By Dennie Wendt
Photo Credit: Ryu Voelkel
Red Star-Napoli on TV. A Major League Soccer game and two high school matches live. That’s been my soccer experience over the last couple days.
The school games were disappointments—one was well played but the wrong team upended a deserved 0-0 tie with a last-minute goal (heartbreak), the other was a frenetic, chaotic, everything-they-say-about-high-school-soccer mess featuring three fluky goals and a 1-2 defeat—again, for the wrong team (heartache). The MLS game, for its part, was a satisfying midweek hour and a half removed from reality—and then there was Red Star-Napoli.
All told, a pretty good drain on any romantic hopes or dreams about the emotionally restorative possibilities of the Beautiful Game. And yet we received the accompanying photographs from Barcelona and Madrid—fitting tributes to what by all accounts were a pair of glorious evenings of football (even PSV seems to think so; I’m not so sure about Roma). They weren’t the games I chose, though they did serve up satisfying reminders of how beautiful the game really can be.
On a busy Champions League day, most of us have to decide on one game. For the aforementioned illusions of romance, I went with Red Star-Napoli on Tuesday. I once loved Red Star—as a student in the 1980s I lived with a family in Vojvodina who supported them, and I fell in love (and the team was good then—really good). And as for Napoli, any fan of my age is still tempted for reasons of habit and nostalgia to tune in whenever they’re on. It wasn’t so long ago that both were among the world’s very best—the Crvena Zvezda sides of the late ’80s and early ’90s contained much of Yugoslavia’s Golden Generation, and they were champions of Europe (and the world) in 1991. Even that seemingly laudatory sentence is laced with negativity: We know what happened to Yugoslavia in the 1990s—and we also know that 1991’s Red Star-Marseille final was a dark example of just how low the footballing cynicism of the era could pull a pair of brilliant teams. And watching Maradona-era Napoli (Serie A winners, 1986-87, 1989-90; UEFA Cup champions, 1988-89) was about as much fun as a true admirer could have. Until it wasn’t.
The Champions League game I chose ended 0-0, with Napoli complaining that Red Star had resorted to negative tactics and overt time-wasting and neither team showing any genuine promise of breaking out of a difficult group. But Red Star’s stadium was close to full, both teams brimmed with group-stage hope. It was a throwback, in a way.
I’ve been in Belgrade’s Marakana. Just once. Red Star’s ground is majestic in its imposing, simplistic modernism. There’s not a lot of romance to it (it’s literally in a hole), but like a quality Eastern European squad, it’s stern and effective. Usually. That 1987 night Yugoslavia hosted England in a Euro qualifier. I was a young American student infatuated with soccer’s romance. I can still remember walking from the train to the stadium and the zip of scary electricity that hit me when my hosts told me not to utter a word of English for the next three hours. My first European match. Security confiscated my chapstick, which seemed like ominous overkill. (What might I have done with chapstick?) Inside, behind the goal, I was lifted off my feet by the crowd and moved around, another first for me. I urinated into a rolled-up newspaper, something I had never even heard of. The England fans’ wedge of the stadium was guarded on both sides by a cordon of police—and the two wedges either side of them were left empty, and those too were guarded by police. That Yugoslavia squad contained players who would be great, but they weren’t quite great enough yet, and the England of Tony Adams, John Barnes and Gary Linker crushed them. It was 4-nil at half. The crowd turned surly, watching those English travelers revel in their heavily guarded safety and their team’s much-deserved triumph. The evening lost its buzz, and the Marakana—for a night anyway—lost its mystique.
As Barca and Real and a photographer named Ryu Voelkel proved yet again, it really can be the Beautiful Game. But as Red Star, Napoli, a pair of middling MLS squads and four high-school teams just reminded me, it’s not really the Simple Game. Things can change too fast for that: Shots off the post, goalkeeper bobbles, crazy deflections, strange refereeing decisions, dumb luck…it’s just life, laced with randomness and danger, infused with greatness and magic, covered in sweat.