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.
So, the Russian finally has his coveted European trophy… and I am sure he was amongst those least likely to think he would earn it with this assistant coach, following the worst season (from an EPL standpoint) since his arrival. Hop Di Matteo!
But is it so unexpected? 9 years after the start of the Chelski project, but more importantly, 8 years after the arrival of another previous assistant and the club’s first successes in this modern era, these are the ripe – and yes, somewhat unlikely – fruits to be reaped from the seeds that the Special One sowed back then. In their joy, the current team may not be bothered to thank him now (and will be forgiven if so), but this footprint was not missed on those that know the club’s history of play, and notably during the two legs against Barça. It was during those two ties that Chelsea laid the foundations of their defensive solidity and concentration, with grit and determination borne from the teachings of their first mentor who turned them from perennial underachievers (à la Spurs) to champion material.
For days the papers will be full of praise for the two main heroes of the evening, Peter Cech & Didier Drogba, and rightly so. Even in victory, Didier has shown that he is a great and humble athlete. What they may forget to mention alongside their (and their teammates’ various exploits along the way) is who put them up there, along with the relatively uncelebrated (at that point in time) Frank Lampard and John Terry. But it is not this scribe who will forget that the signing of the Ivory Coast striker, fresh from a great (but single) season with Marseille, was one of José’s first signings for the Blues, and yet one of the most heavily criticised. If you do not believe me, see the following links 1, 2 and 3 for some good examples of the kind of shock and incredulity back then, which went on for a while as the Drogba scored “only” 16 goals that 1st season. £24m may have been a lot to pay back then, especially for someone who had previously not fetched more than £4m (£3.3m according to some reports). But who will dare to come out and claim now that it was too much? Probably not one of France’s golden generation, Mr. Frank Beef, who was strongly suggesting an exit for the striker during the “disappointing” 2010-2011 season that saw the Blues get only to second place in the EPL.
We all love a good comeback story, and last night’s victory is all the more endearing for this generation of players because so many – in the style of the afore mentioned french defender – had written them off and already consigned them to the dustbin of football has-beens. It is a silly mistake to have made, especially since José’s Inter had shown similar verve in accomplishing their historic treble only two years ago.
Which is all very reassuring – there is balance in the universe after all. It’s not just about joga bonito, but also about determination, spirit, abnegation, collective solidity, self-confidence – in other words, normal football. At the very least, the Blues should be acknowledged and thanked for restoring that balance once again.
It’s very quiet today in terms of football watching opportunities… there is the German cup final tonight… maybe I’ll watch to see if Kloppo can take one further title away from the loud Bavarians. It would be good if they end up complete losers across all competitions, in the same style as Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. But they are still favorites for next Saturday, no diggedy.
In the meantime, management of second tier EPL clubs is invited to take notice of the old guard sale at Milan AC. The departures of Gattuso, Nesta, Van Bummel (that’s purposeful – lame & cheap – but purposeful) and Inzaghi (the only man that José ever said he is afraid of) have been confirmed, and Seedorf as well as Zambrotta are also expected to move on. Good buying opportunities (in terms of increasing media profile and WAG coefficient) for QPR (if they stay up), and perhaps especially Reading, whose new boss’s wife has set the bogey.
But there is fortunately some major action taking place tomorrow. The EPL final round has turned out to be more of a hyping up opportunity than the media could have ever dreamed of, and Fergie has not disappointed by upping the stakes with a fine volley of his expertly crafted mind games. Mark Hughes must be wetting himself at the opportunity to ingratiate himself in the eyes of his former mentor, and who knows, maybe also the Glazers. Will certainly take a special place in the red’s hearts if he manages to frustrate Mancini’s boys.
