Fifteen to the hour in Barcelona and the twenty-two men comprising the first teams of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF are glaring down an immaculately coiffed stretch of grass at each other as the second half of their semi-final match in the UEFA Champions League kicks off in a spirit that can only be described as "mind-wrenchingly hostile," a state of affairs that doubles as a description of every other match in recent memory between these two clubs. Holding the dubious honor of being the only major sports rivalry in the world to have had a civil war fought between the two sets of fans, El Clasico serves as a biannual re-enactment of the Spanish Civil War, though thankfully toned down from the days of 1936 when Franco's forces kidnapped and murdered Barcelona's club President, Josep Sunyol, and two years later, the Barcelona grounds and club offices were bombed by the Italian airforce. Things have toned down since then, and nowadays players like Luis Figo, who switched from Barcelona to Real Madrid in 2000 and, when he returned to Camp Nou playing for Real Madrid, had a pig's head thrown at him.
Figo was just following the path tread by Alfredo Di Stefano, whose transfer to Spain was hotly contested between Barcelona and Real Madrid, who managed, improbably, to both sign him, forcing FIFA to enforce a bizarre timeshare agreement where Madrid and Barcelona would each get him in alternate seasons. At least, until the Franco-appointed Barcelona club president decided they didn't need the legendarily good Argentinian player, and they'd let Madrid have him.
Di Stefano, sadly, never really played much for his native country, switching to Spain for his short international career, and never making it in the World Cup. Which means he never got to participate in the second most heated sports rivalry, the Argentina/England rivalry, which, in the immediate aftermath of the Falklands War, served as a proxy when Diego Maradona, one of the game's best players ever, managed to in one match score both one of the greatest goals in the history of the game and a flagrant handball of a goal he described as "un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios."
As an England fan, the latter incident is the key one. Not that, as an England fan, I can persuade myself it would have mattered. England, unable to win a damn thing since 1966, are a masochist's football team, one you watch for the glorious spectacle of seeing eleven of the best players in the world faff about on a stretch of grass as though they've been watching 80s Cybermen episodes of Doctor Who in lieu of actual football matches to train, and are this committed mostly to a turgid and ineffectual march punctuated by periodic falling down or, occasionally, bursting into flames.
Still, it's better than rooting for my native country, who are so wretched at the sport they can't even get the fucking name right. This still puts them ahead of Japan in 1988, who, fourteen years before they would co-host the tournament, managed to produce Goal! for the NES, a puzzling rendition of football in which the game is divided into two fifteen minute halves with a clock that counts down. This is still better than Goal 2, in 1992, which asserts the existence of a US football league, which is puzzling given that NASL had disbanded some eight years prior.
Like any 1980s sports game, playing them now is a bizarre experience. The passing mechanics of both games are arcane beasts that make the basic strategy of "pass the ball" more than a little tricky. Still, inasmuch as one plays the games with a growing sense of rage and frustration, it captures the boil of emotions characterizing the inside of a football stadium during a game. The raucous celebrations of the winning team, or, more often for England fans at least, the agonized anger of the losing side, always defeated not by the opposing team but by the ref, or, on a truly wretched day, by ourselves.
Without it, how would we engage in that age-old football fan practice of demanding that the manager be sacked and our star players be sold and replaced with other people's star players or our own mediocre players. Which brings us to Liverpool fandom, or at least, does for as long as one can talk about Liverpool as a team without simply beginning to drink heavily.
Liverpool, you see, are lions of the game. Still the most successful club in English history, the fact of the matter is that Liverpool can beat any team in the world. The only trouble is, they can also lose to any team in the world, and pick that latter option with frustrating regularity, making them by far the best team in sports to languish midtable accomplishing nothing. But merely sucking is not sufficient to explain the glories of Anfield. No, no. We are capable of far more than merely losing games. We are also gifted at, once a season, like clockwork, going into a lengthy tailspin of turgid 0-0 draws in which, no matter the team, we are unable to do anything remotely good. It's not even that we lose. If we lost, we could at least, in theory, lose to a team that plays well. No, our ability is far more nefarious - the ability to completely drain all style, fun, and beauty out of a game in favor of a sort of raw physicality that is as memorable for its complete lack of utility as it is for its prowess.
But this captures the heart of English football, which longs constantly for the good old days of the sport (generally the days long before anyone currently watching was alive and from which no recordings of games exist) when the game was eleven thundering brutes of men who would go out onto the pitch and kick each other and, when necessary, the ball. Those halcyon days where the game amounted to good old-fashioned brutality, when you could properly tell a player "Oh shut up and play, you still have one leg that isn't broken."
It's only when those annoying, fiddly tactics came into it that the game started to turn to shit. Nowadays it's all money and details, taking away from the simple fun of bone-shattering kicks. Not bone-shattering tackles. Just good, proper kicks, preferably in the face, chest, or genital area. And the misery of constant defeat. Dump it into a blender and whip up a glorious protein shake of homoeroticism.
And in this regard, Goal! and Goal! Two have an odd appropriateness. Clumsy, endlessly frustrating, and ugly, it is unquestionably my beautiful game.