Tonight’s glamour match of the Champions League between Real Madrid and Manchester City represents an opportunity that Roberto Mancini would be foolhardy to pass up. City struggled badly under Mancini in a tough group in their first test in the deeper waters of the Champions League, during a campaign that did nothing to dispel the perception that a manager who had failed to replicate domestic success at Inter on the European stage had his limitations. However, if ever there was a chance for a manager and team who are both making steady and impressive strides to maturation to make the final leap to being serious contenders at the highest level, the luck of the draw has given them it. Cancelling out, or even overcoming as tough an opponent as they are likely to face in the Champions League is not beyond the realms of possibility for City anymore, and doing so right from the off will set them in good stead for the rest of the competition. If they seize the opportunity to shine against the best that has been presented before them tonight, it could serve as the graduation of City as a football team and Mancini as a manager to the highest level.
Remembrance of the Hillsborough tragedy has been forefront in everyone’s minds over the past week, and its lessons stretch well beyond the boundaries of British sport. It was as shocking to read about how 96 innocent football fans were asphyxiated to death in a section of the stadium amounting to a death trap, as it was to hear that 264 Pakistani workers were trapped by metal grilles and a lack of safety exits while a factory fire raged around them and they were burnt alive. In Britain, the Hillsborough tragedy ensured that safety standards were upped, while the silver lining in the cloud of revelations that came to the fore last week lay in the ability of its citizens to hold the government accountable and thereby bring about changes that could save lives. In Pakistan, what guarantee that the recent factory fires in Karachi and Lahore will result in honourable resignations and an urgency to correct antiquated structures that imperil people in such ghastly fashion?
As far as sport is concerned, it is always notable how cricket in the subcontinent is played before a fanatical following, who turn out in overwhelming numbers for T20 and one-day internationals and whose pens are delineated in the stadium by strong grilles in the front and to both sides. It would be a surprise to any Pakistani if the safety officials inside the stadium were aware of how many people each pen could take before the risk of a human crush like the one that happened at Hillsborough became a reality, or if they had measures in place to check the number of people in each pen at any given time. Similarly, there is little faith that safety stewards would know how to effectively stagger the number of people entering any pen in the stadium by standing at the entry tunnels, which was a key failing of the police at Hillsborough that resulted in fatal overcrowding.
The intersection of the Hillsborough report with the fatal fire in Karachi places fresh impetus on the Pakistan government to ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again. As far as sport is concerned, it falls to the Pakistan Cricket Board to order a review of safety at all major cricket grounds so that one of the few instances in which people turn out en masse in that country can never be subject to the sort of irreversibly sad disaster that befell Hillsborough. India, too, has a track record of getting up to speed on sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games and the Indian Grand Prix in the most shabby and delayed fashion possible, and would do well to check back and ensure that no potentially fatal shortcuts were taken in the construction of stadiums, stands and terraces.
Roberto Martinez’s willingness to speak up against the big forces at work in the Premier League, and particularly the way they revolve around Manchester United at Old Trafford, was admirably on display once again over the weekend. He aired his view that the referee’s award of a penalty for a dive of the highest order by Danny Welbeck was yet another example of an official being worked over by the Old Trafford occasion. Upon viewing the incident (http://watchhighlightsonline.blogspot.sg/2012/09/video-welbeck-dive-vs-wigan-and-win.html), it is not only striking how easily Welbeck went to ground, but how suddenly the referee was willing to point to the spot after the incident without pausing to consult his fellow officials or take a moment’s thought. His arm shot to his right in an overly eager manner which suggested the occasion had got to him in some way. This kind of thing has happened time and again to teams unlucky enough to come up against Manchester United at Old Trafford: Arsenal were leading 1-0 after 57 minutes in 2009, when Wayne Rooney produced a dive to match Welbeck’s in its crassness (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0UdpLNiD-o) to give United a way back into a match that they eventually won.
There is no suggestion of blatant conspiracy here, but of the latent psychological pressure that Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United exert on the Premier League. Junior British managers such as Sam Allardyce routinely extol the virtues of Sir Alex before matches in which their teams are regularly given a hiding, and there have to be questions asked if the Scot’s reciprocated patronage and praise has the detrimental effect of softening up their ability to infuse their teams with a competitive edge. At the height of the Ferguson-Wenger rivalry and during Arsenal’s strongest years, Arsene Wenger used to insist on maintaining a distance from managerial colleagues who he was required to beat in competition. Similarly, Jose Mourinho makes a point of stoking up antagonism before match-ups with various rivals in order to get the best out of his players. As long as Ferguson keeps putting his arm around men like Allardyce and Mark Hughes, it is hard to believe they can inspire their teams with the fire required to thrive in such difficult ties.