In Spain, it will be fascinating to see if Real Madrid can reach the 100 point mark by winning their last game at home against Mallorca, and perhaps even reach the +90 mark on goal difference – which makes for a nearly +3 average per game. Not bad for a defensively minded team masterminded by the enemy of football. Sevilla will be happy to turn the page on this season, but sad to lose one of its final greats from the phenomal epoch of the UEFA Cup double, Frédéric Kanouté, whose contribution and partnership with Luis Fabiano, Dani Alves, Jésus Navas and the others was a key factor in the success of the club. A great but yet very underrated player (check out his wiki if you don’t know his career, a couple of interesting points about his personal life and engagement on political issues), Kanouté also confirms in this little clip how much humility, integrity and sense of loyalty he has – estarás en nuestros corazones para siempre, Freddy!
Regarding Italy, it’s a big day tomorrow for the four clubs competing for the final C1-qualifying 3rd spot, namely (in current pecking order) Udinese, Lazio, Napoli & Inter, as well as Lecce & Genoa who will battle for survival in Serie A. Big thanks to my man Nick for passing on this superb post in honour of super capitano Javier Zanetti – like Clark Kent (copyright: Prince O), he never ages (and yet never has to resort to any kryptonite).
Finally, a mention of this documentary sent to me by my good friend P, otherwise known as Blu (of Downtown Boogie fame). Interesting but somewhat annoying documentary on corruption – while starting out promisingly on a cross-sports theme, it quickly becomes boring as it transpires that – despite it’s title (Sport, mafia & corruption) – it is going to all about vilifying football and presenting financial crime operating through online betting sites as an inevitable corollary of the former. Against a doomsday keyboard background that would have been great for a follow-up to the tedious Angels & Demons, and accompanied by a narrator whose voice sounds as if he is recounting the story of a genocide, the documentary descends into “modern football” bashing and low common denominator / soft leftie consensus on the general (and highly original) theme that “money is bad/corrupts”. They roll out a few statistics on the amounts involved – all of which pale in comparison to the sum of monthly irregularities in the financial industry. I am not saying there is no problem, but the general doom-mongering tone, as well as the gimmicky typewriter sound accompanied filming location sites legends, are supremely unhelpful. Still, I suppose it should be highly recommended viewing for all Juve fans – it seems this kind of stuff is still news to them.
A few words on the CL semi-finals… (now that the black armband has come off from Wednesday’s disappointment…)
Yes, it was very disappointing to accept that José will not be in the final, as well as to see him displaying some uncharacteristic signs of emotional weakness. Don’t really care so much for Madrid, but the mouth watering prospect of a potential double for JM was so compelling that it was hard to accept disappointment, hence the radio silence of a few days. In addition, the actual penalty shout-out, itself another emotional roller-coaster (my favorite concept at the moment), was about as impressive (from a technical standpoint) as Switzerland-Ukraine a few years ago – they are still picking up the birds that Ramos brought down from the Bernabeu side roof.
But in a way it is good for football that the two noisy and steadily more annoying favorites from Spain, generally held (except in the UK) to be the European country with the highest standard of football at the moment, did not make it through. It is a case of two mini giant-slaying feats, in the context of the Champions League. Though Chelsea and Bayern are far from being the Davids (of Goliath association, not Edgar) of the story, it is nevertheless good proof to the doom mongers and nostalgia bashers (of the football of yore) that modern football results can not be “bought” or predicted, and that at the end of the day it comes down to what happens on the pitch, the impact of micro-cosmic decisions made in split seconds, nerves, grit and concentration. In my view (and I said it at the time), the decider is the last minute goal conceded by Madrid in Munich – José’s face at the time said it all. Madrid still has some maturing to do, and perhaps it is reassuring (and calming to the nemici) to realise that the so called enemy of football is actually human after all, and sometimes vulnerable like the rest of us. But José please work a bit on the penalties for next year – it is most definitely your weak spot.
