First the calves cramp up, then the mind. How else to explain the pitty-pat slap that Didier Drogba administered in the final slogging minutes of the Champions League final on Wednesday?
Does the name Zinedine Zidane strike a familiar chord?
With one master imitating another, another dreaded shootout mimicking the head-butt World Cup final of 2006, Manchester United beat Chelsea after a 1-1 draw in the pouring rain of Moscow.
The slap by Drogba happened during one of those milling-about scrums that take place when players have lost their marbles late in a match. This obvious weariness of leg and gray matter explains why championship games must end somehow after 120 minutes rather than have these exhausted athletes milling around any longer.
For most of the match, there was a simple plot. Cristiano Ronaldo, still only 23, was obviously the best player on the soggy turf, which had been imported from Slovakia. Ronaldo had the best moves, skippy little stutter-steps that allowed him to get around defenders time and again. The whole match was predicated on Ronaldo, the handsome Portuguese youth with No. 7 on his back, and double joints in his ankles and knees.
I was watching the match in BXL Cafe, a Belgian place on West 43 Street, but thinking of the shuttered L'Angolo in Greenwich Village, where we used to watch this final. BXL was jammed with a good percentage of Americans who talked knowledgeably about players and strategy. And many neutral observers, eating moules and frites and drinking Belgian beer, hissed at Ronaldo's diving theatrics while admiring his magnificent talent.
Not only can the kid run and jump, he has also mastered the skill of heading the ball, which seems almost unfair. On Wednesday, in the 26th minute, he worked his way to the back post and outleapt a defender to convert a cross from Wes Brown that gave Manchester United a 1-0 lead. The goal was his 42nd of this season.
The place went nuts for reflexive saves by Edwin van der Sar, the Dutch keeper for Man U, and Peter Cech, the Czech keeper for Chelsea. (For this first Champions League final between two English clubs, they flew all the way to Moscow to represent the Russian owner of Chelsea and the American owner of United.)
Chelsea managed to draw even in the 45th minute when Frank Lampard scavenged a loose ball and flipped it past van der Sar and pointed to the heavens in honor of his mother, who died earlier this spring.
In the second half, Chelsea began to use all the tools put at coach Avram Grant's disposal by the very wealthy friend-of-Putin owner, Roman Abramovich. Drogba became more noticeable up front. Michael Essien began to make sorties from the deep right where he had been shadowing Ronaldo. In the 78th minute, Drogba hit the right post.
The minutes added up, cramping everybody's brilliance. In overtime, Lampard hit a crossbar at 94 minutes and John Terry, the stalwart Chelsea captain, stuck his head in the way of Ryan Giggs' shot in the 101st minute.
By then, the players were fried. Those who were not lying on the ground, stretching their calves, were lurching into each other, looking for trouble, out too late, too far from home, like punch-drunk sailors in a foreign port.
Drogba chose to make his effete little slap in the open field, just as the smooth Zidane of France had delivered a head-butt to Italy's Marco Materazzi late in the World Cup final in 2006 after a slur of some kind. Zidane was expelled then, and Drogba was banished now.
Just as Zidane was not available for the shootout in 2006, with no guarantee he would have scored, Drogba was not available in the miserable little coda of the shootout that soccer uses, because there is no more logical or humane solution for a draw.
The mood in the cafe changed when Ronaldo sauntered in for his penalty kick and kissed the ball. Only a few closeted United fans did not hoot and jeer at the gesture. Virtual unity on West 43rd Street. When Cech guessed right and smothered Ronaldo's low shot, the joint laughed derisively.
But the plot kept spinning as Terry, the anti-Ronaldo, tall and stoic, botched the fifth Chelsea attempt, and Nicolas Anelka missed the seventh one, and Sir Alex Ferguson had his second championship, and United had its third, and the long European season was over.
Everybody now gets to take a deep breath for a minute or two. The frolics resume with Euro 2008 from June 7-29 in Austria and Switzerland, the second-greatest soccer tournament in the world, often won by dashing outsiders. Even American soccer has three big friendlies coming up: England at Wembley on May 28, Spain at Santander on June 4, and Argentina at Giants Stadium on June 8. Good grief, even the Red Bulls are showing signs of resolve.
Soccer never really sleeps on this planet. For a few days, soccer buffs can relive the pageant of Cristiano Ronaldo dominating a muddy pitch, defying the gods with an ostentatious smooch of the ball, and finally rolling on the grass in relief.