Tears of a clown
Arsenal buried Man City's title hopes as well as Mario Balotelli's career in England
It was three hours before kickoff when I first saw the fork sticking out of the back of Man City's title hopes. I was in a taxi en route to the Emirates and stopped at a light near Regents Park. I looked up and saw something akin to a funeral procession, as a cortege of apparent mourners moved slowly and somberly down the road. Oddly, they were all wearing identical light blue tracksuits, except for the man at the front, who was dressed in a dapper grey overcoat. At the rear of this baby blue pack, ambling along several yards behind the others happily ensconced in his own little world, was a tall, gangly fellow with a distinctive landing strip bisecting his polished dome.
I can recognize a death march when it wanders by me. There was no spring in their gait, no carefree banter, no impudent swagger. They looked as weary and deflated as David Silva's play for the past month, none more so than the lead dog, Roberto Mancini, who had endured a week during which he was forced to deal with questions about both his job security and his increasingly misguided faith in the idiot savant stylings of the Man with the Mohawk, Mario Balotelli.
Yes, I had stumbled upon the quietest of neighbors, Man City, as it partook of its pregame let's-try-to-act-like-a-team walk.
Suddenly, my cabbie rolled down his window and bellowed, "C'mon City."
"Don't tell me you're a City fan?" I said incredulously to the driver.
"I'm not," he replied. "I'm a Tottenham supporter. I hate Arsenal."
"Really?" I said, as if he had just informed me he was auditioning for "Men in Black III." "Well, I'm an Arsenal supporter and I've come all the way from America to see the Gunners administer the last rites to City's 2012 title ambitions and Spurs' dreams of a third-place finish."
The Tottenham Taxi man was not amused.
"Sorry to hear that, mate," he said. "I'm afraid I have to let you out here."
"But we're 20 minutes from the Emirates."
"Ah, but this traffic's no good, mate. Enjoy the walk in the rain."
As it turned out, walking 20 minutes in a light mist was a small price to pay for what turned out to be one of the most deeply satisfying pilgrimages I've made to the latest iteration of my soccer temple (Emirates is not worthy of the mecca moniker -- that will always be Highbury). While the stadium may be named for a Middle-Eastern airline and look like a docked spacecraft, it still makes my heart dance as soon as I glimpse the most magnificent expanse of grass on God's green earth.
And when I see it from a front-row seat on the halfway line, well, life doesn't get much better unless Samir Nasri could somehow collide with Cesc Fabregas to leave both crumpled in a heap on that glorious turf. Sadly, the Arsenal-to-City Judas escaped with all his limbs intact, but was relentlessly bilingually abused (since Arsenal enjoys the most educated fan base in London, Nasri was assailed in both English and French every time he touched the ball). Because of our proximity to the field -- a distance of no more than 10 feet -- my seatmate, Richard Arends, and I screamed ourselves hoarse whenever Nasri wandered out to the left touchline. Once, Richard even got the Frenchman to glare over at us when he took aim at Samir's thickening waistline. "Tu est un petit gros cochon," he yelled. That directly translates to, "You are a fat little pig." Sadly, Richard wasn't fluent enough to add "and you cost Man City $25 million and disappear from the game after 20 minutes," but it was clearly implied.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
The porcine one was back wallowing in his sty by the 87th minute, when the man who replaced him at Arsenal, Mikel Arteta, picked David Pizarro's pocket near midfield, surged to the top of the box and unleashed a viciously dipping shot past Joe Hart's flailing dive. The Emirates erupted as if Arsenal had won the league rather than simply had extinguished all hope for a team carrying $450 million in marquee players. The gigantic, cathartic roar spoke as much to Arsenal's remarkable turnaround that saw the Gunners go from a 17th-place laughingstock to third place -- two points clear of Spurs -- as to the joy in City's fall from EPL grace.
Clearly, this was both City's final implosion in its quest to buy the trophy it has craved for the past 44 years and a giant blue flare to the peripatetic "Special One" over at Real Madrid. And just to underline the point, the delirious Arsenal fans turned around with their backs to the field and pogoed up and down in a mock version of City's goal-scoring celebration known as the Poznan. It felt so good I think I'll do it every time I make a deadline.
But why celebrate City's failure rather than bemoan what will clearly be a seventh straight trophy-less season for Arsenal? And United's 20th EPL title?
Arsenal's time is coming. The mental fortitude that the Gunners have long lacked is finally on abundant display, and as for United's now inevitable title, if a team from Manchester has to lift the trophy, I'd rather it be a quintessentially ordinary team of players who have sweated for it, rather than a bunch of namby-pamby arrivistes who thought they could buy their silverware. Plus, how can you root for any team that pays Nasri and Carlos Tevez gobs of money to take off their warm-up jackets?
What about the most mercurial of Mancini's prize recruits, Balotelli? I can work up no real animus toward him. I find his circus act to be progressively more sad than anything else. He has immense talent and he's determined to throw it away. What's that they say about tears of a clown? If only he could sit down and have a pint with Gazza.
Only three days after crashing his Bentley while talking on his cell phone, Balotelli awoke Sunday to tabloid headlines about his bedroom prowess with an escort who reportedly also counted Wayne Rooney among her celebrity conquests. Unfortunately, she doesn't referee on the field, where Rooney has nothing to worry about, given Balotelli's predilection to be suspended for as many games as possible. He's already missed eight matches because of an accumulation of cards, and Sunday he added another red to his collection after two reckless challenges on Bacary Sagna saw him sent off in stoppage time.
It could have been even worse for Mad Mario had Martin Atkinson seen his 17th-minute, studs-up tackle on Alex Song that could have easily mangled the Arsenal midfielder's leg as badly as Balotelli's post-accident Bentley. What is perhaps more astonishing is that Mancini left his striker on the field when it was obvious he was having one of those mentally unhinged Balotelli days. Hadn't Mancini stated in the run-up to the game that he was finding it increasingly hard to trust his 21-year-old striker after his on-field meltdown in which he didn't get to take a free kick against Sunderland the previous weekend? He even told Balotelli to his face that if he had known him 10 years ago, he would have given him "every day maybe one punch in the head."
Instead, it is now more likely that once Man City has finished its drunken stagger to the finish line, Mancini will herd Balotelli onto an ice floe and push him out to sea, back in the direction from whence he came -- Inter Milan.
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Odds are that the manager will be similarly iced right after Balotelli as a collapse of this magnitude should make Roberto the Man-see-no-more. As for my Spurs-supporting cabdriver, I may not have given him a tip but I did leave him a piece of advice: "Be kind to the fans of the big clubs, you wanker."
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."
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