Sports Nut

Guts, No Glory

What I learned watching an English Premier League match up close.

Adel Taarabt of Queens Park Rangers is chased by Scott Parker of Tottenham Hotspur during the Barclays Premier .
Scott Parker (L), defensive midfielder of England’s Tottenham Hotspur

Clive Rose/Getty Images.

LONDON, England— “The Game Is About the Glory.” That motto, painted in blue on white, circles the interior of White Hart Lane. Tottenham Hotspur, the soccer club that has played here for 112 years, stepped onto the pitch Sunday as the English Premier League’s hottest team, unbeaten in their last 10 matches across all competitions. I came to watch them dazzle their opponents, Queens Park Rangers, with a blizzard of goals.

But that wasn’t what I saw. What I learned from watching the world’s toughest league up close, 20 feet from the pitch at midfield, is that the game isn’t about the glory. It’s about the work.

Coaches understand this. For three years, I helped coach my son’s grade-school soccer team. The hardest part was getting the kids to do things that help the team but reap no glory. The kid who puts the ball in the net gets hugs and high fives. The kid who delivered the cross gets ignored. The kids who play defense hear from their teammates only when they cough up a goal.

This year, I signed up my son for a new team. But the coach exacted a terrible price: He got me hooked on the Premier League’s fantasy soccer game. Instead of coaching a real team, I’ve been managing a fake one, checking live scores and recording every match I can find on American TV. Nobody with a job can watch all those games, so you zip. You fast-forward till you get to a goal.

When you watch soccer this way, you see games decided by brilliant strikes. You fall in love with players like Rafael Van der Vaart, Tottenham’s free-firing midfielder, and Emmanuel Adebayor, the club’s gazelle-like forward. I own both of them in the fantasy league, and Adebayor is my captain, which means his goals count double. I came to White Hart Lane thinking he might score a hat trick.

I was wrong. He had a terrible game. He blew headers from point-blank range. He failed to convert a breakaway. He fired wide from 12 yards. Late in the match, he went up to meet a perfect cross in front of the QPR goal. I watched in horror as another Spurs player lunged forward, intercepted the cross, and botched it.

Van der Vaart played wonderfully. He blasted shots and crosses, delivering a lethal strike half an hour in. The star of the day was Spurs winger Gareth Bale, who scored twice in Tottenham’s 3-1 victory. If I’d been watching the match on TV, I would have thought that was the story. But from just behind the Tottenham bench, what I saw—and heard, with the staccato punch of every ball—was the intensity of man-to-man combat. Time slowed down. Encounters that seemed slight on TV were actually complex and hard fought. And the hero in this unrelenting struggle wasn’t Bale, Van der Vaart, or Adebayor. It was Scott Parker.

Parker is the other guy Tottenham acquired this year along with Adebayor. He’s cheaper, slower, clumsier, and 6 inches shorter. Hardly anyone owns him in the fantasy league, because he plays too far back in the formation. What you want as a fantasy manager is a midfielder like Van der Vaart, who really plays striker, not a midfielder like Parker, who really plays defense. Parker doesn’t score or get credited with assists. He leaves that to the guys up front.

What Parker does instead is win games. He does this not by punctuating the match but by controlling it. He smothers oncoming attacks. He forces opponents off the ball. He orchestrates distribution out of the back, setting in motion a Spurs onslaught that will culminate 60 yards downfield.

I’d seen Parker in TV highlights last year when he scored the odd goal for West Ham United. Otherwise, I’d hardly thought of him. But you can’t watch the game up close without noticing Parker. He was in the back corners bailing out his defenders. He went head-on at QPR’s speedy winger, Shaun Wright-Phillips, and took the ball from him through sheer will. Even when he was knocked down, Parker managed to poke the ball to a teammate. My favorite sequence was a QPR attack led by striker Jamie Mackie. From behind, Parker overtook Mackie and picked his pocket.

The visiting QPR fans chanted, sang, and never let up. They cheered every cross and corner kick. They cheered a completed pass. Neil Warnock, the little elf who coaches QPR, stalked the sideline in sweatpants, cursing and shrieking at his players. The Tottenham fans, however, were strangely quiet. At halftime, when the hosts brought out balding old-timer Phil Beal to tell the crowd about his 400 matches as a Spurs defender, the questions weren’t about all the goals he’d prevented. Instead, he was asked about the one he’d scored. Beal said he’d had no idea what to do when the ball came to him for the shot. Then he’d had no idea how to celebrate. He recalled waiting like a child for someone to escort him back to the halfway line.

This year’s Tottenham squad has the opposite reputation: It surges forward and leaves itself exposed. But on Sunday, Parker’s diligence was contagious. Luka Modric, a Spurs midfielder better known for his playmaking, tracked back to block shots. Bale stood guard against three QPR attackers, clearing a far-post high ball from Tottenham’s goalmouth. Even Van der Vaart, who has slacked off defensively in previous matches, applied pressure in his own half.

As the minutes passed, I cursed Adebayor’s failure to cash in on all this work. Instead of lurking in front of goal, he was drifting back toward midfield to collect headers and distribute passes. Only gradually did I accept that he was there to help his team, not mine. In the final seconds of stoppage time, when a QPR corner kick floated in front of the Tottenham goal, it was Adebayor who rose up to put his head on it and drive it out. And when the ball was played dangerously back into the 18-yard box, there he was again to boot it away as the whistle blew. He couldn’t put the ball in the net, but he could keep it out.

Bale got the headlines that night. And as the Spurs exited the field, it was Bale who had a coach’s arm gratefully wrapped around him. “Glory, Glory, Tottenham Hotspur,” the fans sang. But I’ll remember this game for the little things Parker did to win it and Adebayor did to save it. Those things won’t help me in my fantasy league. But in real life, they can help me teach soccer to my son.