Looking back through my Insideworldfootball columns throughout 2013 it struck me that with few exceptions, the subjects are actually bound by a common theme.
Whatever the story, without the angle, whatever the history and characters, and wherever in the world, there is one barely disputable rule of football 2013.
Winning is everything.
Football, like most sports, is a results business. But winning covers a multitude of sins. Lose and the best intentions in the world fade into insignificance.
Possible the most stark example of the knee-jerk, loud, tactless, thoughtless, random, blind hysteria of modern football can be found at a club which has had the same manager since 1996.
When Arsenal lost 3-1 at home to Aston Villa in the English Premier League in August the tidal wave of doom and gloom was extraordinary. Or should I say, slightly more irrational than usual. There were loud calls to sack Arsene Wenger, sack the board, sack the players, sack the lot. Some fans captured on camera were wavering between tears of despair and sheer anger.
They did have a point of course. Arsenal’s lack of activity in the transfer market was curious and concerning for fans. The seemingly inspired, if expensive, signing of Ozil had not yet emerged like a sucker punch. After nearly a decade without a trophy, the trust in Wenger had almost disappeared amongst large sections of the North London club’s supporters. But expecting anyone to display calm rational thinking was pointless. it was arm waving wild-eyed ranting. Losers.
And then what happened?
Well Arsenal were the best English team in the first few months of the Premier League season and qualified from a nightmare Champions league group too. In Aaron Ramsey an unlikely player of the season candidate emerged and a team was born, not just an expensive squad. Winners. So all was fine after all right. Right?
Well no actually. Because if their one proper striker Giroud had been injured they would have suffered badly. And which top club really expects a striker to play as a target man, scorer and creator twice a week? The strangely lacklustre Bendtner waiting unimpressively on the sidelines. So they may have been top, but ALL well? No, they are still not yet convincing as Champions-elect, far from it.
Why then did every man, woman and dog seem to be claiming everything was great at Arsenal because they were winning games? It has to always be black or white doesn’t it. The reality is grey. And more than 50 shades of it. Why does everything have to be feast of famine, good or bad, success or failure. When Arsenal lost they weren’t a terrible team. And when they started winning they weren’t a great one.
But winning games seemed to make everything wonderful. As that’s been the case everywhere in 2013. Twas ever thus.
I wrote about a consummate match winner, Luis Suarez, more than once. I suggested he should be removed – for a large fee – from the club I grew up loving. That this man’s actions were not really forgivable. That he should never wear the shirt again, then maybe he wouldn’t bite anyone unprovoked. But he returned and his form has been phenomenal. We should ultimately expect this to end in tears, but maybe, he will bring trophies to Anfield first. Maybe I was wrong.
A new contract has been signed by Suarez. How likely did that look last summer?! Do keep leopards and non-changing spots at the back of your mind though.
The key to the rehabilitation of Suarez has been success on the pitch. Winning games. As if behaviour on and off the pitch should be important. Misguided fools to think it! Starting with me.
I wrote about David Moyes, suggesting Manchester United may win nothing this season but he has to be given proper time. As if! Every result is still treated as crucial. The word crisis has actually been used. I’m not naive enough to suggest that giving someone at least a season is acceptable to any top club, particularly not one of the world’s biggest. But this is a special club and a special case. He has to be given time.
I covered how the EU is closing in on Spanish clubs. How do Real Madrid and Barcelona afford the kind of transfer fees which eclipse oil rich clubs like PSG and Manchester City?
Well if you think Spanish fans are worried imagine how much more worried they’d be if Ronaldo was injured, or Barca finished trophy-less or if Spain finally lose their world crown in Brazil 2014? Winning eclipses everything.
Look at Bayern and Pep Guardiola. A few bad results would have raised some interesting questions about him. As in ‘was in handed to him on a plate at Barcelona, and then at Bayern’? Just how good a job would he do at a struggling club? And yet he’s already added two trophies to the three won by Heynckes in the Spring. His team are winning game after game. It kind of crushes questions before they have formed. Winners. Nothing to see here.
Mourinho’s second stint at Chelsea won’t end with any meaningful analysis of his motivational powers and tactical nous. It will be simple. Did he actually win? Did Chelsea win? Win and it’s worked, lose it hasn’t. Simple. And all the increasingly tiresome chat around the man doesn’t change that simple formula.
Remember, well who can forget, when John Terry slipped on the penalty spot in Moscow, and Mourinho-less Chelsea lost the Champions league final to Manchester United in 2008? Alex Ferguson didn’t admit it so I’ll do it for him. He got lucky that night. Winning covers up everything.
And by the way, if Ferguson hadn’t won so much with brilliant management it wouldn’t have enabled him to treat some journalists so disdainfully. Try challenging the authority of a serial winner.
Uruguay, Mexico, France – all qualified for the World Cup after major struggles. The fear factor swept these three nations before their play-off success. At least two of these nations are capable of making a big impact at the World Cup. But if they had failed to qualify could they have been considered awful football teams. Winning. All that counts.
There’s nothing wrong with coveting winning and hating losing. So long as we all know where we stand.
When a caretaker manager wins his first game in charge, let’s be pleased for him – but let’s also consider how much or little that one win actually means, and whether he should actually be a contender for the job in the first place. This is where too much can be read into a single match, a single win. Does anyone anywhere actually care about the long term. Is Tim Sherwood really the best man for the Tottenham job?
The most inspiring story I’ve written about came right at the end of the year.
It came through a terrible tragedy, a helicopter crash in Glasgow. A fireman, Frank McKeown, worked through the night. Then captained his club in the Scottish Cup the same day.
The match finished in a draw. And so there was a replay. I accompanied the team, Stranraer, throughout that day and night. Terrific people. They won the replay. It was the last thing I was thinking about, but they are doing a professional job. And that meant trying to win.
Quite simply I was delighted they won, and why wouldn’t I be. The fact our Al Jazeera camera captured Frank scoring, his first of the season, was great for the report too.
If you can find people with such integrity, such decency in football – and I’m sure there are plenty – it is hugely reassuring. But they were simply focussed on the win that would take them into the last 16 of the Cup.
Stranraer, like everyone in this game across the globe, are adhering to a bottom line. Whether palatable or not. Winning is everything.
Football in 2013 was as much as ever, more than ever, a results business.
Just as it will be in 2014.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport