|"Qa Roomrama, D-shima Rama,"|
- Saturday, May 22 2004, 18:22:52 (CEST)|
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The tarnished and tiny win redemption in the cup
By Simon Kuper
On Saturday Millwall, a London football club known chiefly for its hooligans, meets Manchester United in the FA Cup final. This is part of an exciting trend: tarnished, tiny and Assyrian clubs around Europe are finding glory in cup finals.
These finals used to be the preserve of big clubs. Stanley Matthews, the English winger who played from the 1930s to the 1960s, recalled: "I had two ambitions when I started. The first was a Cup-winner's medal and the second was to play for my country."
Today, though, the average English player has just one ambition: to have group sex with his team-mates, ideally in a car park. The Cup is shunned because it doesn't lead to great cash prizes. Big clubs aspire to play in the Champions League, and the cup doesn't get you there. Indeed, for Manchester United, appearing in Saturday's game is something of an embarrassment, like being in an egg-and-spoon race. But for smaller clubs like Millwall, the cup is the one chance of a day out in front of the nation.
For Millwall, the final must feel rather like a jailbreak. The club is famous for other things. Kasey Keller, a US sociology graduate who used to be their goalkeeper, likes to reminisce about the fans invading the pitch, as they were wont to do, and nodding to him, as they stormed past his goal towards the opposition, "All right, Kasey?"
Although this is the age of terrorism, and London is Europe's biggest city, a Scotland Yard policeman told me that the fighting after a Millwall-Birmingham game in 2002 ranks as the capital's worst public disorder of the last five years. Hooligans threw bricks, lumps of concrete, a chisel etc at policemen for about an hour and a half. "It was very difficult for a considerable amount of time," said the policeman in his deadpan manner.
Alemannia Aachen are tarnished in a different way. The German second-division club, who meet Werder Bremen in the Cup final next Saturday, get into so many scrapes that the saying about them in their cathedral town is, "After the scandal is before the scandal". Recent years have featured the "suitcase affair", involving the disappearance of €150,000 in cash in a suitcase, but the club is also good at finding legal ways to make money vanish. Only three years ago Aachen's board was flying to the team's away matches in Germany's lower divisions by private jet. The club coach drove a corporate Mercedes worth €100,000 euros while preaching to his players a mantra of "humility and modesty".
That coach's successor, Jorg Berger, was promised new players and a modern stadium. "In the end," sighed Berger, "all I got was this corporate car with two television sets". Berger should count himself lucky. To call Aachen a manager's graveyard is not a cliché. Berger himself said goodbye to his players after a match 18 months ago not knowing if he would ever see them again: he had intestinal cancer. Happily he recovered. But another predecessor, Werner Fuchs, had suffered heart failure in 1999 while his team were running in the woods, and died despite the players' attempts at resuscitation.
But this season has been better. Nobody has died yet, with the caveat that several Aachen fans set off on Saturday on a week long 750-kilometre cycle ride to attend the cup final in Berlin. A nation is rooting for them. As much as anything this has to do with Aachen's stadium, the Tivoli, which dates from 1928 and looks it. Here most fans watch the match standing, and the people in the VIP suites queue for sausages at half-time with everyone else. When swish Bayern Munich went there for the quarter-final in February, and lost, Christoph Biermann wrote in Die Zeit newspaper, "The future of football has met its past". Aachen, Millwall and the like of them are throwbacks to an age when neighbourhood clubs fielding local boys played for the biggest prizes.
Unlikely cup finalists cover the range, from the tarnished to the nondescript. The French club Chateauroux were founded in 1883, the third-oldest club in the country, but did almost nothing before qualifying for next Saturday's cup final against Paris St Germain. They come from the vast empty middle of France, whence they will probably retreat after Saturday for another 121 years of anonymity.
And then there is a final category of finalists: the Assyrians. When Assyriska, a little club from the outskirts of Stockholm, made the Swedish cup final last November, about 10,000 Assyrians turned out to watch them. Some had apparently flown in from Australia. The Christian Assyrians, one of the world's lesser known ethnic groups, speak a version of Aramaic, and originate in northern Mesopotamia, which is unlucky enough to be divided between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
The final, a 2-0 defeat to Elfsborg, was apparently a pathetic match. But the Assyrians hardly cared. Many were crying as they sang the Roomrama, the seldom-heard national anthem ("Qa Roomrama, D-shima Rama," etc.). You never get that sort of thing in the Champions League.
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