Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
Champions League Round of last 16: Arsenal vs. Bayern – 1:3
It’s almost exactly 8 years ago that these two met in this competition at precisely the same stage of 1/8 finals (February 23rd, 2005), with Arsenal ultimately getting knocked out on goal difference due to Bayern’s home win by 3 goals to 1 (Arsenal won the return leg 1-0). The two had locked horns before that in the 2000/2001 tournament, with Bayern also going through on that occasion, on the strength of a home win in Munich (1-0) that the Gunners could not overturn at home (2-2 at Highbury). So the historic odds were not favorable to the Londoners tonight, and given the form of the visitors, there is no huge shame in the evening’s final outcome (and especially considering that 2 of the 3 goals for the visitors were highly scrappy).
Back then in 2005, the result was definitely not a given, as Arsenal was still considered one of the favorites within the English Premier League (EPL), and Wenger & Ferguson formed a formidably intimidating & untouchable duo of senior football aristocrats that would invite much ire from new contenders, and notably a newly competitive Chelsea (under José Mourinho’s direction) and its defenders. So it was that I rejoiced with much glee at Bayern’s win 8 years ago with the following article (in French: http://www.subfoot.com/artman2/publish/2004_2005_39/Le_probl_me_de_la_France_Bayern_Munich_-_Arsenal_3_267.shtml – but don’t bother reading it, it’s mainly rubbish really).
Fast forward 8 years and, at the time of writing, Arsenal are 5th in the EPL and in their 13th consecutive season in the last 16 of Europe’s top clubs, a feat that very few can lay claim to (certainly not Manchester City, nor even great Fergie’s Manchester United, who – it should be reminded – were eliminated at the group stage by ‘lowly’ Basel last season). Yet, if you were to assess the situation only on the basis of UK tabloids’ reports (and around Europe generally, modern day lowest common denominator consensus obliging), you’d be forgiven for thinking that Arsenal are about to be relegated to oblivion to the netherworld i.e. the Championship and/or (shock horror) the Europa League. So it is that Wenger cuts an increasingly lonely and isolated figure each day, deemed to be out of touch with the faithful and generally assessed by the “experts” as being inept and responsible for the “ignominy” of Arsenal not collecting any titles for now eight consecutive seasons. Needless to say, you would not find many takers for a bet in Arsenal’s favour, and certainly not in the British media who were still busy digging their teeth into Wenger & his team for the home defeat in the FA Cup versus Blackburn Rovers on the weekend.
As a self-declared Mourinho die-hard supporter, it would be easy for me to rejoice at this witch-hunt against one of the most disingenuous managers in the history of the EPL (alongside Fergie). However, I’m not one to join with the chorus of the obvious. Not because of any sympathy with Wenger, but rather because the obnoxious sense of entitlement exuded by segments of Arsenal fans and especially a number of UK tabloid hacks (some of them disgruntled Arsenal fans) is simply so base & short-sighted that it is impossible to relate to with any degree of seriousness.
From the standpoint of criteria applying to any other profession, what Wenger has accomplished as general manager since taking over is simply outstanding. Not only is the club financially stable and debt-free, but Arsenal consistently competes at the top level on all four fronts (EPL, CL & the two cups) and furthermore offers a style of play that, while sometimes nerve-wrecking, is nevertheless broadly entertaining and technically laudable. Add to that an increasing propensity for supporting local British talent, and you have a near perfect recipe for an-all time darling for the cause of British football.
That it is not the case today is partly Wenger’s own fault, as his autocratic and generally defensive communication style has over the years alienated many. A lack of good fortune also played its part in near misses that might have allowed for more breathing space, such as the defeat to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final at the end of the 2011 season. Wenger probably has his share of blame in all this, at a technical level (coaching & recruitment skills in recognizing the importance of, and consolidating defensive capabilities) but potentially more so through the subtle but pernicious influence of his obstinate defense of the club’s impressively consistent but unglamorous results. By doggedly defending as a major achievement the club’s track record of finishing in the last 4 (of the EPL) and accomplishing decent runs in the Champions League, he has arguably contributed to lowering ambitions in the dressing room. It is impossible for outsiders such as journalists and fans to assess such things, one can at best speculate.
But fundamentally his low stock of late is less reflective of a real problem of competency than the paradox of modern football fans’ expectations, which were brilliantly illustrated by WSC in a recent issue (as below). At the end of the day, having tasted glory in the modern era, and despite the fact that they should know better than to envy the increasingly ridiculous shenanigans of Abramovitch and his poodles, or the outrageous financial dealings of the Glazers ilk, some segments of Arsenal fans (or is it really only journos, ultimately?) can’t help themselves but yearn for a piece of glory, and as time goes by, are increasingly prepared to throw caution to the wind just in order to have their 5 minutes of indulging greater fantasies of basking in the sunlight of a trophy. For victory is never guaranteed, it must be earned.
