Saturday, May 7, 2016

May 7, 2006: Arsenal, Tottenham, and Lasagne

Imagine that tomorrow is Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, and the Yankees and the Red Sox are playing for the Pennant.

Or that it's Conference Championship Sunday, and the Washington Redskins are playing the Dallas Cowboys; the Chicago Bears are playing the Green Bay Packers; or the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing the Cleveland Browns.

Or that it's Thanksgiving Saturday, and college football conference titles are on the line: Michigan vs. Ohio State, USC vs. UCLA, Alabama vs. Auburn.

Or that it's Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament, and North Carolina and Duke are playing the ACC Tournament Final.

Or that it's Game 7 of an NBA Playoff series, Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers, or Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons.

Or that it's Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Playoff series, Montreal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks vs. Detroit Red Wings, or, perhaps most to the point due to the distance involved, New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders.

Now, imagine that you support one of the teams involved. And imagine that the team is sequestered in its hotel, and they're all having dinner together.

Now, imagine that some of the players wake up in the middle of the night, violently ill, and it looks like they may not be able to play.

You'd be furious, wouldn't you? Damn right you would be. Why, if your team lost this key game, you might go so far as to suggest that the players in question were poisoned by a fan of the other team.

But such a scenario would never actually happen, right?

It wasn't exactly the same thing, but it did happen.

*

Arsenal Football Club (a.k.a. "The Arsenal") and Tottenham Hotspur Football Club (a.k.a. "Spurs") are separated by 4.7 miles in North London. To put that in perspective: Imagine that the Yankees and Mets played each other regularly, and that, while the Mets played in Flushing Meadow as they actually do, the Yankees played in Astoria, instead of the South Bronx.

The relationship is similar -- or it would be, if the Mets, instead of being the successors to the baseball version of the New York Giants, were a continuation of the same team: Great long ago, but only sporadically so since the Yankees first began winning, perennially getting humiliated by the more successful club, treating every win over the more successful club like you'd just won a world championship, and collapsing just as glory seems within your grasp.

But Met fans think the Yankees have unfair advantages: Money (true), getting the benefit of the doubt from the officials and the league office (don't make me laugh), favorable treatment by the media (don't take drugs). Tottenham fans think Arsenal have these advantages, and one more: Arsenal "bribed their way into the First Division in 1919." (It's been almost 100 years: Not one shred of evidence has ever been found to back this up.)

Therefore, both Met fans and Spurs fans claim a moral high ground over their local rivals. This results in a huge superiority complex and a huge inferiority complex at the same time.

Even the mottoes are similar: The Mets' is "Ya gotta believe!" while Spurs' is "To dare is to do."

I've mentioned before that the Mets are the Tottenham of New York, and that this might not be fair... to the Mets. Tottenham have not won their league since 1961, while the Mets, who started in 1962 as a replacement for the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers (who left for California in 1957), have now won their league 5 times. (The real "Tottenham of New York" is hockey's Rangers, complete with their idiot thug fans: They talk as much trash as Yankee and Arsenal fans do, but they don't get the results to back it up.)

Tottenham have won England's top division of soccer (or, as they say, "football") twice, both times clinching at their home ground of White Hart Lane: In 1951 and 1961. They beat the same opponent both times: Sheffield Wednesday.

Arsenal have also twice clinched England's top division of soccer (or, as they say, "football") at White Hart Lane: In 1971 and 2004. They beat the same opponent both times: Tottenham.

Arsenal have won the League 13 times, including 6 times since Spurs' last title: 1971, 1989, 1991, 1998, 2002 and 2004.

Tottenham have won the FA Cup, England's national tournament, 8 times. This is actually a very impressive total. But they haven't won it since 1991, when they beat Arsenal in a Semifinal. They haven't even been to a Final since, going 0-3 in Semifinals, including losing to Arsenal in 1993 and 2001. Arsenal have won the FA Cup 12 times, more than any other club, including 7 times since Spurs last did: 1993, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015.

Arsenal have qualified for the UEFA Champions League, formerly known as the European Cup, 21 times, including (counting this season, for next season's tournament) 19 seasons in a row. Spurs? In the tournament's 61-year history, they have qualified only 3 times: For 1961-62, 2010-11, and for next season, 2016-17.

