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One wretched night in Madrid that made me question all my beliefs



There we were, half-a-dozen middle-aged men in a Madrid hotel bar around midnight last Wednesday, in a chorus of piteous lamentation. “I’m too old for this,” said one. “I can’t do this any longer,” said his friend. “We didn’t deserve that,” was the complaint from another.

It was a wretched scene, but what had caused these men, all successful in their respective fields, intelligent, erudite, sensible humans, to be catapulted into this catatonic state? Football, that’s what.

These were people who, for most of their adult lives, had supported Manchester City, through good times, through bad times, and through even worse times. Now, thanks to the munificence of Sheikh Mansour, these are the very best of times, and expectations have risen exponentially. Where, a little more than two decades ago, we were playing Macclesfield Town, we now play Real Madrid, and in the Champions’ League semi-final what’s more.

You probably know what happened next. City were two goals to the good with only a minute or so remaining, Madrid scored twice in 90 seconds, and went on to win in extra time. It was a crushing defeat, presaging that mournful scene in the bar some time later. Football, bloody hell, in Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous phrase.

For most of the world, football is the only sport that matters, and for each of us, it is a cipher for so many of the things in real life which make us human: pain and pleasure, hope and faith, triumph and disaster, amity and enmity.

For the real fan, it is the least trivial of trivial pursuits, but, in the wake of that agonising night in Madrid, it did make me wonder: why do we entrust so much of our mental and emotional wellbeing to an activity over which we have no control, and about which, in truth, we understand relatively little?

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It makes no sense, mature beings catastrophising, or exulting – however transiently – over a game of ball. At this point, I can refer you only to the philosopher and writer Albert Camus, who said: “After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations I owe to football.”

I’m not sure I agree completely with Algeria’s No 1, but football has taught me many things, including an acknowledgement – made explicit last Wednesday – that we must learn, in life as in football, to surrender to the fates.

This fatalism, often masquerading as pessimism, is the burden of most football fans. I was once at a game when City were 3-0 ahead with just 10 minutes remaining. The man next to me was worryingly agitated. Relax, I told him, we’re 3-0 up. “Yes,” he replied. “But there’s 10 minutes left.”

I was, in fact, one of those who, over a few cañas in Madrid, was re-evaluating my devotion to the cause. I felt this defeat keenly, and I wondered whether it was healthy that my mood should be altered by the outcome of a football match.

But we all need a sense of belonging – to a family, to a friendship group, to a set of beliefs, to a purpose – and I suppose my football club fulfils all of that. Will we be back next year? Of course we will.

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