The charm of top-class sport was on display over the last two days. It didn’t just inhere in the mental fortitude and technical brilliance on display during the matches themselves, but also in the immediate aftermath of the matches when the players let their guards down and revealed the impact of the released weight of realised dreams, broken ceilings, shattered hopes and crushing defeat. Nowhere was this conflictual mass of human emotion that underpins the wonder of these sports more poignantly evident than Novak Djokovic’s reaction to the applause the French Open crowd gave him upon receiving his loser’s medal. Aware of Djokovic’s history of disappointments and close calls at the French Open, the crowd lavished him with a full-hearted round of applause that continued past the ordinary length for such events. Djokovic acknowledged their applause with the grace and decorum that a champion is expected to muster, but it was only upon the breaking of the third wave of their applause that stretched beyond the conventional limit that the crowd’s affection for him and his disappointment became too much for him to handle. He visibly broke down under the weight of what he was feeling, and had to struggle to fight back the tears amidst his gracious smiles. He wasn’t alone either, and therein lies the majesty of sport: its ability to raise in us the same hopes, fears, dream and herculean responses to challenges. With the startling contrast between his controlled grace and subsequent visible emotion during those two long minutes, Djokovic made his way into our hearts. Stanislas Wawrinka was a worthy and heroic champion, but both players in their attitude on and off the court were a testament to tennis and the fine attributes sport can invoke in men.
Juve Show Another Way
At a time when it has become fashionable for teams of all levels, regardless of the occasion or the strength of their resources, to “park the bus” against technically superior opponents, Juventus showed that it is not only possible to take on a team like Barcelona with courage and positivity but also desirable. Thanks to their determination to attack and not be pressed back for any considerable length of time, the final was a high-quality, gripping affair that occasionally produced thrilling passages of play when the teams moved the ball from one end of the pitch to the other at a searing pace. Juventus’s approach made the game close and fascinating to watch as each team fought closely to press the advantage in a contest studded with high-quality turnovers, ball play, vision, improvisation and athleticism. It was everything a match between big teams should be and was a welcome relief after the approach of some of the teams’ counterparts in recent times. Both teams would have won themselves, and possibly football, a lot of new fans last night in a way less courageous opponents than Juventus would not have made possible.
Speaking of finals living up to their billing, there were two other thoughts that came to mind. One was that the style and slickness of the football did justice to the magnificent aerial shots of the Olympiastadion, showing a gleaming pitch below and a crimson sky as dusk slowly made its way across Berlin. Everything was gleaming: the football as well as the stunning shot of the resplendent stadium with its backdrop of a reddening sky.
The second was that any final adorned with the rare talent of Lionel Messi was likely to be elevated to greatness. His every touch was a sight in itself, while it was fascinating to experience how someone so apparently casual in his movements can carry such a great menace. Even when he was not doing much, we were anticipating his next burst of pace, shimmy into life. It was a pleasure and privilege to watch him.
Pirlo’s Tears and Barcelona’s Joy Make Us Love Football Again
To see Andrea Pirlo in tears at the end of the match, and a young successor to the greatness he embodies in Paul Pogba also fighting back the tears as he tried to console him, was to appreciate once more the gamut of human emotion that football can provoke. Pirlo’s tears were a particularly powerful and laudatory illustration of professional pride, given that he has won two Champions Leagues and a World Cup before. Alongside their skill, it is the size of the heart of men like Pirlo that makes them so special to the game. His tears and hunger for what he had lost lent a poignant gravitas to complement what had been a superb final. Pogba’s tearful consolation of Pirlo was yet another fitting, heart-rending image of the camaraderie and heroism that football can inspire in its players and through them, its fans. For such unguarded displays of emotion following their lion-hearted efforts in the finale to the most prestigious club competition of the year do their part to endear fans to football alongside the brilliance of their on-pitch displays. On the one hand, the veteran was crying and on the other, the youngster’s tears besides him showed a marvellous continuity with the game’s best traditions, of wonderful talent maximising itself, coveting the best trophies the game can offer and inspiring the next generation. Bravo, Pirlo and Pogba, for showing us all why it matters.
Equally powerful was the unaffected outpouring of joy with which Barcelona rushed towards their supporters after Neymar’s goal, almost forgetting to wait for the referee’s whistle, and converging with them in a bubbling mass of claret-blue, red and yellow. The spontaneity with which the players reacted to that final goal once again stripped football of all its trappings and reveal the beating authentic heart that still drives players, its fans and is brought alive by finals such as this.