Similarly, the stigma that has built around foreign players diving has benefited Manchester United, that quintessential “British club.” Despite video evidence to the contrary, fans – and referees – are still slow to accept that Rooney and Welbeck are as guilty of diving as any foreign player and fully deserve the close censure from referees that now hounds players like Suarez who have had a reputation tacked onto them by the British press. If that were the case, United might not have won as many as 11 penalties last season (three more than any other team), and Sir Alex’s apparent reputation for “having a quiet word” with players on his roster who dive would be met with greater scepticism.
The brutal truth is that Manchester United, and their steely manager, exercise any advantage available to them to maintain their foot on the throat of the rest and if this means cosying up to British managers to set in chain a weakening of resolve, or subtly reinforcing their reputation as a British club to British referees, they are not averse to doing so. It is notable how Wigan under Roberto Martinez, a foreign manager of principle and poise, have always given United a game and the more credit to them for doing so. The FA can charge him on as many counts as they like for his comments over the weekend, but the point has been made and hopefully its force will be felt by the managers of other smaller teams when they prepare their players to visit Old Trafford.
Despite all the newly arrived clubs whose deep pockets are changing European football’s landscape, it is still Real Madrid whose actions and largesse provoke stronger criticism. Younger and older fans alike may struggle to reconcile the club’s habit for preening itself as an institution of history and tradition with its routine practices of amputating managers’ careers, accumulating trophies through spending near-grotesque levels of cash on players and capitalising on close ties with government institutions in Spain that border on incestuous. This is a club that wiped nearly 206 million euros of debt off at a single stroke by somehow convincing Madrid’s city council to spend such a lavish sum on purchasing their training ground, and that once again called on Spanish banks to secure £157 million of public money at unusually low interest rates in a time of recession to acquire Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka in 2009. It would not be too far-fetched to claim that, given the amount of public money that Madrid have pilfered with the assistance of Spanish banks in a fifteen-year period, they are directly responsible for a significant part of the economic woes of the people who pledge them their support.
However, while the Glazers’ reliance on English banks to bankroll their takeover of Manchester United has seen the club fall into a logical, cause-and-effect based spiral of debt and struggles to refinance the debt, Madrid’s comparable levels of borrowing have not brought them the same problems. Rather, a club who reportedly took out 300 million Euros’ worth of bank loans at the start of Florentino Perez’s second spell as president have gone from strength to strength, proudly announcing a record turnover of 514 million Euros for last year and that their debt has been cut to 124.7 million Euros. Indeed, despite assembling a team that cost roughly 300 million Euros and having to deal with interest payments, there has not been a single financial year in which Madrid have failed to either increase their revenue or announce impressive profits. The latest revenue sums are, as the club’s website boastfully states, “the biggest of any sporting institution in the world” while Madrid have managed to continue reaping in more money than Manchester United and Barcelona even during a period that has seen them fail to claim the Champions League for ten years. We are constantly told that they have an enormous fan base spanning the world (and, in the eyes of Perez, probably any alien worlds as well), but anyone living in South and Southeast Asia will confirm that there are far more Barcelona shirts with Messi on them than Madrid ones with Ronaldo going around. In the Middle East, where Spanish football is more popular than the Premier League, their fan base is pretty much equally split with Barcelona. So too is their TV rights deal with Mediapro, which earns each club roughly 160 million euros a season.
So, if the allure of their players, their on-pitch successes and commercial draw has not been stronger than Manchester United’s or Barcelona’s at any point over the last six seasons, how is it that they are constantly in a position to declare themselves the most lucrative football club and best-performing sporting institution in the world? One suspects that the continued affiliation of Real Madrid with the Spanish government has seen them secure advantageous terms on everything from sponsorship deals, to loan arrangements, interest rates, and payment deadlines. If this did not have such a draining effect on the Spanish economy and its unemployed masses, it would not appear to so much resemble corruption. Yet as it stands, Madrid’s reliance on money to stay competitive is far more damning than that of clubs owned by sugar daddies whose extravagant expenditure was not sourced directly from a public who couldn’t afford it.