As for the “best team of the universe”, though it was delightful to see them lose their cool (and especially Busquets collapsing as Nando’s ball rolled into the net), they remain as formidable as ever. Though many pundits will now undoubtedly start turning their vests and adjusting their forecasts for next season, the whole thing was down to a few key misses that only a few months ago (and certainly last year) would have found the back of the net. In that sense, Chelsea may have been a fortunate beneficiary of the fatigue and lack of confidence that Barça have found themselves in due to the pressure piled on them by José’s Madrid. But this should not diminish the fact that the Blues’ old guard put in a formidable performance, largely inspired by the initial feat accomplished by their still present mentor and his Inter in 2010. And that IS football – as so well put by this contemporary in the ever reliable WSC (minus points for not being brave enough to own the “anti”).
Highlight of the two nights: the Ramires chip – a true golasso, and far from an isolated feat – he scored some beauties this season, including a very similar goal against Spurs at Wembley a few weeks ago in the FA Cup semi-final.
Yes, bitches, the venom is back.
It is true, it’s been a while though… arguably he should have stopped at Terminator 2, and left it there at undisputed classic status.
But back to serious matters, it has indeed been a lame and unproductive football season… I’m talking about this blog of course. About as consistent as Wigan (but… capable of some heroics – at least I hope). The reason? It is difficult to separate the heart from the mind – that’s why I don’t believe in football journalism.
It’s not yet officially an “annus horribilis”, and with the prospect of José clinching the title from the so called “best football club in the universe”, and Inter again being able to entertain ambitions of Champions League football, things are looking up a bit. If City can manage to squeeze out Man U and Chelsea edges out the reds in the Cup final, I may even pop a bottle of the ole’ bubbly (even if I can’t stand the stuff, in my view it is one of those bourgeois “tick the box” exercises that you have to partake in, like having expensive V-necks and pretending to be interested in poncy expensive watches). The Champions League final is a major conundrum – the Mou KGB is still locked in debate over the party line to be adopted.
So why the slightly down feeling? Well, it has been a heck of an emotional roller coaster, and importantly, it’s not over yet! Everything could still go completely wrong, and a lot certainly has. All my preferred clubs have suffered this year:
Where do I begin? Apart from beating the cousins in January and appearing to be threatening for the title, it has been a miserable 9 months. Nearly every game (there are some exceptions, like the 5-0 thrashing of Parma, also back in January) has been an interminable sufferance, with near ridiculous defensive howlers and last minute disappointments, the worst of them being perhaps the double affront against Marseille, who has arguably exceeded itself in its inconsistency – but at least they have a Cup to their name this season. I’m not even going to talk about the embarrassing home defeats versus newly promoted
clubs that in past times would normally have been overcome with at least clean sheets. Hopefully the next few weeks, with the all-important return derby, will provide some cause for joy. The horrible twist is that if we beat them, those even more horrible black & whites will surely clinch it then – but sometimes one has to be egotist and accept imperfection as happiness. Clinching a Champions League spot would certainly be an achievement after so much instability (two coach changes, significant player departures, injuries, disappointing recruitment), though again, I fear the other side of the coin that may be the President’s penchant for going for another recency effect propelled “big name boss” (e.g. Bielsa). The young Strammacioni in the meantime is showing signs of promise – who needs a wooden villa? Not us. Perhaps the Prez should really stick to his financial fair play related low profile, bottom-up approach, get Coutinho back from Espanyol (where he has been making a name for himself), release a few senators, and give a new generation a proper shot at building confidence through experience and a real sense of responsibility and accountability to the fans.