On a similar note, Xavi bowed out last night after a seismic career, and it was also wonderfully apropos to see him embracing Pirlo at the end of the game, given how much these two great artistes have done to raise their clubs and grace the game with their immeasurable, inimitable skills.
How Truly Great Are Barcelona?
Barcelona’s second treble has prompted inevitable comparisons with Pep Guardiola’s team. However, despite their deserved triumph this season, doubts still linger about the current line-up’s true claim to greatness. If greatness is measured by a style of play as well as great players, then it is arguable that this Barcelona team falls short of the Guardiola team that has left such a mark on football and contributed so much to the Spanish national team that have dominated international football over the last decade. Guardiola’s team dominated the game from first minute to last in a way that required more of the ten players apart from Messi; Luis Enrique’s looks more porous during games and appears to rely disproportionately on the three individual talents in their forward line, with the remainder relegated to a supporting cast. As with “parking the bus”, using a counter-attacking tactic may seem sensible when Messi and Neymar form part of your forward line but also comes across as the obvious, uninventive, easy way out. Part of what made Guardiola’s team great was that they presented a vision of football that was so radically different from all that surrounded it, which seemed to elevate itself above the stratosphere in which other teams could play. It was riskier but also harder to pull off and its uniqueness was what merited titles such as “great”. Barcelona under Enrique appear to be deliberately jettisoning some of of that cherished ability to nurture the ball in possession through technical talent and footballing intelligence, in favour for a blitzkrieg version of football which, whilst admittedly exhilaratingly effective, looks like a copycat of the approach of many other teams in Europe throughout the last five years. Instead of being the innovators, Barcelona have bought really well and become the imitators. While they have deservedly been successful, such a jettisoning of their higher aspirations may see the club shorn of its sheen and unique identity that have made them a pioneer and a paragon over the years.
The latest shockwaves to course through Italian football involve Antonio Conte, banned for ten months from coaching Juventus for not reporting match-fixing and Serie B player Emanuele Pesoli, whose melodramatic reaction to his three-year ban for match-fixing was to go on hunger strike and chain himself to the gates of the Italian Football Federation. The draconian sentences came about as a result of the work of a recently-launched match-fixing task force. Their efforts have seen police search more than 30 homes of players, trainers and administrators as well as ban seventeen other players for their part in match-fixing.
For an organisation that has the ability to involve the police and government forces in its goal of eradicating match-fixing, it is remarkable how little focus the task-force seems to have placed on targeting the progenitors of betting rings. Banning players who move to the beck and call of shadowy mafia will accomplish little in the long run, apart from them waiting patiently for their chance to infiltrate football once again. 17 players have been banned, but only five people were arrested in Hungary on suspicion of being part of an illegal betting cartel. These are the people who form the heart of the problem, and scything off its branches in the form of players and football figures without targeting them will solve nothing. Given that match-fixing in football is well-established across Eastern Europe, it will take a coordinated effort by UEFA, every national football federation affected and government forces to root out evils that have accompanied human endeavour since the beginning of time and will continue to tempt players in the future. It is the job of these institutions to ensure that football is as highly regulated and protected as other businesses and civilian interests from the corrosive plague of mafia.
Both Manchester clubs have given Arsenal plenty of grief in the recent past, but it will still hurt more if Robin van Persie were to go to Alex Ferguson’s team rather than Roberto Mancini’s. City’s recent picking of Arsenal’s ripe talent has its roots in the club’s overall expansion and is devoid of any personal undertones. However, United’s bolstering at Arsenal’s expense, by acquiring their best player, cuts more deeply for a welter of personal reasons. It was not too long ago that Arsenal were United’s strongest rivals, and Wenger Ferguson’s greatest managerial foe. It would have been unthinkable then for Arsenal to be forced to sell their best player for the benefit of their most important rival. For Arsenal to now effectively play the feeder club role to Manchester United through the van Persie sale would be a painful and fresh reminder of how they have diminished in stature while United have kept growing. Add to that the image of van Persie and Rooney dovetailing together to score against Arsenal next season, and it is easy to see why his possible switch to United provokes stronger feelings than to his other two suitors.
Tactically speaking, fans may also wonder what Arsenal’s voluntary strengthening of both their Manchester rivals says about their ambition for the new Premier League season. This is a club that should not accept the status quo proposed last season of both Manchester clubs being a cut above the rest, and preventing United from becoming the first club to reach City’s plane through the acquisition of van Persie would demonstrate this.
If he has to go, better Arsenal explore and exhaust these options in the following order: Juventus, then City and then – only if the price is agreed on Arsenal’s terms without compromise – United.