This is dedicated to all those football people who, either for work or family obligations, have asked themselves the question: Is it ever okay to miss a big game?
Back in May of 2005, I found myself in Connecticut singing with a choir at a Jewish cantor's convention (don't ask) during the Liverpool-AC Milan final in Istanbul. This sort of thing happens to me a lot; I get offers for this and that, I put dates into my datebook, only to find out a few weeks later I've made a date to sing Handelian solos on the day of the World Cup final (this has never yet happened—thank god—but I came mighty close to doing something similar for this year's final in July).
But missing the CL final that year in particular was heartbreaking because I had already watched all the available Champions League group stage matches aired live on TSN (our ESPN), and indeed every single available round of sixteen matches plus the quarterfinals and semifinals of that tournament, a feat I have yet to repeat (ah, those Montreal "weekdays"). I had established an emotional connection to the outcome of the final, which would be kicking off about the same time I'd be wandering around a Champions League-less (ESPN 1 showed fucking baseball during the CL final) hotel in New Haven, eating my body weight in smoked salmon.
Before leaving for Connecticut, I had asked a regular job friend to tape the game on his VCR on the agreement I would I could pick it up as soon as I returned (how quaint that all seems now a mere five years later). Driving back to Montreal the morning after the missed final, I was pretty tense. Most of the drive through upstate New York was fine, but as the Montreal's electronic billboards came into view I struggled to keep my eyes forward. I had already begged my fellow passengers not to listen to the radio, and now I had to find a way to make to my friend's office, pick up the tape, and make it home without happening upon the scoreline.
All of which I managed to do, except for a minor slip up. As I got on the subway with the tape of the game in hand, the result of which the owner had thankfully given no clues, my eyes grazed past a cover of the Montreal Gazette sitting on a subway newsstand. It was just long enough to get the impression of a photograph with some vertical shapes in red against a green backdrop. Instantly, my brain filled in the blank. "Liverpool won." And just as instantly, the alternative theory: "Liverpool lost, and lost tragically." I had already known the Rossoneri would be wearing white for that game, and so I knew now that whatever the result, the game narrative primarily involved the team from Merseyside.
As I watched the first half of the final in the early Thursday afternoon, witnessing Liverpool getting utterly trounced by Ancelotti's side 3-0 on the stroke of half time, I had already guessed the Gazette photo had been the standard one of players standing around abject as the other side celebrated. There wasn't really any point in my watching the rest of the game.
Now this is the part of the story that I still shudder remembering to this day. As ESPN cut to the scrunched potato that is Tommy Smyth's head, I was about a moment away from just fast forwarding the thing to the end and leaving to buy that Gazette and have a cappuccino. I felt smug in the knowledge I could use my powers in this one instance to cheat the normal human restrictions of time and space. After all, I had dutifully watched the first forty-five minutes of a game that had I along with everyone else assumed was over when Crespo dinked in the third Milan goal; why not just skip to the celebrations?
In fact the only thing that prevented me from pressing stop, fast forward, and play—which would have probably put me somewhere just north of extra-time on the 3-3 draw and led to me throwing the TV out the window—was the amount of trouble I had already gone through to avoid the result.
Well, the amazing thing though is I am convinced I wouldn't have bothered to stay and watch had I witnessed it live.
I know you don't believe me—it was the Champions League final after, who cares if it was 10-0?—but football can be a cruel beast and sometimes it's just best for you to leave it and walk away, alone, when it's all fallen to pieces. I wasn't writing a blog then, I was still drugged on the atmosphere from the Chelsea semifinal at Anfield, I hate it when the underdog loses, and I was poor. I'm sure I would have asked for the bill and left.
Later on I met several people who said they left home at half time, did some errands, and stopped off to buy a coffee at the local cafe in time to witness Dudek saving Shevchenko's point blank extra time strike. Under normal circumstances, that would have been me, but instead I sat in my empty apartment on a Thursday afternoon, determined to watch through the whole damn thing as a homage to my labours, bemused when Gerrard scored, incredulous when Smicer's lazy diagonal strike beat Didi's grasp, and annoying my downstairs neighbours (does anyone work in Montreal?) jumping up and down the carpet when Xabi scored and almost had his neck sliced open when Milan Baros grabbed his shirt from behind, twenty-four hours after it had all already happened.
I will never forget that final, partly because how incredible it was, but mostly because by not seeing it, I was able to actually see it. The one time I had the will power to persevere and avoid scorelines, avoid friends, avoid phonecalls, the newspaper, email, the Internet, to avoid looking in the box to see if the cat was still alive—and I ended up with something more authentic than the thing-in-itself.