The slide from consistent top half table performances that already started last year, foreboded by the departures of key players like Luis Fabiano, Adriano and Renato, and previously numerous other – now illustrious – former colleagues such as Dani Alves and Seydou Keita – has shown now signs of decelaration. Sevilla could still possibly clinch a Europa League spot, but I wonder if it will do them any good – it could actually make matters worse. The recruitment this year has not been too bad, and at least there are signs that the defense has stabilised – it is worth noting that at this point (after 34 games), Sevilla has the 3rd best defence in la Liga (not far behind Madrid), thanks to the additions of Emir Spahic from Montpellier, and a greater role for the chillean pit-bull and midfield marshal Medel, who has been consistently clawing at other team’s suave dribblers’ ankles. But though Trochowsky has shown skills and adapted well, he – as many others, notably the underwhelming Rakitic – are no replacement for the caliber of the aforementioned former luminaries. But again one has to look at the bright spots, and one of those (that I should truly have posted about) was the 0-0 against the “best team in the universe” at the latter’s home ground, with my hero Freddy K. standing up for himself and all of those other teams who are constantly and systematically at the receiving end of the favors that the Spanish football establishment continues to bestow on the darlings of football. Perhaps the President is happy with this state of affairs (two-three coach changes per season) but from observing how others fare with such practices, the fans’ worry is that Sevilla could soon find itself involved in relegation battles. Has Monchi lost his flair for new talent? I trust not, but the signs are not reassuring. Let’s hope at least that we hold on to Negredo and Jesus this year, but there will be big shoes to fill (literally) with the now likely departure (possibly retirement) of Kanouté.
It has been a rotten time for Swiss football, and particularly the Swiss-Romand sides. While the immediate future seems to have been secured to a degree (I’m not even fully up to speed – please comment if you are), the newly promoted Geneva club has enjoyed its share of despotic folly of a megalomaniac president who, though not as bad as his counterpart at Neuchâtel Xamax, has undermined all the enthusiasm and ambition acquired following last year’s promotion.
4. Chelsea (and it is purposefully in this positioning of emotional relevance)
Needless to say that it has bit of a confusing season again, due mainly to the inconsistency of results, but the Terry-mania has not helped either. Predictably, the “team one” underperformed (in José we trust…) and subsequently got done by the team, though what the whole episode really helped to highlight is once again the short-sightedness and lack of sophistication of the owner and his current posse of henchmen, notwithstanding that there may have been serious issues in the Portuguese’s leadership. The Blues are still battling on 2 important fronts and, and should they clinch the ever elusive Champions League title, could suddenly find themselves the darlings of England (which will undoubtedly result in renewed self-delusion about England’s chances, though I am not sure about Terry’s inclusion in the squad). However at this point it feels to me like they’re more likely to repeat the loser feat of Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 (i.e. lose both Cups) than to surprise in Europe – and the 4th spot at this point appears like a bit of a challenge – key game next week against an ambitious and budding Newcastle side). Bright spot of the season? The steady and impressive growth of Ramires and his two beautiful chips against Spurs and Barça in the two cup semi-finals.
So, hopefully now you can at least sympathise (though I expect no mercy and no pardon) with the difficulties this emotional roller coaster has been providing yours truly in his self-appointed (and self-righteous) role of pseudo anti-football establishment bard. Despite some promising potential upsets (including the mancunian derby), I plan to keep my emotions in check over the next few weeks and invest sparsely. But hopefully the inspiration for writing will be all the better.
P.S. Hope Lille finishes 3rd (but would be nice if Inter could swoop for Hazard), and even more that plucky Montpellier pips PSG for the title.
P.P.S. note to self – consider choice of preferred Bundesliga club for next season – especially helpful for increasing hate focus against the noisy bavarians. And bravo Lulu (Favre).
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.
I hope that all the whinging “beautiful football” people bothered to tune in to the Europa League to see a very entertaining game between Porto and Villareal (at the Estádio do Dragão) which ended in a six goal orgy. If not, it’s OK, they are forgiven for missing it, I do understand that the marketing of the “beautiful game” does not encompass such lowly sides from the South of Europe, so feel free to catch the highlights here.
Despite being down 1 goal just before half time, Porto staged a very convincing comeback with striker Falcao netting 4 goals on the night, 1 penalty, 1 short distance slot in, and 2 magnificent headers. This third highly impressive performance by the Colombian striker (he already scored 3 against Spartak Moscow earlier in April at home, and 3 against Rapid Wien away back in December) will surely see his name popping up on cash rich managers’ summer shopping lists, as will probably Hulk’s, who did not score tonight but provided one assist and has otherwise enjoyed a great season. Hopefully for them they (or their agents) will know better than to succumb to Steve Bruce’s or Alan Pardew’s swan songs.
