythical and mysterious land. Titan Quest: Immortal Throne is an expansion pack to the original Titan Quest of 2006, and an immersive game, one that I’m really enjoying playing at the moment. That’s been my preoccupation for this weekend and my overstressed (and complaining!) right carpal tunnel bears testimony to the fact.

Although strictly an RTS, EA’s The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II was the last RPG-like game I played way back in May 2005. Like all good RPGs, Titan Quest has a sense of occasion to itself; not to mention its foundation in Greek mythology, combined with your in-game character’s tendency of reckless adventure, sets an exciting mood for the game.

Gameplay comprises of the uncomplicated, classic point-n-click (just point mouse anywhere on the screen to advance your character in that direction) and hack-n-slash (click on an enemy to ensue combat) style of action. For a two-year old game, I think the graphics are pretty neat. In-game physics is a little suspect, what with your character passing through bodies of deceased foes on the ground, but nothing blatantly ridiculous. But these tiny blemishes are seldom noticeable once you are caught up in the frenzied gameplay, of which there is at least 50 hours guaranteed. You can build and equip your character with a variety of skills and powers. I’m playing primarily as a warrior, but my secondary ability is to achieve mastery in the use of thunderbolts; magic, in other words. And believe me, you’re going to need magic as you advance further in the game. Picking the right blend of abilities will set your character apart, and decide how you fare on the long, arduous road to the finish.

This is how it begins: The Gods have overthrown the aging Titans from their seat of power, and there’s peace and harmony in all lands. But the Gods have decided to leave earthly affairs for humans (mortals) to dwell over — and all hell breaks loose! The lands are in despair as a dark force rises from the underworld, ravaging, burning, tormenting, destroying everything in its wake. In these unforgiving times, a hero takes upon himself the task to find and challenge the root of this evil, and rid the world of its menace once and for all. And this quest takes him beyond Greece, to lands far and wide, and ultimately into Hades’ very stronghold.

On the way, you’ll come face to face with monsters unimaginable, and accomplish tasks unthinkable for a mere mortal. But that is your destiny, if you embark upon Titan Quest. May the gods be with you!

Much appreciation to the developers at Iron Lore Entertainment for bringing out Titan Quest. Sadly, as of January 2008, they ceased all active game development projects.

Originally published: May 3, 2009

Football Sports

Business as usual

Premiership weekend’s always a dodgy affair, especially after midweek Champions League matches. Key players need to be rested, bench warmers have to stand up to the occasion, and everyone hopes (with their fingers crossed) that the team doesn’t pay dearly for wholesale changes.

No problems for Man Utd, comfortable 2-0 winners over Middlesbrough. Giggs and Ji-Sung Park scoring the goals on either side of the half. Chelsea and Arsenal, too, won their respective games rather comfortably. Arsenal in particular made eight changes to the side that lost to Man Utd on Wednesday. Liverpool are also in command of their game against relegation-threatened Newcastle, leading 2-0 as I write this.

It’s business as usual for the top four in the Premiership. United are still six points clear of Liverpool, with five games to go.

Next stop: Champions League semifinal second leg against Arsenal at the Emirates.

Originally published: May 3, 2009