I keep on my phone a screenshot of the best quote I have ever heard about sports. “People are always coming up to me,” said Jimmy Greaves, a Tottenham Hotspur star of the 1960s. “‘Jim, can you remember that goal against West Brom in 1968?’ and I say, ‘No.’” He continues: “But that’s all right because they only want to tell you about what happened to them, anyway. ‘Well, you had the ball on the halfway line, and I remember that because I was with Charlie and we’d just got two pies …’ and it turns out the real story is about Charlie dropping his pie and what you did wasn’t all that important anyway. And I prefer that, really.”
Sports, then, is a deeply personal experience. They serve as a sort of timepiece—if you love them enough, you can remember exactly what you were doing and what your life was like during the big moments. Then there are the moments which are so monumental that they are dividers, neatly breaking your sporting life into two pieces: before that moment and after. Tottenham Hotspur had such a moment on Wednesday, a quick, jolting goal from Lucas Moura, his third of the evening, deep into stoppage time, to finally overturn a three-goal deficit and defeat Ajax to make the Champions League final next month. Fans will compare stories about this goal for the rest of their lives—they will tell people where they were, who they hugged, and what they screamed. (Many more reaction videos will emerge but here’s a sampling: Steve Nash crying and Glenn Hoddle saying he’s happy to be able to see this after a recent health scare—and a wild celebration with Rio Ferdinand.)
What happens next is important, sure—there’s another game to be played—but in a more general way, everything happens next because Tottenham fans are living in the world that comes after that goal. From a purely sporting standpoint, Wednesday, May 8 will go down as an unforgettable day in the history of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. However—again—because all sports are personal, May 8 is also the day that everyone had to stop talking shit. For Spurs fans, no matter where you were—Amsterdam, London, or Los Angeles—it was the great release.
Being a Spurs fan—I am one—is a strange journey. One of the more distressing side jobs of a Spurs fan, historically, has been defending their squad—at work, in texts, at bars—against a mostly imagined narrative of underachievement. The shorthand for this narrative is a term—Spursy—that is among the most misguided in sports, similar to “Clemsoning,” a phrase used for another group of underachievers before Clemson became the top team in their sport. Spursy is supposed to mean inevitable failure, irrespective of the fact they are about to finish their fourth-straight season inside the Premier League top four, employ some of the greatest players in the world, and appear to have an upper hand on their North London rival, Arsenal. The term Spursy was already on its way to being retired (replaced by constant think pieces about how it’s been retired), but it still lingers enough in the sporting world to have been trotted out last weekend. The problem has been that Spurs have done just enough to invite some jokes even in these boom years—they do not buy as many players as other teams, they sometimes flop in big spots (like the 2016 title race), and they have not won a trophy in a decade despite their talent. But there is quite literally not anything they can possibly do now to elicit that term without it seeping in sarcasm, as it was on Wednesday night after the semifinal. Spursy is dead. It is survived by a functioning, elite team.
So yes, this was deeply personal. Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino said, “Thank you, football” afterwards—an appropriate nod to the sport that made this happen. All three goals were unexpected, the last with mere seconds left before the final whistle.
There will be myriad narratives arising out of these last two Champions League games that will generate a lot of analysis. Both Liverpool and Spurs were missing their best forwards—Mo Salah and Harry Kane, respectively, which might elicit a take or two. The fact that two teams erased three-goal deficits in the Champions League semifinals probably says something about the efficiency of modern elite offensive football and what happens when teams go all-out on attack. But none of these things are important at the moment. As Bruce Springsteen puts it, life is at its fullest when one plus one equals three. This was that. Pochettino described the comeback as “very close to a miracle”—which undersells it. What is important is the impossible high sports can bring. There are a lot of people who, before Wednesday, did not know that they would think fondly of Lucas Moura for the rest of their lives, or that Spurs’ vaguely ugly green jerseys would become cherished reminders of a legendary night.
“It wasn’t about the substitution or changing the way we play. It was about belief,” Pochettino said. There was nothing broad to learn about soccer from either of these games—the efficiency of a quick corner kick notwithstanding—except that anything is possible. There are millions of people who now believe that good things can happen in football that did not believe that on Wednesday morning. Moura called the goal the best moment of his life—a sentiment shared, I’m sure, by more than a few Tottenham fans. “It is still difficult to talk,” Pochettino said. Maybe it always will be.
So, about that Greaves quote. Last year, I was with Case Keenum, about three weeks after the Minnesota Miracle. We were at a mall in Minneapolis talking about his life over the previous few weeks, and I told him about the Greaves quote. He stopped me and told me that’s basically all anyone had done since the play—they didn’t necessarily care what he did, they cared what they were doing. Keenum had some fans around as we were talking; as he turned to them, the first man said, unsolicited: “I was in a mountain cabin watching that play and …” Keenum looked at me and just smiled.
Lucas Moura, welcome to the rest of your life. Spurs fans, welcome to the rest of yours.