As they begin to implement Financial Fair Play rules in full force, it would be an oversight on UEFA’s part not to examine the sponsorship deals and commercial arrangements Real Madrid have secured, and adjudge whether the money accrued is the result of their apparently Midas-like business touch or more dubious special relationships with public institutions that have been in place since the dictator Franco anointed them his club and began lavishing them with his patronage. It is these murky foundations on which the “history” of Real Madrid, and its first five Champions League titles was built, and it is this same culture that has continued to prop up the club’s status today despite a relative lack of on-pitch success.
If Bernie Ecclestone’s recent remark that he was sorry Michael Schumacher is “leaving” F1 was indeed something more than just a semantically careless case of phrasing from the sport’s grandmaster, then he wouldn’t be alone in that sentiment. Schumacher’s second spell in F1 has intermittently threatened to offer so much more than the otherwise lengthy lulls of mediocrity that it has been characterised by. When he came alive, like a sleeping dragon, in the rain at Montreal last year to scythe through a field full of younger competitors lacking his rare ability to deal with the wet, he offered a tantalising glimpse of how his second spell in F1 could thrill the soul if he could successfully overcome time and conventional wisdom to display his brilliant best to a different era. There have also been enjoyably tongue-in-cheek occasions when he has used his experience, cunning and a hint of the old ruthlessness – which nostalgia mercifully permits us to view as a racing quality with less ambivalence than before – to overtake drivers like Fernando Alonso during races and remind us of his enduring threat. However it was at Monaco this year, where he produced a stunningly fast lap in the dying seconds of qualifying to take pole when the chorus of criticism surrounding his return had never been greater, that Schumacher reminded us most majestically that he retained enough of his gifts to be a unique force on the F1 stage during his second spell. Since then, he has slowly but surely been getting the better of Nico Rosberg at Mercedes and given his supporters enough reason to watch his participation over the weekends with continued hope.
It is these sporadic moments that have provided his fans enough sustenance and confidence to bed in for the long wait for the next one and, with the growing presence of Mercedes in F1, there would be every reason to expect they could have been replicated on a more regular basis in the near future. Under the ever-impressive stewardship of Ross Brawn, Mercedes’s development has been on an upward curve during three substantial years in the sport and seems poised to make its definitive leap anytime soon. The car is currently receiving another package of upgrades this weekend, it is hard to see a man of Brawn’s nous not rectifying the problems associated with tyre wear which are compromising its raw speed before the start of next season, and regulation-enforced changes to F1 engines in 2014 should in theory allow engine-manufacturing teams such as Mercedes a head start in car design. In short, the tide is with Schumacher’s team and it would be a source of some regret to his fans and himself if his departure immediately preceded a period in which Mercedes finally unlocked the key to serious competitiveness for its drivers.
This regret would stem not from the sense that Schumacher might have added to his seven titles, but out of the feeling that he could have made us privy to so much more of that unique thrill awoken by watching a sporting legend recall his finest moments in a new age like he did at Monaco. It is these golden moments, with their triumph of enduring genius over the passage of time, thrilling possibility over pragmatic unlikeliness, that provide Schumacher’s second spell in the sport with a power as compelling in its own right as the first was for its relentless pursuit of excellence and accumulation of world championships. It is the possibility of experiencing these moments again that has kept Schumacher and his fans going all this time, and it would be a shame if he quit right at the point when the future seemed to offer so many more of them.
The problem is that, if it turns out to have been a question of money, he will lose the respect of a significant portion of football fans around the world – and he was not exactly ahead of Messi anyway – because at the end of the day, if Ronaldo feels undervalued at Real, he may have a reason to be ‘sad’ but, if he is only after more money, then his comments are an insult to those who have a proper reason to be upset.
The above quote formed the main thrust of a football article in the Guardian newspaper recently (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2012/sep/04/cristiano-ronaldo-sad-money-affection?commentpage=last#end-of-comments), which sought to condemn Cristiano Ronaldo’s apparent greediness in asking for more money at a time when the rest of Spain and Europe are locked in financial crisis.
I think people from the football community who are sanctimoniously deploring Ronaldo’s request for more money don’t realise just how two-faced and small-minded they sound. Every Madrid fan currently lambasting him for wanting a pay raise must have been punching the air in delight when their club lavished 80 million pounds of public money to buy him from Manchester United to start the fightback against Barcelona. Along with him as the flagship signing, Madrid’s squad is one of the most gratuitously constructed – financially speaking – in football, and it is the short-term demands of the fans that partly drives this vicious culture of spend-to-win. If you were looking for sporting culprits responsible for exacerbating the woes of the Spanish people, you would point the finger at Madrid first rather than Ronaldo. Football’s disregard for money is a cultural disease of which Ronaldo merely forms a symptom rather than an underlying cause. He has likely cast an envious eye at what Samuel Eto’o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sergio Aguero – players whose worth arguably does not outstrip his – are earning at clubs with similarly wanton financial cultures as Madrid’s and feels he is in line with a pay raise according to today’s market rates. It should be the clubs and, by association, condoning trophy-hungry fans who take the blame for inflating today’s market price to such worrying proportions rather than Cristano Ronaldo.
