In 1998 there was an incredible game of football at the Old Wembley. Charlton beat Sunderland only after a 4-4 draw, and a shootout that included 14 scored penalties. It was so breathless it could have featured Jean Seberg being winded as Jean-Luc Godard punched her in the stomach. It was edge of the seat, bowel clenching stuff, and at stake was the highest prize, it was the play-off final to reach the Premiership with its Supermodels snorting coke off the backs of golden calves compared to the meat, potatoes and cheap pints of bitter of what used to be called the second division.
It had everything the best play-off’s should have: a great, one-off, knock-out game with everything at stake can be a joy to behold. It can be art of the highest order, drama of the kind that wears the smartest, best cut suits and whose bag of crisps never rustles at the back of the theatre.
Hertha’s loss to Fortuna Düsseldorf (“O Fortuna,” he says, ratcheting up the high art stakes a little more in a desperate attempt to sound clever, whilst being well aware that it is actually the kind of thing that appears on the Best of Classical Music CDs) last night was similarly dramatic, featured a couple of great goals (Düsseldorf’s opener in the first minute was exquisite in its brutality and as a tempo setter was unbeatable, whilst Raffael’s equaliser for 2-2 was one of the tidiest, cleverest and best worked goals the Berliners have scored all season).
Unfortunately nobody is talking about the goals.
After Düsseldorf scored their second, flares rained down from a corner of the stands. It seems as if they were coming from both sets of fans, though God knows why either of the sets of fans would be looking for a postponement in a game so open, and with plenty of time to play yet. The irony of the advertising hoarding selling nice, glowing fires, set alight because of a firework, was lost on everyone amid the smoke and the panicking looks on the player’s faces, but I allowed myself a little smile – it was a calculated act of stupidity, but it wasn’t boring.
Then, with a minute to play of the seven minutes added time due to said stoppage, the Düsseldorf fans flooded onto the pitch, thinking the whistle had been blown. More flares were lit, and the players and ref retreated to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms. For 20 minutes we waited as the pitch was cleared, as DFB officials ran around like headless chickens, as the bloke who had tried to dig out the penalty spot realised that his was going to be the face of idiotic, premature celebratory ejaculation for a football generation, and that when he got home his Mum was going to kill him (“We all saw you on telly, Lars. Your gran almost had a heart attack”).
Eventually the players came out – Hertha’s, apparently, only after the police had insisted they did so to avoid a riot – and the final minute was played out.
Today’s papers are bandying about phrases such as “bloodbaths being avoided”, which add to the scale of the drama, but are probably counter-productive in their exaggeration of the possible events (in fact, one could argue that by risking the chance of Hertha scoring what would have been a winning goal in that minute would have been far more risky in the circumstances). It is worthwhile remembering that the storming of the pitch was mostly celebratory in its intent, however boneheaded and dangerous it may have been.
Last night’s events will be cause for a lot of people to decide whether the play-offs should continue in their current form – the English model of the top two teams in the lower division playing for a spot in the higher one, at a neutral ground in a one-off game, will certainly be mooted again – but again it will mostly lead to another endless, circular discussion (with one side talking, and the other putting their fingers in their ears and shouting over the top) about what to do about fireworks in the stadia. This is a problem that, for all its ills, the English game never had to face even in its darkest, hooligan riven days. Fireworks are not a part of the culture over there like they are in Germany, and few would rush to defend the right to bring them into a game.
In the meantime Fortuna fans will awake with sore heads, bits of turf muddying up their pockets and smoke stinking clothes. Hertha will have to face the 2. Bundesliga again. They will need to rebuild, regroup and try to return strongly and quickly.
The rest of the country, however, will not be talking about the game, which is a shame, because it was excellent, and that is where the drama of the play-offs really lies.