Funnily enough, it seems to me as if the real losers who need to prove themselves in all this were not the boys in red & white, but the ones in black. It has now been relegated to the archives, but few care to remember Bayern’s identity-tormenting 2006-2007 season that not only ended without trophies, but saw the club ‘demoted’ to a year in the Europa League, which at the time prompted scathing comments from that most sensuous of goalkeepers, Oliver Kahn. More recently, Bayern qualified for the Champions League final twice in the last 3 years, only to be outplayed both times, by Inter in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012, neither of which were seen as favorites on the day.
Like the German national team, Bayern Munich tend to impress in the early stage of competitions and the first few rounds of “when things get serious”, attracting plaudits from everyone including your mom to that annoying bloke at the office whose understanding of football stems solely from reading tabloid headlines. But they then proceed to fall flat at the critical moment like a deflated soufflé, and with remarkable regularity. Will it be so again this year, or will they finally show the mettle required of winners? If not, perhaps there is a bit of a challenge remaining for Pep Guardiola – the universal darling of all – to bring his managerial skills to bear. It would certainly help to counter what otherwise seems to be an illustration of a penchant for safety in his rather sedate choice to tie the knot with the Bavarian ogre that looks set to win the Bundesliga by a considerable margin. But then again, it will not be the first time that he inherits a well-developed structure & winning team to perform with – a fact that will be conveniently forgotten by all as soon as he wins any trophies. Because as we all know, success washes away all sins.
More predictable than a rant by a bunch of old ladies’ waiting for a late bus, the wave of moral outrage at José Mourinho’s declarations (at the press conference after the Bernabeu leg of the Real Madrid-Barcelona Champions League semi-final fixture) just keeps on swelling. You thought you had seen it all after Rooney’s cussing at the camera (at the away game against West Ham United) led to hordes of eager liberal journalists being dispatched up and down the UK on a hunt for children whose tender and vulnerable psyches’ had been forever maimed by such an unbridled display of vulgarity. That was just a green salad appetizer for the big bloody meat dish that is on display now.
Indeed, following José’s expression of frustration at losing the game after going down to ten men for the fourth time in his career against the club where his career began, certain sections of the press have rushed in to voice their profound indignation at the Portuguese coach’s statements. One such poignant example is that offered by Simon Barnes, Chief Sports Writer at The Times, who dedicated a whole article to the matter in his column on Friday April 29th. In grandiloquent prose normally reserved for Sunday sermons or the prosecution’s closing statement at a Hague war crimes tribunal hearing, Barnes proceeds to paint the world in black & white with José in the role of the leading baddie. The Portuguese has not just gone one step too far: he is, according to Barnes, both Saddam-level crazy as well as truly evil and should be excommunicated from the civilized world.
What is amazing about this article (1) is that it is actually only scantly related to football. It barely mentions anything connected with football other than the obligatory reference to UEFA, the two clubs, granddaddy Ferguson and of course that famed predecessor and supposed spiritual father figure Brian Clough. Its main bone of contention and source of outrage is that “Mourinho blamed the defeat on the United Nations children charity, an organization that is more concerned with getting supplies to Libya and Ivory Coast than the question of who a bladder into a net more times on a balmy evening in Spain“. The writer then proceeds to develop a truly bizarre diatribe from this conclusion and reading on, one would be forgiven for thinking that the article is about the discovery of concentration camps in one of Africa’s current battlefields and/or another supposed genocide that the West should rapidly intervene in by deploying ground troops and missile strikes.
Three interesting things can be deduced from this article and in particular from this one key phrase above. First of all, that in order to have so completely misconstrued José’s cheeky and rhetoric questions, Simon Barnes either relies on extraordinarily poor translation services or is himself completely barmy. Secondly, that he is clearly using this situation as a platform for making his case for a bit of a promotion: it is clear from his offering that he would indeed be far happier in the role of chief political columnist or foreign affairs editor, or something of the sort, that would allow him to grandstand and showcase his excellent moral fibre and moving verse to the rest of the world. Most importantly, the article is proof that José’s comments are more pertinent than ever, precisely because they have touched upon the raw nerve of an elaborate and wide-reaching yet fragile general consensus that has formed around Barcelona football club in recent years.
