Battle-Hardened Masters

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By Spencer Robinson

Photos by Masters Football Asia

If Arsene Wenger and Jurgen Klopp had been patrolling the touchline at the Singapore National Stadium, it would truly have been a spectacle worth watching.

As fans of Premier League giants Arsenal and Liverpool will concede, their clubs’ respective managers can get a little over-heated when temperatures rise – and crucial decisions go against their teams.

All the more shame they weren’t present at the grandly-proclaimed Battle of the Masters, a much-hyped tournament featuring three 40-minute round robin matches between past stars from Arsenal, Liverpool and Singapore.

During the first 119 minutes of play, the most contentious incident occurred when Arsenal’s Luis Boa Morte went to ground in the Liverpool area. A clear spot-kick, screamed the Singapore Gooners. The referee disagreed and waved play on. Boa Morte went ballistic.

Given that players from both camps had excelled with their platitudes throughout their visit to the Lion City, this reaction was both out of character with what had gone before and a welcome reminder that a fierce pride still burns within these guys, many now in their mid-40s and a handful already beyond the half-century mark.

A yard or three in pace they may have lost and an inch or four around the waist they may have gained, but for all the pleasantries exchanged in the build-up to the contest, ultimately the competitive edge and hate (or fear) of losing has not been extinguished.

Masters Football Asia, the event’s organisers, did their best to keep a tight lid on proceedings throughout the few days the players were in town, going to extraordinary lengths to enforce their own style of censorship. To their shame, they stooped so low as to verbally threaten bona fide media who had the temerity to ask pertinent questions of Robert Pires and Steve McManaman at what was dubbed the official pre-match press conference.

Given such a lamentable and heavy-handed approach, perhaps Steve Black and his Masters team should take a leaf out of Donald Trump’s book and simply deny media the opportunity to speak at press conferences. Or how about a press conference at which no press are invited? Either way, problem solved.

No doubt they would have liked for the media to gloss over, or preferably ignore, the second on-field flashpoint – an ugly last-minute flare-up between Lauren and Robbie Fowler.

How poetic that, with the clock ticking down, the climax to the Battle of the Masters should be the prospect of a punch-up. As Lauren and Fowler squared up to one another following a typically robust challenge from the ex-Cameroon defender on the former England striker, team-mates rushed in to pull them apart. You could just picture Messrs Wenger and Klopp on the sidelines, snarling at an embattled fourth official and demanding justice.

Upon the restart, Arsenal raced upfield, broke the Liverpool offside trap and stole a last-ditch equaliser courtesy of Pires. The scowl on Fowler’s face betrayed his fury. A 2-2 draw. Honours even.

“We’ve stuck together over the years, and I think it shows on the pitch,” reflected Fowler, who had the last laugh as Liverpool were crowned champions having thrashed Singapore 5-0 in the second match of the evening. “We’ve still got that edge where we want to win, even when things aren’t going our way,” he added.

In the tournament’s opening contest, a familiarly profligate Arsenal could only manage a 1-1 draw against the hosts, Alexander Duric neatly flicking home a cross five minutes from time to cancel out Pires’ opener.

There were a handful of other moments to cherish – Kanu drawing gasps as he showcased his trademark stepover; Pires and McManaman displaying deft feints; silky flicks from Fowler and Jari Litmanen; Winterburn, hands on hips, catching his breath; pacy bursts of Albert Riera (one of the few under-40s) … and the irrepressible David James, whose antics and play-acting earned him generous applause. He also happened to take the best penalty of the tournament.

Perhaps, though, the biggest cheer of the evening came with introduction of Fandi Ahmad for a late cameo appearance. Singaporeans of both Arsenal and Liverpool persuasion showed genuine appreciation to arguably the finest footballer the country has produced.

For the most part, though, the atmosphere was subdued, despite frequent high-octane musical interludes and the gallant efforts of the fast-talking touchline announcer to raise the noise levels of the spectators. He may have failed in that respect, but he succeeded in making certain the attendees did not go home unaware that this Battle of the Masters was ‘presented by American Express CapitaCard’.


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