13 June 2008

Senderos, salt-tears and Switzerland: how I found my team to follow in the Euros when it was too late

Funny how it happens. You're sat on your couch watching the latest kickaround in the 2008 Premier League Trade Fair...I mean, match at the European Championships. You have no allegiance towards either team, and though the game is not especially pretty, you have been mightily impressed by both teams' positive attitude, which has turned a match you were wary of watching beforehand into one you're thankful to have caught. Despite, or because of, both teams' urgent need to win, they're locked at 1-1, but in stoppage time, a long-range shot deflects off a defender's leg and loops over the goalkeeper. It's then that you discover that you're not neutral after all - you have fallen in love and had your heart broken at once.

I wasn't prepared for this. Switzerland? Why? How? They're that plain girl you know to say 'hi' to but never engage in conversation, who's just kind of there; it's easy to imagine life without her, because you never think of her anyway. By what perversity have I come to feel bereft at her leaving?

In truth, it was creeping up on me, starting with Alexander Frei's tears on Saturday. Injuries happen in sport, of course; if you watch for long enough, you'll see so many that you become de-sensitised. But there was something about this one that got to me. Leading his country in his country, in the biggest game of his life, and it turns out the fates were just screwing with his mind: allowing him to get comfortable with the whole situation for forty minutes or so before popping up round the corner, clad in black, and bashing him in the knee with a lead pipe. And as his tears flowed, I found myself looking away from the screen; it was genuinely uncomfortable watching the man's hopes leach away.

Some old-fashioned love for the plucky underdog came into play. Switzerland are one of the poorest technical teams in the tournament, and their lack of flair is embodied by that wretched Puma kit they wear. But they went for it. They actually subscribed to this antiquated notion that a team should actually try to score, to win a game rather than waiting for the other team to lose. Now, circumstances no doubt dictated this (chasing down a deficit against the Czechs, having little option but to win against Turkey if they were to survive in the competition). Still, some teams struggle to grasp this idea in similar circumstances. The difference between my expectations of the Swiss and what they actually did beguiled me.

I can't remember if Kobi Kuhn always had that distant look about him. He's like a movie character (played by Jack Lemmon) who has been visited by tragedy, watching his life being picked apart before him with quiet bemusement, edging dangerously towards resignation. You worry about what will happen to him after the credits roll.

And then there's Philippe Senderos. My relationship with Senderos is complex. As a Gooner, he's one of us. He comes across as a genuinely likeable man: a well-read footballer who is sensitive to the world outside the bubble, who goes out of his way to help new young teammates to settle into their changed situations. But I still wince slightly when his name appears on the team-sheet, as I do when an opposition forward bears down on him, or when he has the ball at feet and is lining up a threaded pass through a crowded midfield. I so badly want him to do well, but each time I see him play I become less convinced about his ability.

And yet, and yet...you know he cares deeply about how he plays. He tries. He wants to succeed for his colleagues, his manager and the fans. He is proud, but not egotistically so. Still, he is regarded as a weak link, and many Arsenal fans will be happy to see him leave this summer, which is highly possible. Understandable, too, given some of his performances, most notably against Liverpool where he was blamed for Fernando Torres' goal. But why do I feel defensive about him when he faces such criticism, however justified? Why was the most heartbreaking story of last season the fact that he took defeat so badly in that game that he was given time off work? Why do I feel like this about Senderos and not about, say, Gilles Grimandi?

Maybe it's his face. Sure, at first glance he looks like Vincent Cassel in La Haine: say the wrong thing and he'll pull out that cop's gun he found and hold it to your temple. But look again and you see someone who looks to be on the verge of tears, and not "I'm a footballer who's just missed a penalty" tears either. It's more like a small boy upon whom it's just dawning that he's lost in a bustling city street. I think it brings out the big brother (with lower case b's) instinct in me.

I want Senderos to stay at Arsenal next season, and I want him to have at least one great game, in the latter stages of the Champions League, say, where he turns in a display of Paul McGrath proportions; one game to go down in Arsenal history. And I want him to lead Switzerland on to the knockout stages of...

...oh yeah. Forgot about that.

Is this some sort of complex, falling in love with the patient as the life-support machine flatlines? It doesn't seem healthy. Maybe it's a function of my team not making it through the qualifiers several times in a row - I have to find someone else to put me through the wringer. Maybe there's just something wrong with my hormones...hey, listen to me go on; you're the expert, Doc, you tell me what's wrong.


Steve 16/6/08 10:10 PM  

I had some sentiment going Switzerland's way, too. Lady Luck was not kind to an underdog host that might have deserved better.

I see what you mean about Senderos. That furrowed brow and the deep set to his downward pointing crescent-moon eyes makes him seem particularly prone to tears. It strikes me that his problems at Arsenal started when he was given that big jersey to fill -- the famous number 6 that Tony Adams wore. I'm not suggesting cause and effect here; just making a point about the timing.

fredorrarci 17/6/08 3:52 PM  

Perhaps so. Or maybe he's just not good enough, painful though that is to admit.

Anyway, at least Switzerland got a win. It would have been unjust for them to have finished with nothing.

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