Because of their association with the old Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, in what's now Southeast London, Arsenal have always had a cannon on their club crest, and are thus known as the Gunners. Their fans, known as Gooners, like to say that Tottenham Hotspur, named for early 15th Century English rebel Henry Percy, a.k.a. Lord Harry Hotspur, are "forever in our shadow."

But every so often -- currently, we are in one of those moments -- the lopsided advantage in honors that tilts toward Arsenal looks like it might be reversed, what Spurs fans call "a power shift in North London."

A decade ago, there was one of those moments. But it ended up getting flushed down the toilet. Almost literally.

*

May 7, 2006, 10 years ago today: Arsenal had their best Champions League campaign ever, reaching the Final. That Final, still the closest Arsenal have ever come to winning the European Cup (the Champions League format kept the name for the trophy), turned out to be the last appearance in Arsenal's colours for Dutch forward Dennis Bergkamp, French winger Robert Pires, English centreback Sol Campbell (who controversially transferred from Spurs to Arsenal 5 years earlier), and, controversially, English left back Ashley Cole.

Cole had grown up as an Arsenal fan and in Arsenal's youth system, but had been "tapped up" by West London rivals Chelsea, and would go to them due to new owner Roman Abramovich's spending spree, which had gotten Chelsea the 2005 and '06 Premier League titles. Cole has been known as "Cashley" to Gooners fans ever since.

But the 2005-06 season was the end of an era for another reason: It was the last season for the Arsenal Stadium, a.k.a. Highbury. The new Emirates Stadium -- some call it The Emirates, some by the area's former name Ashburton Grove, some cheekily call it New Highbury -- was going up, 500 yards away, and would open in the summer, the product of the success Arsenal had enjoyed in its 1st 10 years of management by the Alsatian genius, Arsene Wenger.

Arsenal wanted very badly to end the last game at Highbury with a win. It was against Manchester area club Wigan Athletic, and was expected to not be hard, but Arsenal have a history of losing the occasional game that they really should win.

But it wasn't just sentiment: Arsenal went into the season's League finale in 5th place in the Premiership, with Tottenham in 4th. All Spurs had to do in their game, which was away to East London club West Ham United, was match Arsenal's performance on that final day of the Premiership season, and it would be Spurs in the 2006-07 Champions League, with Arsenal "relegated" to the UEFA Cup -- unless, of course, Arsenal could win the CL Final, as the defending champion is always invited back.

The night before, Tottenham manager Martin Jol had secluded his players at a hotel, the Marriott Canary Wharf, in London's financial district, a.k.a. The City. This is not unusual: Many managers do things like this, even before home games. American football head coaches, in both the professional and the collegiate ranks, also do this. The players would have a nice dinner the night before the game, and get a good night's sleep, and would have a nice short bus ride to the stadium, all away from the prying of fans and the media.

What did Scottish poet Robert Burns say? Translated into modern common English, "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray."

In the middle of the night, 10 Spurs players woke up, vomiting, and/or having diarrhea (or "diarrhoea," as it would be "spelt" in England): Robbie Keane, Edgar Davids, Michael Carrick, Aaron Lennon, Michael Dawson, Lee Barnard, Calum Davenport, Teemu Tainio, Lee Young-Pyo and Radek Cerny.

Someone decided to blame the lasagne they'd eaten for dinner that night, and after the whole thing was over, some Spurs fans started a conspiracy theory (shades of their delusions about 1919) that the Marriott chef was an Arsenal fan, and had purposely poisoned the Spurs players! It became known as Lasagne-gate.

In the morning, several Spurs players were still, uh, indisposed. So club chairman Daniel Levy called the League office, and asked League chairman Richard Scudamore to postpone the game.

Nothing doing: With 1 League game to go, all teams were to play their games at the same time, 3:00 PM. This was a change from past policy, to avoid teams whose League place had already been decided from laying down on the job, thus giving gamblers some easy pickings and paying customers a less than honest performance.

Levy protested: We have sick players, so can't the game be postponed until tomorrow? Or even until tonight, just to give us a few more hours to recover? Scudamore asked if Spurs had 11 players who could play. Well, yes, but... Then the game would go on. If Spurs wanted to postpone, they could refuse to play, but an inquiry would be held, and Spurs would likely lose that appeal, and the penalty for refusing to play would be a deduction of points, which would make a win in the rescheduled match meaningless.

