Juventus 1-Barcelona 3: Thoughts from the Final

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.

Real Madrid’s relentlessly optimistic financial results beg closer scrutiny

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.

Ronaldo’s want of more money is an indictment of football’s cash culture

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.

Neymar facing career crossroads in quest to be the best

A sports writer recently suggested that Barcelona and Real Madrid’s unfair hegemony in La Liga was setting themselves up for the same fate that befell Rangers and Celtic in the Scottish Premier League. The idea was that clubs that continued to widen the gap between themselves and the opposition through artificial means, such as the two Spanish giants’ practice of negotiating their own TV rights rather than agreeing to a shared pool, were diluting the quality of the rest of the league to their own detriment. Competition breeds excellence, and the lack of it for Rangers and Celtic transformed two previously regular participants in the Champions League into no more than big fish in a tiny pond, unable to compete at the highest level for lack of practice with quality opponents.

While it may be too much of a stretch to argue that La Liga’s dwindling quality will have the same corrosive effect on Madrid and Barca, whose traditions at the top of the game are well-ingrained over decades (although both did suffer surprising losses in last season’s CL to Bayern Munich and Chelsea respectively), it did illustrate a valid point. Players and teams need to expose themselves to the most competitive leagues to grow and nurture their talent. Part of what makes the artificial gap PSG are about to open up on the rest of the French League so worrying is the potentially stunting effect that regularly turning out against diminished opposition will have on the development of young starlets like Thiago Silva and Javier Pastore. It is also something that might be beginning to bear down on Neymar, the most eagerly anticipated of the clutch of young players on the verge of making their breakthrough.

Neymar’s continuing determination to ply his trade in Brazil until after the 2014 World Cup has the ability to both slow his development at a critical stage and severely hamper Brazil’s chances of lifting the trophy on home soil. There were patches in the Olympic final against Mexico on Saturday when it appeared that the prodigy’s training in Brazil had not equipped him with the knowledge to deal with several defenders instantly closing space around him and suffocating his movement. In the last ten minutes, three runs he attempted at the massed Mexican ranks resulted in the ball cannoning back off them and behind him, as his tricks failed to bewitch defenders who had probably had the opportunity to watch him in carefully prepared training videos beforehand. It is this kind of elite, tactically informed opposition comprising the ranks of international and European football that Neymar is missing the chance to grow against in Brazil, and for which he only has a parsimonious international calendar left to prepare him for in the run-up to 2014.

However Neymar’s obligations in becoming the world’s best player go beyond simply honing his talent in the most competitive leagues in Europe, and thereby becoming a player who scores match-winning goals for both club and country in crucial competitions. Goals can be scored by any great player, and Cristiano Ronaldo is perched atop the best of the rest in this regard. Yet in four consistently wondrous years at Barcelona, Lionel Messi has set the bar higher than that. Beyond the staggering number of goals scored and assists made, what really thrills about Messi is observing how he speeds and flies past tactically educated European defences who have learnt his moves by rote in the most sophisticated pre-match instructions available and are still powerless to halt him. Knowing how effective European leagues are at turning games into tactical battles designed to negate a forward’s natural ability, and then seeing Messi take all of the twenty-two men on the field back to the playground with moves that should only exist on PlayStation and in a child’s imagination is perhaps the closest thing to surreal that sport has to offer.

There is perhaps some truth to be had in the argument that Messi’s genius is unlocked by Barcelona’s unique ability to retain possession in threatening areas and create space for him to launch his unique runs at defences. However, the fact remains that there is not a single footballer from South America playing in Europe today that has managed to retain, let alone polish, the fantastical magic of how they play the game in that continent to the extent that Messi has done. For Neymar, it is the challenge of representing and demonstrating the limitless magic of South America’s game at the highest level of competition to at least the same extent that Messi has done that now awaits him in his anointing as crown prince.