Undoubtedly I also now expect the pro-Barça or joga bonito leaning hacks to opportunistically raise the stock of André Villa-Boas (the “little José”) to stratospheric levels in typically simplistic and infantile juxtaposition to his mentor. The man definitely does deserve props for what he has achieved as Porto have literally obliterated all local opposition this year and will probably emerge as the favorites for the final, so don’t get me wrong; but I’m certain it won’t even be another 48 hours before we’ll be subjected to more of the same kind of cheap and patronising trite drivel as uttered by the two stooges on Channel 5 (one of which was a most infuriating Scotsman that seems to be such an unavoidable staple of football on British TV) masquerading as football philosophy, to further castigate Mourinho and score brownie points with all other respectable aficionados. The best illustration of these people’s ignorance and baseness was the statement that André Villa-Boas “should be – no disrespect to Porto – looking for a job at one of Europe’s big clubs”. Maybe someone should inform them that in the last decade Porto won both a Champions League and a UEFA Cup, a feat that only one so called “English” club can match: Liverpool. But then that Porto side was coached by a guy called José Mourinho and you see, it’s not very fashionable to be supporting him… or at least not until he wins something else again.
Anyway, mega props to Portuguese football for fielding 3 clubs in the semis (and especially Braga for making it through so many rounds and persevering after a fairly grueling Champions League group stage), and for heading for what seems likely to be a spicy all-Portuguese final.
Prince O from Subfoot.com has brought to my attention something of a pattern that has emerged in recent years and that seems to occur in situations when Barça are in difficulty: they get a little helping hand from the ref. Typically this takes the form of a red card against their opponents, which in turn produces not only numerical advantage but also doubt and probably at least some disorganisation in the opponents’ initial game plan. This is the case generally and though I have not trawled through the Liga results, it was certainly true recently against Arsenal, as it was in the final in 2006. But it is especially true in the case of games played by the Catalans against José Mourinho’s teams. It was so in Camp Nou in the 2004-2005 season against a rising Chelsea side coached by the newly anointed Special One, as Drogba saw red on the 56th minute. It happened again last year in the semi-final return game against Inter at the Camp Nou. following some fine acting by Busquets. And it happened once again the Saturday before last at the Bernabeu when Albiol got expelled too.
And what do you know? Once again tonight, just as the blaugranas seemed in difficulty at the beginning of the 2nd half, fumbling their passes like their opponents usually do when intimidated by their aura, they got their usual helpful prop to see them on their way to victory as Stark took out the most important man for Real Madrid, Pepe. Interesting coincidence, that: so, I’m not paranoid, but…
The most fanatical club supporters of some of their main rivals aside, Barça is today universally held to be the best club team in the world. The sextuple title season in 2009 was the standout but perhaps more remarkably the consistency of results since then (if viewed from a short term perspective) and, from a long-term perspective, the achievements over the last 8 years (2 Champions League titles, 4 Ligas, 1 Cup and 4 Super Cups) all significantly exceed previous records from an all-European perspective.
There are several reasons for that, including the oft-discussed technical and physical quality of Barça’s players, but most important of all is the stability. Unlike Real Madrid, which has been plagued by endemic instability at all levels (president & senior management, technical staff, coach and players), Barça has consolidated a robust framework that has provided the platform for the current success, consisting in my view of three main factors:
1. Talent development: the youth training academy, where the current generation of players like Iniesta, Valdés and Messi were able to flourish and develop their individual skills as well as collective bond, is perhaps amongst the world’s best. But let’s not also forget astute recruitment: Messi himself was somewhat luckily (by his own admission) snapped up the early age of 13 by Carles Rexach; Villa’s recruitment from Valencia this year helped to cancel out the Ibrahimovic exception to the rule, while other past acquisitions of proven players such as Dani Alves, Seydou Keita and Adriano (all from Sevilla incidentally), have added depth and class to the squad.
