Sports

Money, Power, and Respect at the Champions League Final

The grand spectacle is almost upon us. Real Madrid, the great but ancient empire of European soccer, have been swept aside for now; Paris Saint-Germain, the fast-rising upstart, have faltered in their ascent. As Chelsea and Manchester City, their respective conquerors, prepare to contest the third men’s UEFA Champions League final between two English teams, there is a sense that they are announcing another next great rivalry. This is partly because, at the heart of each side, there is a young English player of prodigious talent: Phil Foden for Manchester City, and Mason Mount for Chelsea. Now, Foden has been coached by Pep Guardiola for only a few seasons. Yet he is such an accurate embodiment of the Spaniard’s footballing philosophy—tactically versatile, endlessly fluid in his movement—that he seems to have been working with him since he was able to walk. Meanwhile, Mount has been coached by Thomas Tuchel for a shorter period of four months, but his performances during that time show him to be every bit as much as a disciple of Tuchel’s methods: Mount is supremely efficient in attack and rigorous in defense, with elite-level decision-making. Both should be leading figures for their club for several seasons to come.

Yet the key reason that European soccer’s guard is changing is that investments of an astonishing scale are paying off. It may seem ironic, given the vast sums plunged into City and Chelsea’s squads, that Foden and Mount are entirely homegrown talents—in truth, it’s only a tribute to their talent. In a highly pressured and thoroughly globalized game, it is unlikely that their coaches are picking them for sentimental reasons. It is remarkable that they have managed to defeat competitors from all over the world for a place in their first teams. Just look at the riches that were left on the bench while they strutted their stuff in the semifinals. Mount started ahead of Christian Pulisic, the $73 million signing from Borussia Dortmund who would come on to play a decisive role in Chelsea’s defeat of Real Madrid, while Foden seems to have displaced Raheem Sterling—who cost a similar sum when signed from Liverpool in 2015—in Manchester City’s starting lineup.

The amount of money in the sport today is so great that it almost has a numbing effect, so now and again it’s worth reviewing it. In 1996, Alan Shearer became the most expensive player in the world, moving from Blackburn Rovers to Newcastle United for about $23 million (about $39 million in today’s money). Neymar—currently the world’s most expensive player—cost Paris Saint-Germain 11 times that amount from Barcelona in 2017. The most striking fact from PSG’s semifinal loss, in which their two most expensive players either played poorly (Neymar) or didn’t make it off the bench (Kylian Mbappé) is that the club’s owners could easily afford this underperformance. Including salary, that’s about half a billion dollars in assets that didn’t deliver the desired return.

Yet as several major European clubs have recently shown—most notably Juventus, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, and (since their takeover in 2005 by the Glazer family) Manchester United—great expenditure alone cannot win the day. Nothing can be left to chance. It’s symbolic then, that this year’s finalists have coaches who seem to preach the doctrine of “safety first,” having built their title challenges on the foundation of outstanding defenses. It’s not that these teams are dull to watch—in fact, they are often very exciting, since both of them are capable of the relentless creation of chances. It’s just that, if they are ever called upon to retreat behind their barricades, they will gladly and efficiently do so. Safety first, of course, was the idea behind the failed European Super League—that vast revenues should be guaranteed, regardless of the teams’ on-field performance—and it was such a seductive proposition for the game’s richest clubs that, once the outrage has subsided, it is likely to be proposed again.

The wider problem, present for many years now, is that wealth has removed much of the unpredictability from soccer’s outcomes, squandering much of the joy that was one of the game’s biggest selling points. Of course, there will be a breathtaking array of talent on display in the Champions League final, but the happiness of seeing these coaches and players there is tempered by the fact that the riches of the biggest clubs long ago made most of the upper reaches of the sport into a closed shop. Elite European soccer, in some sense, has become more analogous to Formula One: a spectacle that is thrilling from a technical point of view, a gleaming show of seamlessly choreographed brilliance, but without the sense that anyone beyond the first few spots on the grid can regularly win. Watching Villarreal reach the Europa League final against Manchester United was refreshing, in that it reminded us that a well-run club of reasonable means can still compete against the game’s financial giants.

Speaking of the European Super League, perhaps the only strange thing is that Manchester City and Chelsea were so keen on pursuing a place within it. Unlike most of the other clubs pushing this widely loathed initiative, who wanted to join the breakaway league as a cure for their catastrophic debts, neither City nor Chelsea needed the money. Their decision to participate, then, was wholly opportunistic and, in its own way, just as bad. More crucially, neither City nor Chelsea needed the bad press. Both of them were acquired primarily as prestige projects, as vehicles to bolster the oft-suffering reputations of their respective owners. Chelsea’s project achieved full maturity in 2012, when Roman Abramovich’s team defeated Bayern Munich to claim the UEFA Champions League; should City defeat Chelsea in this year’s final, this will be their own coming of age. This trophy will be the last drop of polish applied to the Abu Dhabi diamond. Like its national airline, like its famed hotels, Manchester City—both for the spellbinding football they play, and for how successful they are with it—will truly become a global luxury brand. And so, while talk of a European Super League will continue, City will already be in a league of their own.

Setting aside these off-field matters, it’s an intriguing contest between Guardiola and Tuchel. This is the fifth time in total that they have reached this stage, Tuchel having lost in last season’s final with PSG and Guardiola having won with Barcelona in 2009 and 2011. This season, they have also resumed their domestic league rivalry from the 2015-16 Bundesliga season, a year when Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund side produced breathtaking quality and were denied a league championship by a Bayern Munich team that Guardiola had coached to the peak of their powers. While Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool regroup after a campaign that has been especially difficult both on and off the field, and while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer awaits additional investment in his squad from Manchester United’s owners, this match will act as a trailer to the next Premier League title race, which Guardiola and Tuchel seem set to contest most keenly.

Onward, then. Each year, the rush of blood initially summoned by this fixture is a little slower due to the rush of cash that has produced its finalists. But when all is said and done, this is the final of the UEFA Champions League, and coaches and players with the tactical intelligence of supercomputers are set to take to the stadium. Despite the bloated nature of so much that surrounds the show, the drama within the borders of the pitch should still be plenty compelling enough.

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