Real Madrid may have won the Supercopa, but the tie should have given Barcelona fans plenty of reason to look forward to their future battles with fresh hope. The first leg confirmed that, for all their investment and recent anointment as Spain’s best team, Madrid still lag streets behind Barcelona in terms of their ability to dominate and paint a canvas over a game in the same way as their fierce rivals. Tiki-taka may have come under fire recently, but Spain’s supreme showing at the Euros and the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barca in that first leg reaffirmed its place as the most important development in football over the last four years. Were it not Angel di Maria pouncing on a moment of hesitation from Victor Valdes with a dogged persistence characteristic of his manager, Madrid would have suffered a 3-1 defeat more reflective of the enduring gap between the sides.
However, for the time being, Jose Mourinho has been able to use illusion and a gift for making people believe in a narrative that doesn’t really exist to upset the odds. Ostensibly, Madrid’s recent ability to best Barcelona in their duels appear to be the sign of a team taking great strides forward in its development under a manager who can seemingly imbue his teams with qualities of invincibility. Upon closer inspection, however, Mourinho’s ideas for tackling the Barca problem remain starkly spartan and have not advanced over the course of the last two seasons. His entire game plan hinges on Madrid shooting out of the blocks as quickly as possible; if they can press, harry and hassle Barca into ceding an advantage in that first half-hour, he then falls back on his tried and tested ‘blanket defence’ approach to protect that lead when their legs start feeling the effects of such a lung-bursting effort initially. This achieves his twin goals of finding a way to score against Barcelona and not opening up to an extent that would allow their unparalleled attacking force to run riot.
Mourinho bills himself as a miracle-worker, so it wouldn’t be surprising if some Madrid fans felt his stellar reputation and astronomical salary should have brought them more than simply a smash-and-grab, underdog approach to toppling Barcelona. For the time being, their grumbles have been stifled by the surprising number of triumphs this approach has yielded. In their last seven meetings, Madrid’s high-octane starts have seen them snatch the crucial early lead that Mourinho needs for his counter-attacking strategy to work on no less than five occasions. There was the Supercopa 2011 first leg (Ozil, 13 mins), La Liga first match (Benzema, 1 min, after he forced Victor Valdes into a mistake that matches his most recent one for silliness), Copa Del Rey first leg (Ronaldo, 11 mins), La Liga second match (Khedira, 17 mins) and now the Supercopa 2012 second leg (Higuain 11 mins, and Ronaldo 19 mins). It is remarkable, given the series of recent results, that Barcelona have failed to spot how important these first thirty minutes are to his increasing success against them in El Clasicos and how a simple willingness to hold firm under Madrid’s short-lived intensity will see them gain total control of the match and Mourinho run out of ideas. Had they not collapsed so pitiably in the first twenty minutes of the Supercopa it is conceivable that Madrid would have run out of steam whilst still being obliged to look for an equaliser, and Barcelona would have begun finding the spaces on the pitch any team needs to prosper.
It is already noticeable how successful results have blinded much of the media and many football fans from spotting what Mourinho’s percentage strategy continues to say about the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barcelona. Instead of acknowledging how much Mourinho relies on football’s intrinsic favouritism of the underdog (a single goal can undo a team’s hard work, whereas in tennis the gap in quality between opponents is established over hundreds of points; likewise, not many other sports allow opponents to entirely forgo the obligation of competing by adopting Mourinho’s infamous ‘parked aeroplane’ approach and still come away with a reward), a seductive narrative has emerged that Madrid are closing the gap to Barcelona who will continue to find it tough going in the future. The power of positive thinking can be limitless, and Mourinho will no doubt be encouraging such thoughts among his players to entice match-winning performances from them even beyond the first thirty minutes. However, Barcelona should not listen to the chorus of doomsayers building with every negative result and instead take note of what such a defensive strategy continues to admit about their superior ability as a footballing force. If they can start games in a better fashion in the future, there is every chance that Madrid’s huff and puff will peter out and the true gap that still exists between the teams will come to bear again.