2. Management stability: only two coaches in the last 8 years, first Frank Rijkaard (from 2003-2008) and since then Pep Guardiola, against the backdrop of a stable presidency of Joan Laporta, certainly help to steer the ship in one direction. Not as stable as some, but by Madrid’s standards, that is nothing short of extraterrestrial stability.
3. Guiding principles: Perhaps most importantly, Barça’s strong club culture, built upon its specific Catalan identity), has its expression of a certain vision of play and general philosophy, perhaps best embodied by that Khadafi-like non-elect demi-deity that is Johan Cruyff. Apparently it was he who suggested to Laporta to appoint Guardiola instead of a big-name coach. By virtue of his personal player credentials as well as managerial successes with the club (11 titles: 1 European Cup, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 4 Leagues, 1 Spanish Cup, 1 European Super Cup and 3 Spanish Super Cups) Cruyff bestows upon Barça that air of timeless aristocratic confidence and entitlement to greatness that many other clubs wish they had – and he makes sure that others don’t forget it.
For all of the above reasons, it is a significant achievement and an especially delightful one (for myself and many others) that José Mourinho has already been able to deny this Barça team an important title, whose symbolic value has been rendered even greater by the continuing rivalry that exists between the Portuguese coach and the Catalan outfit. And it is indeed delightful due to the mistiming of Barça’s most titled coach deriding the current Real Madrid coach for being “merely” a “coach of titles and not a coach of football (following the 1-1 tie in the Bernabeu last Saturday on April 16). As many times in the past, the result (“the finger” was sufficient to defeat Barça, no “manita” needed) and José’s perfectly simple retort (watch video) will have El Flaco wishing he had kept his big mouth shut.
Another legend that probably now wishes he had done the same is none other than Madrid’s own Alfredo di Stefano, who was openly critical of Mourinho’s game plan in the Liga game at the Bernabeu preceeding the cup final. As Phil Ball from ESPN points out quite well, what di Stefano, Barça and pretty much everyone failed to see is that the formation and strategy deployed by Madrid in the 1-1 draw in the Bernabeu was a deliberate choice by Mourinho. Its success in containing the blaugranas gave him enough supporting evidence to extend it into a more attack-minded version the second time around in the cup. Barcelona failed to cope with either version. No surprise that not much has been heard from the 85-year old since then, and that only muted embarrassed approval was forthcoming from Valdano, another nemesis lurking in the backstage and scheming against the Portuguese but whose time at the club is probably soon coming to an end.
The shallowness of these two outbursts, the embarrassing tirade by di Stefano and Cruyff’s half-hearted snipe, is reinforced by a fact that any football specialist should be able to recognize, and that is that skilled football is not defined by any particular set of skills, but a balance of many. As the first incarnation of the galacticos at the turn of the century quickly learnt through defeat, Barcelona is only as successful as it is because it has an excellent defense (best of the main European championships this season <1>: only 17 goals taken in) and surreal-like pressing and ball recovery capabilities, which are key to allowing it to enjoy as much ball possession. At the other end of the spectrum, Real Madrid beat Valencia 6-3, away at the Mestalla, by playing some rather attractive football punctuated by numerous and spectacular goals, including this beauty by Kaka. The simplistic juxtaposition of “an all-attacking Barça” versus “a defensively pragmatic Real Madrid” is clearly only appealing to those who choose to disregard the facts.
Irrespective of what happens on Wednesday in the Champions League and thereafter, hopefully Madrid fans and management have now really understood (although it is not necessarily this writer’s wish), that which their own bizarre mindset and identity prevent them from grasping fully, which is that José can and will deliver more, but that he needs more time in order to reinforce the structure and mentality of his team in order to restore a modicum of stability comparable to that enjoyed by Barcelona. As was the case at Inter, with a little more influence on the composition of the squad and by building on the achievements accomplished this year, it is probably next season that could prove to be a decisive turning point in the club’s fortunes.
<1> Interestingly, Borussia Dortmund are a close second with only 19 goals in the Bundesliga so far, followed by Milan AC in 3rd place with 23.
