Don’t mess with fat ladies. That was the message emanating loud and clear from football grounds across Europe as a tumultuous two months came to a dramatic end. Those who mistook the sounds of a throat being cleared for the finale itself were shown yet again that sport follows no script.
This was the archetypal “whodathunk”, jaw-dropping season. Manchester United had no right losing the league after being eight points clear with six games to play. They never crack; this time they crumbled. Bayern Munich had no right to lose to Chelsea; they were playing at home, they had overwhelming domination in open play, they were one shot up in the penalties. The Germans never flinch in a shootout; this time they flopped. Barcelona had no right to lose to Chelsea in the semi-finals; they were up against a 10-man side for much of the second leg at the Camp Nou, Chelsea were without their captain and most inspirational player John Terry, and Lionel Messi had a penalty chance to put the tie to rest. Barcelona don’t unhinge easily; this time the door was blown down by years of pent-up Chelsea hurt and frustration.
Long-awaited: Chelsea won their first Champions League on Saturday. By Leon Neal/AFP
Chelsea themselves should never have made it that far. They were heading out of the competition at the round of 16, having lost 3-1 to Napoli in the first leg, being beaten so soundly as to render recovery almost impossible. They then lost their manager Andre Vilas-Boas, the latest victim of the passing-the-parcel game favoured at the Roman Abramovich duma, and replaced him with the untried Roberto di Matteo. No matter; Chelsea won the second leg 4-1—only the fourth time a team has overcome a first-leg deficit of two or more goals in the Champions League.
Perhaps that was when, unknown to them, their script was written; that was when the fat lady saw the potential for high drama and theatrics in this team of professionals and prima donnas.
And Manchester City? In a roller-coaster of a league, they muscled off the competition early on before succumbing to their own case of nerves, intrigue and inexperience of these situations. When they lost to Arsenal on 8 April, they had turned a five-point lead over United into an eight-point deficit. There were only six matches left to play, including one against United and a trip to dangerous Newcastle.
There was no way they could overhaul their far more experienced neighbours. And so to their final match, when again they lost their nerve—only to find it again in the most dramatic fashion, with not one but two goals in injury time to secure the title. Whodathunk?
So the world’s richest teams won football’s two most glamorous prizes. The temptation is to say that they wrote—or bought—their own script, but it isn’t the case. The $1.5 billion (or Rs 8,385 crore) that Abramovich is estimated to have invested in Chelsea to date has so far fetched him only three league titles and a sole Champions League in nine years. In the same time, Manchester United, their resources sucked away by the leveraged debt of their owners, the Glazers, have won four league titles and a Champions League.
The basic truth is that you can’t buy sporting success. If you could, Germany and the US would establish a duopoly over football’s World Cup, Ferrari would win every single F1 race, and Mumbai Indians would sweep the Indian Premier League season after season. Hang it all, if it was down to money, the Russian oligarchs and the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi would slug it out and the rest would go home. The 2011 film Moneyball would be an arcane treatise in sabermetrics (a statistical analysis of baseball records and player performances) rather than a living, practicable manual on how to marry a clear set of on-field tactics with a group of players picked specifically to execute those tactics.
The Moneyball parallel is especially striking with Euro 2012 coming up—it was in this tournament, eight years ago, that a maverick German coach took a competent side all the way by playing not necessarily above but to their potential. Otto Rehhagel had a reputation for coaching some exciting teams in the German Bundesliga but for this Greece side, he tweaked his tactics, choosing stifle over style. They played six matches in that tournament and scored seven goals, winning each of their knockout games 1-0.
I don’t wish to remember that tournament but a few points stick out: the exit of Germany, Italy and Spain in the group stages, Zinedine Zidane’s injury-time double to beat England, and the first sighting of Wayne Rooney. The final, though, topped it all: Portugal at home against an overachieving Greek team.
Everything pointed to a Portugal win—they had their “golden generation”, they had a passionate crowd and they had the flair and experience. They had one flaw—hubris, to use a Greek word. Their opponents, historically alert to the dangers of mocking the gods, ripped up the script. They had the sense, though, to wait till the fat lady—or, in this case, the extremely shapely Nelly Furtado—had finished her singing.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at firstname.lastname@example.org