Bafetimbi Gomis as “the black panther”, celebrating the winning goal
The recently released documentary, Jack To A King, chronicles the story of a small Welsh football club, Swansea City, which had competed at the top flight of English football a few decades ago, only to suffer a series of reversals until the community, outraged at misfortune and poor management, bonded together to purchase the club. Even as the switch of ownership defied convention and created optimism, the club nevertheless faced a fixture at the end of the 2002-03 season to preserve its league status. Had Swansea dropped the match, it would have suffered relegation from League Two down to a wilderness formerly known as “Conference”, a level of competition where clubs have difficulty attracting professional players and might relinquish their hope. Fortunately, the Swans (also known as the Jacks) defeated Hull City in May, 2003, to secure its place in the league system. From that point forward, in fits and starts, Swansea climbed from League Two to League One, and from there to “Championship”, the second highest tier in English football. The club climbed back into the top flight, the Premier League, for the 2011-2012 season. Most pundits predicted a swift return to Championship.
Fast forward to August 30, 2015, when an inside-out swerving pass from Andre Ayew, a forward who signed for Swansea this past summer, found Bafetimbi Gomis, a striker who has demonstrated his complete game—leaping, speed, strength, instinct—time after time. Gomis ran onto the ball, and with one touch, beat the goalkeeper at the near post. The goal, at the 66th minute, built upon Ayew’s goal, just five minutes earlier, to give Swansea a 2-1 lead. The game ended 2-1, with Swansea earning all three points in the table, depriving its opponent of same. “Its opponent” refers to one Manchester United. Maybe you’ve heard of this outfit? Often called United or Man U, this football team has collected 20 league titles over the years and wields resources far greater than Swansea—maybe ten times greater, maybe higher. “Resources” must include payroll, for sure, but also financial reserves, facilities, worldwide brand recognition, and international fan base, at the very least. This year, the BBC valued the club at $1.98 billion. In contrast, Swansea was sold less than fifteen years ago for a single pound. By beating Man U this past Sunday, Swansea have now defeated The Red Devils three times in a row, after sweeping both matches last season.
Two of the D.C. Jacks after the final whistle
The Swans will travel to Manchester on January 2, to play the return match against United. Should Swansea win that fixture, it would join Liverpool and Manchester City as the only clubs (ever) to defeat The Red Devils four games in a row. By capturing eight points on its first four matches, the Swans currently sit fourth in the table, an improbable distance between this little club and the drop—relegation—predicted by the pundits virtually every season since the Swans reentered the top flight. The club impresses. From the management to the coaches to the starting eleven to the substitutes to the players not named on the game day roster, the club impresses. We American hooligans howl, chuckle, blabber when the Swans topple a financially superior club, but perhaps the time has come when we should no longer view such triumphs as exotic results. In every major sport, in every country around the world, a side that plays with cohesion can beat any other side, despite the gulf in finances, but these outcomes tend to transpire in islands, not as part of a regular streak. It’s early, yet, in the 2015-16 Prem. Thirty-four matches (and 102 points) have yet to be contested (and claimed) but the captain, Ashley Williams, and the rest of the boys, remind us that greatness doesn’t always bloom from big money, but from a team.