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Leicester City, and the strange relationship of football and grief

Tactically Naive looks back at a tragic weekend in the Premier League.

Mourners Pay Tribute After Leicester City Helicopter Crash Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Hello, good morning, and welcome to another edition of Tactically Naive, our weekly soccer column.

Grief comes to Leicester

It would seem odd to look back on a week in football without mentioning it, even though it doesn’t fall under our usual rubric of “why football is fun”. On Saturday evening, shortly after Leicester City’s 1-1 draw with West Ham United, a helicopter carrying Leicester owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha took off from the centre circle of Leicester’s pitch and then crashed just outside the stadium. He was killed, along with five other people.

Since then, fans of the club and inhabitants of the city have come together to express their grief and shock. The world knew of the club’s onfield achievements under Srivaddhanaprabha’a stewardship: promotion from the Championship, then the most unlikely league title in the history of … well, possibly in the history of league titles. It now appears that his success as an owner was supported by acts of local off-field philanthropy, ranging from the small to the grand.

We live in a world in which awful, accidental things happen at an almost overwhelming rate. But there is something distinct about them happening in the places we go to seek pleasure. Football (and you can swap in almost any other form of human distraction here, this just happens to be ours) is never just escapism, since it is never truly isolated from the wider world — from the flexing of money and power, and all the accompanying stresses and iniquities.

Everything is political; everything is connected. Particularly those things that are desperately pretending not to be.

But that doesn’t mean football is never an escape. There is a saying: of all the unimportant things in life, football is the most important. (The Guardian attributes it to Arrigo Sacchi, Tim Vickery to South America. Pick your favourite.) The unimportance is key here, because it recognises the hard core of banality at the heart of football. Kicking a ball into a net. Who can do it the best?

It is the tacit deployment of this banality — the inert centre around which we build all the demonstrative, aggressive, enthusiastic caring — that allows us to use football as an escape. Even when the everything else is all-pervading, it’s sometimes nice to pretend it isn’t, and that something else is all-pervading, something small and silly. A pleasant luxury, for those who can afford it.

And so when something like this happens, so unexpectedly and strangely, so close to a game, it feels stunning. Grief is always an interruption, but here, as the mind was dragged from Mark Noble’s early red card to something of infinitely greater magnitude and import, it was utterly jarring. There is a white line around a football pitch, and it is supposed to keep things that are not of football out. It doesn’t always work.

The Classical

So. Escape, then. France and Spain both decided to host their Biggest Games this weekend, a monstrous hybrid that TN is calling The El Le Classiquo. Get in touch, Esperanto. Our rates are reasonable.

In both cases, the favourites won. In France, Paris Saint-Germain stretched their lead at the top of the Ligue 1 table to eight points by scoring twice against Marseille, and in the process ensuring that casual followers of French football can look forward to many free weekends this winter.

We can assume that all such fans will take up improving hobbies, or perhaps find time for some voluntary work, and so must credit PSG for helping the human race to greater self-realisation.

By contrast, Barcelona were extremely rude in dismissing Real Madrid 5-1. In the process they also secured the dismissal of Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui, who was sent on his way with yet more rudeness:

The board considers there to be a large disparity between the quality within the Real Madrid squad, which boasts eight nominees for the next Ballon d’Or award — an unprecedented number in the club’s history — and the team’s results to date.

Or if you like: it’s not them, Julen. It’s you.

Antonio Conte isn’t working at the moment. Mauricio Pochettino is, but as Tottenham’s stadium adventures drag on, one wonder how he’s feeling about it. And then there’s always Jose just-about-still-at-United Mourinho: if results aren’t going well, why not get somebody in to insult your players for a few months?

The Madrid manager’s job is one of football’s great sideshows. The holy grail that’s a poisoned chalice. Which sucker’s next?

The inexorable progress of Manchester City

On Monday night, Manchester City beat Spurs, 1-0, at Wembley. It was a very peculiar game: City weren’t brilliant, but they were better than Spurs, who were in the game all the way through but only created a couple of proper chances. Moussa Sissoko was one of the best players on the pitch, which tells a story. No idea what story. Possibly a scary one.

Meanwhile the pitch was a state, carved apart by three solid weekends of NFL. And the stands were part-empty, part-grumbling, as the new stadium slides into another round of delays and refinancing.

Ultimately, Spurs look fundamentally okay on the pitch, even as their issues off it threaten to derail the project. As for City, this was their third big away game of the season after visits to the Emirates and Anfield. They’ve taken seven points from those game, and were a missed penalty away from the full nine.

They’re doing that thing really good teams do, where they seem ominous even when not at their best, because everybody knows how good their best is. In an unrelated note, Kevin Du Bruyne is just back from injury.