No one should be particularly surprised about Chelsea’s nth elimination from the quarter finals of the Champions League. Even a cursory analysis of their performance at Stamford Bridge during the 1st leg of the fixture against Manchester United would be enough for most punters to conclude they did not have many chances of making it through.
However, unlike for some other clubs covered in these pages, Chelsea’s issues are actually profound and significant. Ever since the abrupt and unexplained dismissal of assistant coach Ray Wilkins last November (apparently due to his challenging the owner’s impromptu feedback session after a defeat), the collective quality and hunger of this supposedly effortlessly winning team has consistently and significantly dropped, only to be further exacerbated by the arrival of the undesirable arch-rival Torres. It was very obvious to any observer at Stamford Bridge last week that the Spaniard is a complete outsider to the squad. Despite a relatively industrious work ethic and the procurement of a few biting chance (like the header which forced a great save from Van der Saar in the 2nd half), the former most promising young Spanish talent seems a faint shadow of his former self. Importantly, all that shoulder shrugging, mistimed racing and generally perplexed facial expression indicate that he does not appear to be in sync with his teammates who generally seem to regard him with as much affection as a bride’s spy gatecrashing a bachelor party (spiteful tongues might hasten to specify that the bachelors in question are rather old). Has he already contracted Shevashentitis at such an early age? It was not yet suspected of being contagious.
Unfortunately, as was evidenced by the recurring agonizing cringe sequences experienced by the Blues’ faithful during the 1st half of the Stamford Bridge leg, the problems are more fundamental. With barely an opponent in sight, Chelsea’s players were frequently unable to effectively sequence simple one-two exchanges, let alone mount any kind of serious assault on Man U’s defenses. Other than getting very upset at the referee for supposedly unfair decisions, there was very little genuinely inspired and focused effort dispensed, so much so that throw-ins would often take several tens of seconds to execute, such was the lack of players seeking the ball.
One might be tempted to explain that by laying the blame on Ancelotti for picking a somewhat unusual squad, with the inclusion of the extremely underwhelming Bosingwa and totally disoriented Zhirkov who UEFA Cup heroics now seem a very distant memory. Chelsea’s 2nd leg performance, of a slightly better caliber and with a classic Drogba goal, lends some credibility to this theory. However, closer inspection of the lack of attacking spark and above all genuine commitment to the collective cause suggests a team at the end of a cycle. One had just to catch a glimpse of Salomon Kalou’s face as he was waiting for Anelka to crawl off the pitch: I would expect to find more enthusiastic marines for cleaning out the plastic toilet boxes in the Iraqi desert.
At this stage of the discussion, the standard analysis by the attendant TSR (1) consultant recruited from the nearest local bar will inevitably highlight the presence of too many stars within the Chelsea squad, the supposed problem of “big egos” and top of this amazing insight with the habitual singing of praises of old timers Giggs & Scholes on the other side (2). While the above analysis did evidence a group of players mechanically going through the motions, it is most certainly too early to write off some if not all of them, just as it was too easy for the French media to write off Patrice Evra who is possibly having one of his best club seasons ever. Aafter all let’s not forget that Chelsea won two titles last year, and the likes of Ramires, Essien or even John Terry, who plied his usual trade rather effectively across both legs, still have great potential.
And yet, it is perhaps time to move on. But not for the reasons supposed by most. And in fact therein lies the main challenge – how does one do that with a club whose management structure is inherently short-term oriented and dysfunctional? The fundamental problem, as illustrated by the club’s recent history, is that of a team’s (coach and players) collective coherence slowly and surely eroded by the constant and generally incompetent meddling by senior management (and not just the owner) in the sporting affairs of the team.
Roman should not be surprised that many fans are dreaming about the return of José to Stamford Bridge. Unfortunately – with this management in place – they can keep on dreaming.
(1) Television Suisse Romande
(2) If you’re in luck, you might even get a reminder of the French team’s “mutiny” against Domenech last summer at the World Cup in South Africa