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Steve Rushin
June 12, 1995
The all-out attacking style and rich history of English soccer make it a game with worldwide appeal
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June 12, 1995

Biff, Bang, Wallop!

The all-out attacking style and rich history of English soccer make it a game with worldwide appeal

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No more than you can see CNN screening dramatic footage of fans not rioting. Man United just happened to face Crystal Palace in the FA Cup semifinal on April 9. Two hours before the neutral-site match in Birmingham, outside a pub eight miles from the ground, drinking fans of both teams brawled. A 35-year-old Palace supporter was killed when he fell under a wheel of a bus departing the parking lot. The news ensured that the other semi would go largely ignored. For the record Everton upset Tottenham 4-1 in Leeds, and afterward the jubilant fans of the Wembley-bound victors brutally...sang Doris Day tunes.

Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
We're going to Wem-ber-leeey
Que sera, sera

The train is filled with Liverpool and Bolton supporters. With every platform it approaches, a new song fades in as if a radio were being tuned. Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, a dozen cars sing on the way to the Coca-Cola Cup Final. Formerly known as the League Cup, the Coca-Cola Cup is—with the league championship and the FA Cup—the third major title in English soccer. To paraphrase yet another football song, We're all going to Wembley, our knees have gone all trembly.

When the teams take the field shortly before five in the afternoon, the stands are a pointillist painting, 75,595 dots of red and blue. The place positively pulsates with flags, scarves, song. In the first half Liverpool's Steve McManaman, a pink-skinned celery stalk of a forward, dribbles mazily from midfield into the penalty area, tapping the ball beyond one defender and running around him to retrieve it, before finally right-footing it past the Bolton keeper. In the second half he leaves three Bolton defenders standing like slalom gates before scoring on the naked goalie. (Metaphorically naked, that is; in England, as Kasey Keller illustrates, such distinctions are necessary.)

A Bolton goal as gorgeous as the gathering Wembley dusk makes the score 2-1, which becomes a final only after 20 more knuckle-draining minutes. When the whistle is blown, 23-year-old Bolton star Jason McAteer drops disconsolate to the pitch, where he lies for several minutes before McManaman walks over to pick his opponent off the turf. Who says you can't use your hands in this game?

"Bol-ton! Bol-ton!" chant the Liverpool supporters, while the Cup-holding Liverpool squad is cheered around the pitch by throngs in Bolton blue. Wembley has been turned upside down like a crystal Christmas paperweight: Confetti falls, fireworks rise, flags flutter. For a full half hour after the final whistle, the stadium remains full—a chanting, singing Tower of Babel. Players on both sides try to savor the scene, to make the moment indelible, like words engraved on a brass plate: WITH THANKSGIVING TO GOD, FOR HAPPY YOUTHFUL DAYS.

"Great day for the town, great day for the team," says losing manager Bruce Rioch. "We've a super bunch of lads, and hopefully some of them will come back one day—at club level, at international level—and play again on this stage. In the Mecca of football."

Football pilgrims meanwhile exit down Wembley Way, heading toward the tube station, their thousands of voices receding in song: Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you'll neh-ver walk a-lone.... It wasn't Coke that taught the world to sing. It was the Coca-Cola Cup.

"Football is just massive, isn't it?" Keegan had asked in Newcastle. "The biggest sport in the world." It is, of course, but so much more. Arsenal played an exhibition in May at the Workers' Stadium in Beijing. Three days later, one out of every 11 people on earth watched Everton shock Man U 1-0 in the FA Cup final. Think about that. The real spectacle that Saturday was not Everton. Nor was it Man United.

It was man, united.

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