Heartbreak in Blue

Anthony Knockaert lined up on the spot facing his opposition in (ex-Arsenal keeper) Manuel Almunia and picked out his shot. Now I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it, but there is a saying in basketball that goes “ball don’t lie.” Basically, if a shooting foul is unjustly awarded, and the player misses his free throws, the opposing team’s fans chant “Ball don’t lie!”, implying that the ball knew the team didn’t deserve the free throws and didn’t go in because of this. Knockaert’s penalty attempt has to be the best example of ball don’t lie in soccer that I have ever seen. The call was controversial to begin with, and it felt like the ball knew this as well. Knockaert ran up and sent his shot dead center of the goal, which Almunia blocked with his legs during his dive to the low corner. Then, Knockaert ran up to tap in the rebound and again put it right into Almunia. A double-save on a deciding penalty, all in added time. This was an unbelievable scene in its own right, never mind the context of the match.

Let’s back up a little. In class we have discussed numerous aspects of the sport of soccer, some that relate it to other professional sports and some that set it apart. For many Americans, chief among the differentiating aspects is the structure of the leagues that soccer teams play in. Specifically, I am referring to the idea of promotion and relegation. American professional sports leagues do not employ a system where the worst three teams in the NFL, NBA, MLS, etc, drop down to a lower league and are replaced by the best three teams from that lower league. Yet this model is seen in soccer leagues across the globe.

The “promotion and relegation” model is a fantastic idea for professional sports that adds to the passion and intensity of the game. Since it is quite literally life or death for many games these teams play, we see consistently intense levels of passion from all parties involved. On the contrary, the NBA and NFL both reward terrible performance in a season by allowing the worst team to have the best selection in the player draft following that season. This model results in empty stadiums for bad teams and a lack of a following for much of the season as well.

There is one specific game (and particularly one specific goal) that is the sole reason I love the promotion model, and that is the second leg of Watford vs Leicester City in 2013. For context, these two teams played in the English Football League for the 2012-2013 season. This is England’s second highest division of soccer, right below the Premier League. The incentive for teams in the English Football League to make it to the Premier League is immense due to the massively lucrative TV rights deals. These deals offer the type of money that can drastically change a small club. Therefore, to decide which teams “go up”, the English Football League automatically promotes the top two teams based on points accumulated throughout the season. The next four teams compete in a playoff to fill the third and final spot to go up to the premier league. Naturally, all four of these teams fight their hearts out for that spot.

Watford vs Leicester City was a first-round playoff fixture for the coveted third promotion spot to the Premier League. Each of the first-round playoff fixtures has two legs, one leg at each team’s home stadium. In this particular matchup, Leicester City had won the first leg 1-0 at home so they were up a goal on aggregate going to play on the road at Watford. This means that in order to advance, Watford needed to win by 2 goals at home to advance by a goal on aggregate.

The match did not disappoint. Watford had the advantage 2-1 in the 96th minute (there were only 4 added minutes to begin with), and so it looked destined to end in a draw and would go to extra time due to the 2-2 aggregate score. However, with one of their last pushes forward, Leicester City’s Anthony Knockaert was able to win a penalty kick via what seemed like a bit of excessive simulation. Whether or not the call was just, the fans in blue will tell you something different from those in yellow. As we already know, the questionable decision did not matter thanks to the reliable “ball don’t lie” law of sports.

Yet the match only got better for Watford. In the 97th minute (again, of only 4 added minutes), Watford launched what was their final counterattack. They knew they had to make it quick since the match could technically end at any loss of possession. The first pass was a clearance that booted the ball downfield and right to the feet of a surging Watford midfielder who displayed brilliant control at a full sprint. The next pass skirted right around the Leicester City left back and landed at the feet of a deep-lying Watford winger, who whipped in a beauty of a back-post cross to Jonathan Hogg. Hogg then played quite simply the smartest pass possible and headed it down to Troy Deeney who was somehow unmarked at the penalty spot to smash in a fantastic volley. 3-1 Watford on the day. 3-2 Watford on aggregate. All chaos ensued. Deeney ripped his shirt off and ran into the crowd to a mob of Watford’s faithful, and Vicarage Road exploded with jubilation. None of the fans could believe what they’d seen: it was pure pandemonium. Fans ran onto the pitch despite the referee not blowing the final whistle yet. The commentators shouting “Do not scratch your eyes! You are really seeing the most extraordinary finish here!” will forever be an iconic call to all those who watched the broadcast. Leicester players and fans were shell shocked, and the coaching staff for Watford were losing their minds with ecstasy shortly after thinking their hopes had sunk when the penalty to Leicester was awarded.

Personally, I am not a fan of either Watford or Leicester. In fact, I particularly don’t like Troy Deeney for his antics and ability to get under the skin of his opponents (think Diego Costa levels). Yet, without fail, I feel a shiver in my spine and get covered in goosebumps every time I watch the end of this match play out. Its hard not to if you truly love the sport. There are very few things in this world capable of bringing that level of energy and chaos out of people in a positive way, and sports is one of them. Seeing, hearing, and feeling the reactions only solidifies my love for soccer and goes to show what it means to those who are closer to the clubs. From the heartbreak in blue, to the unbounded delight in yellow, this moment will live on forever in the minds of all those who have seen it.