February 24, 2021

"I swear you'll never see anything like this ever again!"

It was 41 years ago on Monday, the Miracle on Ice. Doesn't seem possible it was that long ago, does it? I'm sure most of you know what I'm talking about, the team of plucky college kids that bested the Soviet Union's professionals en route to winning the hockey gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Coming as it did in the midst of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, with America mired in Jimmy Carter's malaise, the Miracle on Ice has earned a permanent place in history: it's been the subject of documentaries, movies, and books; the team was collectively chosen as Athlete of the Year by Wide World of SportsSports Illustrated voted it the greatest sports moment of the 20th century; and announcer Al Michaels' "Do you believe in miracles?" is remembered as one of the great calls of all time. Yes, it was quite a time, it was, enough to make any red-blooded American cold warrior proud.

Amazing? Undoubtedly. 

Unforgettable? Most assuredly. 

But if this was a miracle, what happens when you witness a resurrection, something that you immediately know you've never seen before and will never see again? What Spalding Gray might call "The Perfect Moment"?

With all due respect, that's what happened on the afternoon of May 13, 2012, the final day of the English Premier League football* season, and the match between Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers. 

*If you've enough of a sports fan to have made it this far, you probably know that most of the world refers to soccer as football. I'm going to follow the same convention here.

Entering that final day, Manchester City and their crosstown rivals, Manchester United, were tied for first place. Now, as Charles Dickens might say, you have to understand this much or the rest of the story won't mean a thing: first, unlike American sports, there are no championship playoffs in the Premier League: in other words, the team in first place when the season ends wins the title. If two teams are tied, the tie is broken not by a playoff game, nor by head-to-head results, but by goal differential—goals scored minus goals allowed. 

Second, while Manchester United are one of the most glamorous teams in the world, winners of more championships (19) than any other English team (think of them as the New England Patriots of soccer), Manchester City—well, City was the "other" team in Manchester. Although they'd been around since 1880, they'd won only the title twice, in 1937 and 1968. It had only been in the last few years that the team had become a genuine contender, after their Middle East owners had pumped millions of petrodollars into assembling an expensive team. And yet, they were still known as "Same Old City," a team that could pluck defeat from the jaws of victory. 

This year would be different, though: it had to be different. City were playing at home, against QPR, a team near the bottom of the league standings. Since City had an insurmountable lead in goal differential, their task was simple—beat one of the worst teams in the league, and the title would be theirs, no matter what United did. It was that simple.

As it turned out, though, it wasn't that simple, not at all. After scoring first, City unaccountably found themselves trailing QPR 2-1 in the closing minutes. Meanwhile, United were leading in their match*, and if the results stayed as they were, United would be champions, and Same Old City would have blown it again. One City player would later say that "we were staring down the abyss." An announcer said of the despairing City fans, "Where will they hide tonight? Where will they go? Where will they find the moral fibre to get up and go to work in the morning?" It was that serious.

*In the best English tradition, all matches on the final day of the season have the same start times, creating the potential for just such drama as unfolded.

The clock doesn't stop in football; if anything happens that would ordinarily cause the clock to stop in another sport, the referee simply adds the time on to the end of the half. It's called, appropriately enough, stoppage time. And as the teams entered five minutes of stoppage time, City looked doomed, gassed, destined to fail. Same Old City strikes again. And then—well, let the great announcer Martin Tyler, calling the game on the international feed, tell the story of those final four fateful minutes:

There were only a few seconds left; Sergio Aguero's goal, the second for City in stoppage time, had won them the championship. In a sport where the two most common scores are 1-0 and 0-0, two goals in the last five minutes is, well, special

It was and is impossible to describe the emotion involved. In the stands, City fans, some of whom were heading toward the exits just minutes ago, were now beside themselves in shock, tears running down their cheeks, some of them likely assuring the Lord that they they could now depart in peace, having seen their Blues attain the title, I hope you let that video run for a few minutes after the goal, to savor it, as Martin Tyler says. 

It was an extraordinary moment, one of those that caught the attention of people who weren't even sports fans, let alone soccer fans. It was on the front pages of newspapers throughout Europe. ESPN, which was televising the game live, led off SportsCenter with the story. 

The best indicator of how incredible it all was can be seen in these clips from SkySports. Again, in this quirky world of English soccer, most games aren't shown live on English TV; they're blacked out in order to keep the live gate from suffering, Instead, a live wraparound show like this one keeps everyone up to date, and replays of the games are shown later on. I think I can safely say that, even in the overhyped world of ESPN, I've never seen anything quite like the scene that unfolded 

I knew that day, and nothing has happened since to change my mind, that it was unlikely I'd ever see anything approaching it, and I figure I've still got a lot of years left. If anything, Martin Tyler's famous phrase—the phrase that makes up the title of this piece—is an understatement. The whole thing was incredible, impossible, stupendous, flabbergasting, astonishing, breathtaking, unfortgettable. Peter Drury, the announcer calling the game domestically, asked rhetorically, "Where does football go from here?" 

Perhaps the best way to sum up this miraculous moment, this improbable victory by Manchester City, comes from the words of another commentator; I've forgotten who it was, but not what he said, because it's the only way anyone could describe the indescribable, explain the inexplicable. "For as long as the game of soccer is played," the commentator said, "people will remember this moment, and this match."

Such as it was, such it will be. Even after all the ice has melted. TV 

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