The wrong team is bound to win in Munich on Saturday. After all, the right team won’t be playing.
The competition boasts the title “Champions’ League”. But neither Chelsea nor Munich won their own championships.
The last final between teams who had lifted their domestic titles came in 1998, when Madrid beat Juventus 1-0. By that stage, the structure of the competition was being ripped apart. The previous year had seen runners-up from the larger leagues admitted. The following year saw the inclusion of up to four teams from “major” countries.
All pretence of a competition between national champions was abandoned. What has emerged is a design for a closed tournament for the super-rich.
Even the fact that the final is being played on a Saturday and not on a Wednesday can be taken as a sign of disrespect. The great European nights all happened mid-week. That’s one of the factors that made them special, lifted them beyond the normal pattern of the season. Nowadays, however, Saturday night is prime time for television light entertainment and this is how football is increasingly presented. Hype and razzamatazz interspersed with adverts.
As Rob Smyth and Georgina Turner put it in their wonderful book, “Jumpers For Goalposts” - I know I have plugged it before, probably will again - “The Champions’ League dukes it out with America’s World Series of baseball to see which is the sporting world’s biggest and most delusional misnomer.”
Group stages were introduced at the insistence of Europe’s 14 biggest clubs - ie, those with most economic clout - in an effort to ensure they’d have a minimum of six games each before running any risk of elimination. There was an implicit threat that they’d break away if the rest of football didn’t bow to their wishes. Previously, every European game was do-or-die, drenched in high drama. Even the most mighty could be out before Christmas. Now the top teams join the fray only when it reaches the six-match mini-league stage which leads on to the round of 16.(“Round of 16!” Not only are they ruining football, they are taking a chain-saw to syntax.)
Last year, Manchester United CEO David Gill demanded that the 16 which make it through should be seeded: “At the moment we effectively have a random draw after the group stage,” he complained.
Imagine that. A random draw. A level playing field.
United saved Mr. Gill the distress of seeing his club put on a par with 15 others this season by getting themselves booted out at the group stage by the mighty Basle.
Finishing third in their group, United were parachuted into the third round of the Europa League. Alex Ferguson described this “our punishment”. Last year, Arjen Robben told a German newspaper that playing in the Europa League was “the worst thing that could happen. It is better if you don’t play at all.” Last week, Benoit Assou-Ekotto allowed that he might have to leave White Hart Lane if the Europa League was the only European fare Spurs had to offer. “A few months ago, I said I never wanted to participate in this competition. It is useless.” This competition, too, has been cheapened and weakened by the grandiose elitism fostered by the Champions’ League. The pure spirit, the innocence and daring of the imagination which drives fans of “lower” clubs everywhere to dreams of impossible glory at the onset of every season, that’s now seen as silly sentimentality, to be discarded as out-of-time and an embarrassment because, well, as David Gill put it in a (slightly) different context, “Where’s the profit?”
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Transfers - the murkiest area of modern football
David Gill can expect a call from the Portuguese police any day now.
There is no suggestion that the Old Trafford chief executive has done anything improper, much less illegal. But the Lisbon Justice Ministry’s National Unit for Combatting Corruption hope that he can shed some light on the curious business of the £9.2 million August 2010 transfer of Tiago Manuel Dias Correia - aka Bébé – from Portuguese club Vitória Guimaraes to United.
Alex Ferguson has said that Bébé is the only player he has ever signed sight unseen, either in the flesh or on video.
Bébé comes from a very deprived background. Abandoned as a child by his parents, he was living in a care home when signed in 2009 as a striker by the semi-professional third-division side Estrela da Amadora. A year later, with Estrela in financial difficulties, agent Goncalo Reis negotiated a transfer to first division Vitória. Bébé had played in only six pre-season friendlies for Vitória when a flurry of stories appeared in Portuguese sports pages announcing that José Mourinho wanted to sign him for Real Madrid. At which point, another agent, Jorge Mendes, wrote to Reis saying that he’d be representing the player in future. Two days later, on August 11th 2010, Bébé was transferred to United on the recommendation of Ferguson’s former assistant manager Carlos Queiroz.
Queiroz is also represented by Mendes.
The police investigation was launched when Reis made a formal complaint, alleging that Mendes had improperly “poached” the player. Mendes was paid just over £3 million as part of the deal with United.
Mendes had previously handled the affairs of United players transferred from Portugal, Nani, Anderson and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Bébé never started a Premiership game for United. He was loaned out last year to Besiktas in Turkey. He has spent most of the period since injured and living back in Portugal. It is reported in his home country that he received no signing-on fee from United and that his contract was for three years at £50,000 a month. A fabulous salary by any rational standard - but a lot less over the period than Mendes’ £3 million.
The Bébé case is not, of course, a once-off. Between 2009 and 2011 Premier League clubs paid a mind-boggling £137 million to agents. Chelsea accounted for £19 million of this, despite signing only three players in that time. Presumably, a chunk of the outlay derived from negotiating new contracts or contract extensions.
If the inquiry into Mendes’ role in the Bébé deal broadens to include the roles of others in this and other transfers, a window may be opened onto one of the murkiest areas of modern football. The recent travails of a well-known Premiership manager may soon seem small beer.
Roy pips ’Arry for the England job
Many commentators across the water could have been knocked down with a fluffy feather when the FA announced that Roy Hodgson was the only man it had considered for the England job. Truly amazing right enough - the FA doing something right.
Hodgson has had a horrible press in some quarters since. The main reason is that his appointment exposed a number of the most senior football correspondents as being nowhere near as well-informed as they like to pretend.
They’d wanted ‘Arry because ‘Arry always has time to chew the fat and gossip and banter with them. They like the cut of his jib. He makes them feel like insiders. Hodgson takes a sterner, more distant - that is to say professional - approach.
Some of these arm-chancers – listen to their regular outbursts of useless pomposity on radio and television - will be out to get him until they get him out.
Hodgson won’t inspire the squad, they pronounce. ‘Arry was far better qualified. Hodgson has only managed in eight countries, taken the Alpine yodelers of Switzerland to the last 16 in the World Cup, steered Finland to their highest-ever FIFA ranking, reached two European club finals, managed Grasshoppers, Udinese, FC Copenhagen and Internazionale, and can talk about football (and anything else) in five languages. Sure what use would he be at a polyglot tournament, compared to a loveable Cockney sparrer? (Nothing against loveable Cockney sparrers. Best people I’ve ever worked with, even and including the ex-squaddies. But not national football manager material, I am afraid. Mostly West Ham, Brentford and Orient supporters. ‘Nuff said.)
Watch out for the guys who scream for Hodgson’s head the first time his team drops a point. Check back and you’ll discover they reported as fact that ‘Arry had the job sewn up.
There is a consensus in English pundit-land that the national team hasn’t reached its full potential since 1966. But, oh yes, it has.