In search of fortune and football

‘Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm’ Winston Churchill

Football chants and anthems are an intriguing part of contemporary world folklore. Some have been borrowed from hits, operas, and local songs, some have been specially written for a specific fan group, and some originated lucidly at stadiums. A number of them, such as Liverpool’s famous You’ll never walk alone are about fans’ unity, whereas those like Barça chant are about successes and struggles on the field. Partizan’s I love black and white, or Lucky star – lately sung by Podgorica’s Barbarians resemble ballads. Unlike those songs of unity, courage, and titles, the chorus of West Ham’s “Bubbles” says ‘Fortune’s always hiding, I’ve looked everywhere’. In contrast to the Barbarians certainty in knowing they will find their lucky star, the Hammers are atypically certain of disappointment but seek nonetheless. 

When I was finishing high school, the 2003/2004 school year, the Premier League was becoming popular. Up to that point, there was no way of watching English football in Montenegro because the few available TV channels streamed only Calcio. For some reason, I heard about West Ham and became interested. There was no way of watching their matches that year as they were in the second league (which, quite logically, was called the First Division), but there was a way of finding out the results. They were a proud team, drunk on their own greatness (it was called the West Ham Way, the 80s and 90s offense style) even though they only won a couple of cups over 40 years ago. The fact that West Ham made some of England’s then greatest players such as Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole, and Glen Johnson drew me to the team. Their outsider vibe resonated with my personal understanding of football. 2004 was the year a 17-year-old midfielder by the name of Mark Noble joined the West Ham team. He became known as Mr. West Ham. This is a story about him. 

West Ham season 2005/06

It is worth wondering why we watch football and why it is the second most important thing in the world. It’s not the simplest of games in terms of the rules, nor is it the most dynamic, or perhaps the most fun. In fact, football is one of the rare sports where the end score is a dull 0-0. Yet, it is the second most important thing in the world watched by billions on TV screens and at stadiums, whether Jedinstvo from Bijelo Polje is playing, German Würzburger Kickers, or Leyton Orient. I believe that football owes its popularity to the fact that it exceeds the rules of life. It’s the only game where an outsider truly stands a chance against the favorite. Yes, basketball games are played by two five-player teams, but can you imagine a mid-major team like Žalgiris from Kaunas, Lithuania, has the slightest chance of winning the game against some NBA team? In football, that happens regularly; 11 outsiders can take the best team by surprise. Football is a sport in which Greece, without a single superstar, becomes the champion of Europe and Crvena Zvezda wins Liverpool 2-0 even though the market value of its players is nowhere near as those of Liverpool’s. Footbal is a sport where miracles like these happen frequently.  Faith in the impossible is what makes football the sport we love. 

Having spent his entire career in one club, Mark Noble is currently a unique player in the world’s top leagues. Football has become a high-class business a long time ago. It has turned into less of a game and more of stock speculation, and the same can be said of the teams, players, and coaches. Fans are the only ones who remain old-fashioned more or less. It’s hard to think of players who remained loyal to a single team, who started and ended their careers in the same club. Some of them are Giggs, Totti, Maldini, and Carragher. There are other players whom we thought would do the same, like Barcelona’s trio Messi, Xavi, and Iniesta. Instead, they decided to cash in their final career days in France, Qatar and Japan. Their decisions shouldn’t be held against them seeing as athletes have a “short shelf life” and it’s only legitimate for them to use it in the best possible way. Noble chose a different path and that is something worth respecting. 

Rice and Noble

The midfielder, captain, and the legend of West Ham will run out onto the field just two more times as an active player. He’s spent 18 seasons in clarent and bluey and prior to that, he played in youth school. Born just 1,5 kilometers from Upton Park into a family of football fans, he saw the demolition of the old stadium and the transfer to a new Olimpic one. He played the most matches for his club in the Premier League and is the second-best club scorrer in the league. Noble went through all of England’s youth sections and played against Montenegro (their team prepared for the match with Montenegro in my hometown of Bar). He has never played for the senior squad even though, during his career, by far weaker midfielders like Fabian Delph and Jack Cork were invited to play. This led the fans to sing “Noble is too good for England”. When he was called on to play for Ireland, since his grandparents are from Cork, he declined by saying he’s English, that he played for the youth selection, and sang the English anthem. Moreover, he found it unjust to take the place of some young Irish player who’s dreamt of playing for the national team. 

Noble’s loyalty stands out in comparison to that of Carragher, Giggs, Totti, and Maldini. Although they are undoubtedly better players in their respective positions, they’ve had the opportunity to rejoice in their loyalty to a single team, they’ve raised cušs, and paraded through the streets with European and national trophies. 18 years later, Mr. West Ham leaves his team in a better shape than he found it in – at the top half of the league instead of hanging in the balance between the first and second tier, though still without a trophy. He’s never raised a cup or won a medal, and he’ll never be able to say that he’s a champion. In May of the current year, it seemed that football will be that game we all love, that second most important thing which transcends the rules and becomes cinematic. West Ham was in the semi-finals of the Europa League for the first time since 1976. There was only one step left that would lead us to imagine the finale in Seville in which Noble scores a goal in the 90th minute after stepping in from the bench and celebrates his first trophy with his teammates. Suddenly, happiness was within reach, and the thought of Mr. West Ham being rewarded for his loyalty to the club by bringing in the first European trophy seemed real. This is a tale that even those tepid football fans hoped for, a tale for the history books. 

None of this happened in the end. Eintracht rightfully won the semi-finals. They’ll play the Rangers for the trophy. The fans’ feelings were best summed up by Declan Rice. “Forget me. Forget the lads. I only wanted to win this for Nobes. That was on my mind throughout this whole tournament because that would have been the end of a career he deserves.” said Rice. On the other hand, maybe it was supposed to be like this. It may simply be that the archetype of a team whose fans sing “like my dreams they fade and die” can’t end his career with a trophy. This may be a story of loyalty that doesn’t get rewarded with a palpable success, a story about football, about West Ham, about Mark Noble. To paraphrase Selimovic, there’s nothing as valuable as a man who tries and fails. Attempt, value, and effort are successes by themselves that don’t require a golden trophy. Perhaps this loyalty will be rewarded differently. Perhaps Mark’s son Leny, who’s currently training, will win the trophy instead of him. Maybe Rice, West Ham’s future captain and the best player in his position, will decide to follow in the footsteps of his older friend and mentor and continue to lead the club to a new level instead of directly going to better and more lucrative teams. Until then, for the outsider’s club from East London and those alike from all over the world bubbles keep on flying and bursting like dreams and fortune always hiding. The quest continues.