Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Why it will be good for football if Chelsea lose the Champions League final

IT’S all about money. Money attracts money. The rich – the phenomenally rich – get richer and richer while the poor go to the wall.
It’s also about brand (which attracts money). The bigger the brand, the bigger the global reach, the richer the brand-owners.
And, of course, the richer the owners, the further they can promote the brand. For them, it’s a virtuous circle. For the rest of us, it’s a vicious one.
I’m talking about football. And since sport – especially the world’s favourite sport – is a microcosm and mirror of the world at large, I’m talking about the world at large. Or at least the capitalist world, which just for now is pretty much the whole globe.
For which reason, we all ought to take at least a passing interest, even those who don’t know their offside from their midfield diamond, their wing-back from their sweeper.
For those of us who do know – and care – who’s just won the Premier League title, and who finished 15th in the Championship, it should also matter who wins the Champions League final on Saturday.
The Sky Sports coverage will take the usual nationalistic approach, assuming all British viewers will want Chelsea to win.
As if, after spending all season rooting for Ipswich, Liverpool, Yeovil or Crewe, we will suddenly switch allegiance to a club owned by a Russian oligarch, managed (for now) by an Italian and with a team made up of players from Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Ghana, Nigeria, France, Ivory Coast, Belgium and the Czech Republic, simply because they happen to be based in west London.
For those whose attention to the game is peripheral and occasional, it may well be that Chelsea on Saturday will be a kind of stand-in for England. For the rest of us, the truth is otherwise.
In May 1999 I watched the European Cup final – that match with the most famous sting in the tail – with a German friend. He was cheering for Manchester United, for the simple reason that they were not Bayern Munich; while I, on the same principle, was backing Bayern because they weren’t United.
This time around, there are stronger and deeper reasons for hoping the German club triumphs.
Conventional wisdom says that football fashions, footballing habits, are set by the teams that win the big trophies.
Alf Ramsey’s 1966 wingless wonders signalled a switch from the old 2-3-5 formation to 4-3-3 pretty much everywhere. After Franz Beckenbauer, every team everywhere found it needed a sweeper. The “diamond” and “Christmas tree” formations both spread outwards from Milan.
Should Munich win on Saturday, it will be a fillip for marauding wingers everywhere, even if few can live up to the pace and skill of Ribery and Robben.
But there’s more involved than mere formations, on-field strategy or tactics.
Chelsea may have been surpassed by Manchester City, but they remain the archetype of a club bought and sustained by the obscene wealth of one man. A man who has bought into both the game and the country.
It has become the model for English football.
Of the 20 clubs which competed in the Premier League season just ended, exactly half are in foreign ownership. Eight of those ten – Aston Villa, Blackburn, Chelsea, Fulham, Liverpool, both Manchester clubs and Sunderland – are each owned by one man, family or firm.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, as both Bayern and the Europa League finalists Athletic Bilbao show.
Bilbao, who conquered Manchester United on their way to Bucharest, are an anomaly in modern football. Not only are they jointly owned by their club members – as are Real Madrid and Barcelona – but they retain a policy of only employing players with roots in their region.
It’s hard to imagine Chelsea only fielding Londoners, or an Ipswich team comprising only lads from Suffolk. It would be impossible to enforce as a rule, but as a matter of choice it hasn’t worked too badly for Athletic.
Bayern have players from Brazil, Belgium, Croatia, Ukraine and Japan; Robben is Dutch and Ribery French. But even if it imports almost as many of its stars as the Premier League, there are many ways in which German football scores over ours.
Gates last season in the Bundesliga averaged 42,700 – more than 7,000 above the Premier League average and getting on for twice the average in Italy, France and Spain.
Four of the 20 best-supported teams in Europe are English (Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle and Liverpool); eight of them are German.
This must be partly because the average cost of watching a top-flight game in Germany is £17, which would barely get you into Accrington v Crawley. The cheapest seat available at the weekend to watch Chelsea in a meaningless end-of-season fixture against Blackburn was £95.
German fans can stand on safe terracing, are trusted to drink beer in view of the pitch and get free rail travel to away games.
Maybe best of all is a rule that German clubs must be at least 51 per cent owned by their members. Which means no Roman Abramovich (or Marcus Evans).
And no fiasco like those at Portsmouth and Rangers, once-proud clubs which have gone in short order from rich owners to the threat of extinction.
Whoever wins on Saturday, how much better it would be if we could all play by German rules.

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