GILES SMITH: THE GAME MUST GO ON
In his latest column, Chelsea supporter Giles Smith has reason to raise the spectre of a night 15 years ago this very month before defrosting and looking forward to a hot fixture to come…
Hard to watch this week's watery farce in Warsaw unfold (from the comfort of an armchair, blessedly) without the mind reeling back down the years to Tromso in Norway in October 1997.
On that night, too, extreme weather conditions conspired to make it obvious to everybody watching that a professional football match could not reasonably take place. The difference being that, in Tromso, the extreme weather was an appalling quantity of snow, rather than an appalling quantity of rain. And the other difference being that, on that occasion, good sense prevailed, courtesy of Uefa, and the game went ahead.
As it should have done on Tuesday. It stands to reason. You've got the cost and complex logistics of taking a football team abroad, with all its players and staff and cumbersome equipment. You've got fans who have flown in at great expense to themselves and will be required to fly out again, fruitlessly. You've got television rights deals waiting to be honoured and viewers at home waiting to be entertained. The least all these various degrees of commitment deserve is a football match.
Throw in the further detail, specific to Tuesday night's situation, that, if the game is postponed, Ashley Cole will arrive back at Cobham a day later than he would have done to train for the lunchtime kick-off against Tottenham on Saturday. In those circumstances, who cares if the ball actually sinks when the referee comes out for a pitch inspection and tentatively lobs it onto the grass? Of course the game should go ahead.
In Tromso that time, for much of the first half the pitch was merely icy as a frozen pond. Come the second half, snow had fallen to a depth of approximately seven and a half feet and it was obvious that the only way for either side to cope sensibly would be by deploying a St Bernard in the holding role. Dennis Wise emerged from the tunnel that night wearing (somehow inevitably) a short-sleeve shirt. Gianluca Vialli, by contrast, wore gloves, yet it has never been easier to forgive their use in a footballing context. Meanwhile, on the touchline, in a bobble hat, Ruud Gullit appeared to be posing for the cover of some kind of forthcoming Christmas album.
We lost 3-2 - with the home leg still to come, fortunately - but it would have been worse if it hadn't been for Vialli, who ignored the fact that he was criminally hampered by a lack of skis to pull the score back twice.
At the time, even more than today, it was somehow fashionable to claim that 'foreign players' were all very well when the sun shone, but that they rarely 'fancied it' on a 'cold night up in Blackburn'. That patronising argument well and truly crumbled forever on the sight of the Italian, in an Arctic blizzard, burrowing his way through a snow-drift to rescue a slightly embarrassing scoreline with two away goals. The unignorable fact for all doubters was that Vialli self-evidently fancied it on a cold night up in Norway, and cold nights don't come much colder, even in Blackburn.
On Tuesday evening in Warsaw, there was a clear precedent, then, if anyone had chosen to look for one. Here's what you do in cases of inclement weather when people have travelled hundreds of miles and sensitive schedules stand to be disrupted by a postponement: you play on, you get the game done, you come home. And then Ashley Cole is in optimum condition for Saturday against Tottenham. That's what really matters, and it's just a grave pity that Fifa has its priorities so skewed.
'Modric Hopes Gareth Bale Signs For Real Madrid' was the headline on the BBC website, and no doubt there were some of us who joined Modric in that hope and, what's more, idly wondered whether the deal taking Bale from the Seven Sisters Road to the Bernabeu could possibly be completed before the end of this week.
Bale, by common consent,looked 'world class' in Wales's defeat of Scotland last Friday, scoring a superb winning goal from distance, and if it so happened that he was taken out of the equation of Saturday's match against Spurs by a saucy little rule-bending, out-of-window move to Spain, then few of us would have too many objections.
On the other hand, maybe the fact that Bale was 'world class' so recently is a good sign. If memory serves, the last time everyone was talking about Bale's 'world classness' was that night in 2010 in the San Siro, when, as people at the time liked to say, he first 'announced' himself as 'world class' by scoring a hat trick in Tottenham's 4-3 defeat against Inter Milan.
And that was two years ago. So, looking on the positive side, with Bale having been 'world class' only last Friday, the odds on him being 'world class' again as soon as this coming weekend look pretty remote.
Of course, he may surprise us and be 'world class' on Saturday. But, looking at it purely in terms of the available statistics, we could count ourselves extremely unlucky if that were the case. Less likely things have happened, of course. But not that much less likely.
Some analysts are wondering whether the atmosphere during Saturday's match at White Hart Lane will have an added edge to it because of the presence of Andre Villas-Boas in the Spurs technical area - probably gesturing quite wildly and incomprehensibly before crouching down for a while, prior to getting up and gesturing wildly and incomprehensibly again - the assumption seeming to be that a residue of ill-will is held towards our former manager which may well find voice on the day.
Well, not from me. I harbour no strong feelings towards Andre Villas-Boas whatsoever. One moves on, after all (and to the Champions League final in some cases) and in retrospect, the story of AVB's time managing Chelsea was, I think, a very simple one: he was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Whereas, although it's too early to form a proper judgment, my impression is that, at Spurs, he may well prove to be the wrong man in the right place at the right time. And that's got to be an improvement, hasn't it? Good luck to him, anyway.