What drives a Japanese to stay up at 4am to watch an English Premier League match. Why do Asians – in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam – stay up all night and gamble away millions on these matches. Passion? Hot action? A burning desire to win? All of these and more were on show when Manchester United and Arsenal had their mid-week showdown.
LONDON: A day that basked under the hottest Easter-week temperature anyone in Britain can recall turned into a mellow evening, except at Highbury.
Encounters between Arsenal and Manchester United are never mellow. The crowd is close to the field at the Arsenal ground, and 90 minutes there could prove decisive in the nine-month long English Premiership. On Wednesday night, the febrile atmosphere was stoked by action that was fast, athletic and controversial.
The game ended 2-2. When yet another Arsenal player, Sol Campbell, was ejected for elbowing an opponent in the face, it was a clue to the attraction of a game that drew a television audience of more than half a billion in 170 countries.
Why would they sit in Tokyo bars at 4am to view this local battle a world away? Why would they gamble on the outcome in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand? What compels Americans, North and South, to build their working day around an English football game?
The answer is passion. Spanish football offers greater skill and the Italian league is more tactical.
But in England, even with a veritable league of nations threaded into the top clubs, there is always a frenzy of physical attrition, of honest-to-goodness effort to win. The viewers also get television coverage that gives more than the naked eye can see, from more angles, with more intent to root out villainy.
BSkyB, the broadcaster that has the rights to live Premiership fare involves itself in football the way Fox TV, from the same Rupert Murdoch stable, covered the war in Iraq: cameras embedded everywhere, presenters alongside the combatants, partisanship coming out of every pore.
Because Highbury is such an enclosed stadium, in which many of the 38,000-capacity crowd are so close they can hear the players pant and feel the heat of the aggression; it is a marvellous theatre for sport. Because the team managers, Arsene Wenger for Arsenal and Alex Ferguson for Manchester United, are competitors driven by barely disguised animosity toward each other, the interplay between the players and the benches is an entertainment in itself.
When the teams were announced, and the spectators heard that Ferguson had left out David Beckham, an expectant buzz was detectable around the stands. No doubt it reverberated to the Far East where Beckham, more icon than footballer, is adored beyond his value to the team.
Ole Gunner Solskjaer, who occupied Beckham's place on the right, is a more elusive runner and more likely to score from free play. In the ninth minute, Solskjaer crossed and Paul Scholes really should have hit the net; instead his header drifted wide.
It was absorbing rather than flowing stuff. The second chance also fell to United, and this time Scholes was the provider with a delicate flick of the ball, but Ruud van Nistelrooy, with a touch of his heel, lifted the ball over the bar.
Van Nistelrooy soon atoned in stunning fashion. It took just 11 seconds for Manchester to turn defence into a goal after John O'Shea and Mikael Silvestre broke up an Arsenal attack. Like a stone out of a catapult the ball shot from Silvestre to Ryan Giggs and then to van Nistelrooy. Like a greyhound with a rhino's muscles, the Dutch forward slipped past Campbell, outpaced Martin Keown – who tried to pull him by the shirt – watched goalkeeper Stuart Taylor rush out and flipped the ball over him.
A craftsman's goal from a player who has scored 42 times in 58 Premier League games: a performer so swift, so physical, above all so direct.
Shortly afterward, Patrick Vieira, the colossus in Arsenal's midfield, limped out of the contest. His wounded right knee should probably never have been risked in such an unforgiving conflict.
Yet, Arsenal evened the score and then led. The first goal was a fluke when, just after halftime, Dennis Bergkamp miscontrolled the ball, Ashley Cole stumbled to get in a shot and his effort struck the back of Thierry Henry's calf before spinning through the legs of the United goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez.
The second goal was an aberration. Henry was two yards offside when he received the ball but, with the officials ignoring the infringement, he was allowed to show his cool finishing.
Lesser combatants than United would have folded.
Within one minute, the lack of Arsenal concentration and the hunger of United combined to create an equalising goal. Solskjaer showed, again, that crossing the ball was not the preserve of Beckham. The flight of his delivery was met at the far post by Giggs, unguarded by a negligent Arsenal defence, and his header was perfectly timed.
It was the end of the scoring and the end of the lesson. English club football may be compelling, but the quality of its defending explains why Arsenal are out of the Champions League and United are on the brink of elimination.
It was not the end of the attrition. After 82 minutes, Campbell fended off Solskjaer with his arm. The big Arsenal defender misjudged the movement of the diminutive United forward, and there was painful contact.
Again because the cameras and microphones are so pervasive and invasive, we learned exactly what the officials said to each other.
“He (Campbell) seemed to stop and deliberately elbow (Solskjaer) in the face,” the linesman Nigel Miller told referee Mark Halsey.
“Deliberate?” reiterated the referee.
“Yeah,” said his assistant.
The red card was, therefore, automatic. Campbell protested innocence. Wenger fumed. It was the 49th red card for an Arsenal player since he arrived in London in September 1996, and, in his eyes, the 49th miscarriage of justice.
Ferguson, Wenger's adversary, pointedly congratulated the referee, and told the television audience that he deplored the increase in the use of the elbow.
“Somebody,” he said, “is going to get a serious injury.” How they forget! In his playing prime, Fergie's style earned him the nickname “Elbows.”
The draw leaves the title undecided. United have four games to play, including last night's encounter with Blackburn. Arsenal have five.
Neither club will give up the chase, but Arsenal must soldier on without Vieira, whose knee can take no further punishment and, unless they win on appeal, without Campbell whose ban will be four matches.
The odds favour United but those Asian gamblers should not bet everything on it. – IHT