West Ham officials said they were willing to accept a postponement, so long as it wasn't too close to the following Saturday, when they were to play Liverpool in the FA Cup Final (which Liverpool went on to win). Unlike Spurs, West Ham were not threatened with a points deduction for going along with the postponement (which makes sense, since it wasn't their idea).

But the police were afraid of what additional time to drink that day would do, considering the reputation that both Spurs' and the Hammers' fans had for hooliganism, including against each other. (A fight between fictionalized versions of hooligan firms from those clubs opened the 2005 film Green Street.) So the cops said they would allow the game to start no later than 5:00 -- an extra 2 hours, not much of a help for the last 2 players who still needed rehydration, Carrick and Lennon.
In the end, the game kicked off on time, at the traditional English football starting time of 3:00 in the afternoon, and only one of the affected players, backup goalkeeper Cerny, did not make it into the game, although Carrick had to be subbed off after 63 minutes, Lee (for fellow affectee Barnard) in the 78th, and Tainio (for fellow affectee Davenport) in the 87th.

*

That season was Wigan's first-ever season in the Premiership, and they had achieved midtable respectability, finishing 10th. An Arsenal win shouldn't have been assumed, but it was well possible. West Ham were about Wigan's equal, finishing 9th, and were hosting Spurs -- hence the Canary Wharf hotel, not far from the Hammers' Boleyn Ground, a.k.a. Upton Park.

Pires scored the Highbury opener, and, for the last time at that ground, the song "One-nil to The Arsenal" was sung -- by both Arsenal fans at Highbury and West Ham fans, learning by radio and text message, at Upton Park.

But Wigan struck back, and led 2-1. Spurs fans, getting calls and messages on their mobile phones, found out, and were ecstatic. And when Jermaine Defoe scored in the 35th to match Darren Fletcher's goal for the Hammers in the 10th, meaning Spurs were looking at a draw while Arsenal were losing, it looked like it would be Spurs' day.

It wasn't. Arsenal's superstar French forward Thierry Henry scored a hat trick, tallying in the 35th, the 56th, and the 76th with a penalty that was the last goal ever scored in the ground's 93-year history. Feeling that history, after putting the ball in the net, instead of launching a ghastly celebration, he bent down and kissed the grass. The final score was Arsenal 4-2 Wigan Athletic.

Of course, it wouldn't have mattered if Spurs had also won. But West Ham came from behind, and won 2-1 on a goal in the 80th minute by Yossi Benayoun, a midfielder from Israel.

Arsenal finished 4th, 2 points ahead of Tottenham, and qualified for the Champions League; Tottenham, finishing 5th, went to the UEFA Cup.

*

The remains of the supposedly offending lasagne were sent to a laboratory, and tested. As it turned out, there was nothing wrong with it, at least not medically. The virus that spread among the Spurs players was real, but it had nothing to do with food.
Still, Spurs fans blame that lasagne, and the chef that served it. Just like the Yankees-Red Sox "Curse of the Bambino," the lasagne contagion never really existed, but it has taken on a life of its own, because the afflicted team's fans believed it. And so, to spite them, ever since, Arsenal fans have sung, to "Volare":

Lasagne, whoa!
Lasagne, whoa!
We laughed ourselves to bits

when Tottenham got the shits!

Which matches another Arsenal chant. I don't know how far back it goes, but it was already in place in early 2007:

Q: What do you think of Tottenham?
A: Shit!
Q: What do you think of shit?
A: Tottenham!
Q: Thank you!
A: That's all right! We hate Tottenham and we hate Tottenham! We hate Tottenham and we hate Tottenham! We hate Tottenham and we hate Tottenham! We are the Tottenham haters!

Indeed, Tottenham haven't finished higher than Arsenal in the League since 1995. No other pair of local rivals in English football have so long a gap. It nearly happened in 2012 and 2013, going to the last game of the season again.

This year, with 2 games to go, Spurs could finish ahead of Arsenal. But knowing the histories of the teams, don't be surprised if they find a way to "Spurs it up."

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