By questioning the current near-universal legitimacy of Barça as the perennial “nice guys” and brand owners of “beautiful football” who can do no wrong, José has stirred up a much bigger hornets’ nest than merely that of protocol in European club football competitions. He has dared to question the symbolic status of Barça as the current universal darlings of football, a view that is interestingly today probably held to more passionately by those who are by and large outsiders to or only casual observers of the world of football like Simon Barnes (2).
This is because Barça have indeed come to represent something special in the modern game through their particular brand of identity that combines the following unique strands:
1. Exceptional individual and collective skill (there is no doubt about that), but this is actually the least important of the three – though it is certainly a necessary basis to be added to the next two key differentiators.
2. The (apparent) role of the victim, extracted from the association with the Catalans’ frustrated aspirations for independence, is perfectly fitted to the spirit of our age where being a victim commands the highest level of moral legitimacy. This is cleverly disguised too, since the sums Barça spend on their transfer signings are by no means small and an only slightly more careful analysis would clearly replace them in their real role as the other (with Real Madrid) pariah of Spanish football. Albeit actually used only opportunistically by the club, the peculiar parochial identity kit serving as the victim costume has been made palatable to a wider audience by a cosmopolitan veneer provided by the city’s and club’s European dimension, and notably – linked to the latter – the Dutch connection, that other beacon of enlightenment. This is a key feature that sets Barça apart from other similar clubs such as the Basque club of Atletico Bilbao, that goes much further with its identity-based approach to recruitment and as a result would clearly never fit the bill for the same kind of pan-bourgeois respectability.
3. The image of general nice guys (like Iniesta and Xavi), diametrically opposed to that of typical football heroes such as Maradona (general all-round druggie bandit with communist leanings to top it off) or Rooney (working class ogre); the latter are typically highly unacceptable to the middle classes and right thinking elites for their lowly origins, overall arrogance (of skill in their trade or sheer bravado) and excessive material wealth acquired too quickly and, as far as the elites are concerned, too easily. This is where the UNICEF logo comes in as an all-important proof of concept of the club’s moral high ground, as if eschewing base earthly material concerns.
The defenders of this image of Barça are all the more rabid and excited these days because, in the style of self-elected elites, they actually have difficulty dealing with others questioning their worldview and would generally prefer to resort to censorship based on the claim of moral outrage. But deep down they cannot completely disregard a growing awareness of the excessive exaggeration and dramatization (by their chosen symbols) on the pitch, which has been highlighted in previous important games in the current and previous recent seasons. The British football press themselves had their own little anti-Barça shout first with Chelsea’s elimination in 2009 and then once more earlier this year over Van Persie’s red card, but again this was mainly expressed within the football world: the “outsiders” were on balance still busy at work justifying Barça’s victories for their general greater uprightness, especially versus those nouveaux riches Chelsea (3).
What especially worries the defenders of the Barça myth is the possibility of their newly found shining symbol being sullied like its predecessors. In England, this recently came to fore with Thierry Henry’s “dirty hand” that not only decided in favour of France’s qualification to South Africa at the expense of the Irish, but also proved to be the undoing of many years of construction of a similar angelic myth formed around Wenger’s ideals and establishment favourites Arsenal, and which the French player was a key ambassador for. Delicious proof that these people are prepared to sink to extraordinary depths of contradiction was provided by none other than Wenger himself who, having railed at UEFA following Arsenal’s frustrating elimination from the competition and been officially charged for that rant, still proceeded to give Mournho a lecture on being a good loser without a hint of any self-awareness.
Hence it is clearly completely unacceptable that a representative of the garlic belt should have the temerity to suggest that anything improper has taken place, titled as he may be. Mourinho might even consider himself fortunate that no children were present to hear his statements and that the latest episode of the Osama Bin Laden show aired only after Simon Barnes published his article, short of which the latter might have invited the CIA to prioritise a new target.
(1) If you want a copy, let me know – send me your e-mail and I can forward.
(2) He apparently prefers bird watching and is “not an avid sports fan” – see link as well as his wiki post.
(3) It was a telling sign of the connection between these two clubs in the construction of the “new football ideal” that, despite Arsenal being resoundingly humiliated in play as well as through the unfair unfavourable refereeing decision, English journalists continued to try to emphasize the proximity in style of play – and therefore stature – between the two clubs.
How is it possible for the Italian football authorities to reduce Ibra’s initial 3 game suspension for the punch on Bari’s Rossi to only 2 games? 20/20 is a mutha, really. Apparently, he was trying to get the ball, according to reports. Yes, Fergie would probably agree, Rooney was trying to do the same the other day. Galliani and him should start a club. Unbelievable. Here’s how I feel about that.