Sunday, 7 June 2015

Champions League 2015: Cruel Old Game, Mk II

This year the Champions League final closed off the European football season, falling a bit later than usual. The competitors were Barcelona and Juventus (which happens to be my team), and it came out 3-1 to Barcelona, who were heavily favored to win it. 

The scoreline notwithstanding, it was an entertaining enough game - Barcelona scored with pretty much its first attack of the game, on 4 minutes, and this spurred Juve to mount attack after attack, until they finally drew level on 55 minutes. But of course, that woke up Barça, and they scored a further three (of which one was disallowed for coming off Neymar's hand rather than his head).

This is why I chose to reuse the title from last year's write-up. Then, it was cruel because Atletico Madrid had scored early and been in control for most of the game, only to concede at the last minute and go into extra time, which is when Real Madrid pulled out all the stops and won 4-1. This year, the cruelty comes from a slightly different source, namely the way that Juve had hopes of actually winning, only for those hopes to be dashed late on in the second half.

I'm fond of trotting out the old Yogi Berra adage, "That's why they play the games" when Italian teams are involved, typically because they're so easy to write off. The national team frequently starts tournaments off quite badly, but if they get to the knockout stages they always seem to beat Germany. At club level, Italy may have lost its fourth Champions League place to Germany, but Juve managed to hold on over two legs against Real Madrid, who've been having a stormer of a domestic season, with Cristiano Ronaldo keeping pace with Lionel Messi as they both break records left and right.

All of which is to say that while I expected Barcelona to win, I wasn't willing to rule Juve out completely. Which was probably why losing by that scoreline was so disappointing.

And now, the stats

There were some other good talking points from the match, of course. First is my annual (and somewhat desperate) search for patterns into whether a given country is dominating European football. Last year saw off my previous year's claim of Germany starting to come into its own; I was hesitant to claim an impending era of Spanish dominance, because I suggested that Barcelona was on the wane.

That was, of course, before Messi, Neymar and Suarez scored around 120 goals altogether this season. I should probably be more careful about making predictions like that, but where's the fun in that?

So yeah, roll on more Spanish teams to win the Champions League next year - Barça's losing two influential players in Xavi and Dani Alves, but that front line isn't going anywhere, since they're young and versatile (unless Suarez decides to go full Dracula again). And while it's likely that Ronaldo's going to slow down as he gets older, it's hard to see him falling so completely off the pace in the season to come - with an archenemy like Barcelona and Messi, I fully expect Ronaldo to keep banging them in, and possibly for Real to win La Liga.

I was, however, pretty accurate in my assessments of English chances in this year's tournament. None of the four teams made much of an impact, and Liverpool's exit in the group stage underlined how bad their season's been. I suspect Manchester United may do slightly better in the year to come, as Louis van Gaal seems to have spurred them on to greater things despite a pretty slow start to the season; along with Chelsea, I wouldn't be surprised if they got to the knockout stages, but I'm wondering if English teams have the skill (and more importantly, interest) in going much further next time.

On the question of Germany vs Italy, I don't think Serie A will be dislodging the Bundesliga from the Number 3 spot for a while. Sure, Juve got to the final, whereas Bayern only made it to the semis, and more German teams made it out of the group stage than Italian teams (in fact, Juve dispatched one of them on its way up). And equally, there were two Italian teams in the Europa League semi-finals, but neither made it all the way. Sevilla aside, I suspect it's hard to build dominance in that tournament, given that the Thursday games make it harder to recover for the weekends and the domestic leagues.

What would be fun is if some team from outside the top 4 countries made it through, but that probably won't happen again for a long time. In fact, it's been 11 years, when Porto beat Monaco. As I mentioned elsewhere, money has a gravitational pull, and as good as the second tier gets, they'll still always be feeder leagues for Spain, England and Germany - and this is likely to be Italy's fate for the next couple of years.

And the elephant in the room

Oh, and I might as well throw in some discussion of what's happening over at FIFA, right? It's certainly been a fun week - bunch of arrests, Sepp Blatter gets re-elected as president, then he resigns two days later when his aide Jerome Valcke gets caught pocketing $10 million or so.

My favorite aspect of this has been the role of the US in chasing these folks down. As a number of outlets have noted, the fact that the US doesn't care as much about soccer means its law enforcement officials don't have to worry about looking like spoilsports and can just throw everybody in jail. My only regret is that the Department of Justice hasn't been quite so dogged in its pursuit of corruption in the banking industry - maybe European authorities can return the favor by arresting everybody at Goldman Sachs?

Which isn't to trivialize the current investigation of FIFA, by the way. The Economist pointed out that corruption in sports isn't as benign as a lot of observers would like to have us believe - there are actual criminal networks involved, so cleaning up the sport will turn out to be worthwhile. If the US can, for example, clear out the match-fixing rings operating in Italy, Eastern Europe and Asia, then I think we can all agree it'll be a good thing.

But will anything change? I'm going for a cautious yes, simply because FIFA will now have to make decisions with the knowledge that the US is paying attention. Maybe it's too much to hope that World Cups won't come with such enormous price tags in the future, but at any rate cleaning up the sport may make it easier for countries that aren't kleptocracies to host the tournament.

And as far as Russia and Qatar hosting the next two World Cups, I hope both are stripped. Qatar's obvious, because it's roughly the size of a bathtub and has no soccer culture to speak of. The fact that it was even in the running to host a World Cup on its own should have been a red flag.

Russia's more difficult, but the fact is that, between their complete lack of cooperation in the investigation (hard drives conveniently wiped and documents conveniently being shredded) and the fact that they're throwing their weight around in an unseemly manner, they're not in any position to host an international tournament. And the fact that Putin's come out in support of Blatter should be a final indication that these people aren't to be trusted (if, y'know, invading neighbors and shooting down civilian passenger planes wasn't enough for you).

I just think it's a shame that it's taken this long for FIFA's sponsors to speak up. While some question the figure of 1,200 deaths among workers building stadia in Qatar, the fact that the debate has gotten to this level should have prompted some action from the likes of Visa and Coca-Cola long before now. Same with Russia's appalling record on human rights (particularly for journalists and the LGBTQ community) and its destabilization of Ukraine - it's hard to see how the sponsors were okay with that, but not with Sepp Blatter's worldwide bribe network.

Still, at least now the sponsors are involved, and that was the only thing that would make FIFA pay attention. It'll be interesting who comes in to replace Blatter, and whether they'll also be resigning in disgrace a few years from now.